Welcome to Vine Geeks, where Brian Reeder and Pavle Milic of AZ Wine Merchants take the drinking game quite seriously. Pay attention -- you might just learn something. Today, Brian heads over to Citizen Public House to uncork the secrets of the restaurant wine list.
In all likelihood, a restaurant is the most common location you're going to try new and interesting wines. Whether a server persuades you to try a bottle, or you choose something based on your wine knowledge or blind hope, you probably are going to end up with something in front of you that is brand spanking new (in your world, at least). This can be an intimidating experience. Or, it can be a fun and educational one. Some of this depends on you -- the questions you ask, your knowledge of wine, and what you're looking for on the list. But some of the experience also depends on the restaurant, and the service staff there.
If you are headed to your neighborhood Applebee's and start pestering your server about their "wine list," I wouldn't expect anything other than a hilariously terrified blank look..
"Yes [insert server here], I'm looking to pair your Sizzlin' Chicken Fundido with a nice glass of white -- what do you think would work best with the fake cheese aspect of the dish?"
The conversation probably isn't going to end well.
On the other hand, if you pose the question of pairing food and wine at a joint like Cowboy Ciao or Beckett's Table, expect a knowledgeable and informed server who wants to help you find a wine that suits your purposes. But even at these kinds of places, it can be intimidating asking questions in front of your guests. As you're perusing the list, you may think something like . . .
"I have no idea what I'm looking at."
"Are these the names of grapes, wineries, places, or did someone accidentally auto-correct this whole page?!"
"I won't be able to pronounce this. I'm ordering something else."
"Maybe if I just point generally at the chardonnays, they'll bring me something good."
"Am I supposed to sell my first born to pay for this?!?"
Wine lists don't have to be fear-mongering black holes of your hard-earned cash. In fact, I guarantee there isn't a restaurant in town that wants you to be intimidated by their list.
So to that end, I will be traveling to some of the Valley's best and hottest restaurants to see what they have to say about their wine program, and how you should approach their list. To kick things off, I visited Citizen Public House and sat down with co-owner Andrew Fritz, who (among other things) created and oversees the restaurant's wine program. Below is some of the conversation we had.
Brian: Could you give me a general overview of your wine program?
Andrew: In terms of coming and dining here, I think that most of our service staff -- bartenders and servers alike -- can work their way around our list and get you into an appropriate bottle. That said, we do have a resident "wine guy," Gib Bernal. He's a veteran server, really interested in wine, he's managed a couple places, and he's really taken quite a liking to this list -- and is starting to develop it himself, as he was recently appointed to this position. Our list is capped at 70 bottles, but we are also working on a reserve list. That will be almost a little hush-hush -- it won't be on the table, but if people are really interested in trying out unique wines that we may not have a lot of -- or have limited access to -- they can see that list and get themselves into a really cool bottle.
Brian: What were you trying to accomplish with the list?
Andrew: The direction was for the list to be about three-quarters domestic. We were looking for a lot of unique domestic blends or varietals that you don't typically see stateside. For instance, Palmina Arneis is one wine I had to have on the list. I felt that those more rare grapes that are being grown stateside embody what [Chef] Bernie [Kantak] does from a food standpoint -- Bernie is very well versed in Eastern European and Latin cuisines, but he makes uniquely American food. It's modern American cuisine. That's what I think about those types of wines -- you're taking grapes that are indigenous to small regions around the world and growing them here stateside, and making our own American interpretations of those wines.
Brian: What's the best way to approach and navigate the list?
Andrew: It's a one-page list, broken down by price, and I think it's really easy to navigate. So if you're looking for something high-end -- let's say you typically drink $200 pinot noir -- you can find it right away. If you're looking for house, wine you can find that, too, and everything in between. We have a pretty broad range in terms of varietals. We don't have 12 cabernets on the list. We've got a couple so we can have other varietals represented also.
Brian: What are your favorite three bottles on the list at the moment?
Andrew: My top three right now are:
Lioco "Carignan" -- The guys that make Lioco are into letting the grapes speak for themselves. They're not trying to make their wine taste any particular way or any other way than it should be naturally.
Egly Ouriet "Ambonnay Rouge" -- One of my favorite bottles. I've had many vintages -- the '97, '01, '05, '06. We currently carry the 2008. It's fantastic pinot noir out of the Champagne region. People look at it and say "pinot noir from Champagne; shouldn't it be in the sparkling sections?" It's actually still wine, just from a notorious sparkling region.
Caduceus Malvasia Bianca / Chardonnay -- Incredible, delicious, and fun that it's from AZ.
Brian: Did you make a conscious effort to put AZ wine on the list?
I definitely made a conscious effort. We have a few AZ Stronghold wines, Caduceus, and also Dos Cabezas. The Dos Cabezas Red is a great mid-range wine, guest-friendly and approachable, medium-bodied, and fruity. It goes with a lot of different foods.
I do think that the most unique point about our wine program is that everything we pour by the glass is screw cap. A challenge in AZ was finding a wine in a screw cap.
Brian: Does the list change often?
The list evolves constantly. We used to massively change the list every two months, mostly the wines we pour by the glass. Now, as we find new wines, we'll reprint often, changing one or two wines a week.
Brian: What are a few of your favorite pairings of the wines on the list and Bernie Kantak's cuisine?
Andrew: I love the Fair Trade Coffee Short Ribs with the Lioco Carignan. I think the flavors compliment beautifully and marry well. Also the Applewood Smoked Duck with the Charles Smith Boom Boom Syrah. The syrah stands up to the duck without overpowering it.
Brian: If I don't have a clue what I'm doing when I look at your list, what are the first steps I can take or questions to ask myself/the server?
Andrew: I think talking to your server is key, but narrow it down as much as you can -- are you looking for white or red? Are you looking to pairing your wine and food, or looking to enjoy something not related?
I think one key here is never to hesitate asking your server for a taste, and never feel like you have to drink what is brought whether you like it or not -- we want you to enjoy what you're drinking.
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My Thoughts: Citizen Public House is a great spot to discover new and interesting varietals you won't encounter on many other lists around the Valley. While I do wish they had a little more depth within some of the more popular varietals (if only to accommodate people looking for different price ranges), I can appreciate that they chose to try something different. And, what better way to expand your wine-drinking prowess than to try a glass of a varietal you otherwise wouldn't normally buy?
When you're at CPH, be sure to involve your server if you're interested in trying something new. If the restaurant pours it by the glass, you can always give it a little taste before ordering -- just try not to send your server scurrying back and forth from the bar to taste everything on the list.