WineInk: the anatomy of a large wine list, from red to white

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Wine glasses are on the table during the Food & Wine Classic members luncheon on Thursday, September 9, 2021.

Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Other than sports pages and airline flight magazines, I’ve probably spent more time reading with wine lists than with any other type of document. I’m that guy who always takes the list off the table as soon as he sits down and spends an inordinate amount of time flipping through the pages, much to the dismay of my wife and often my dinner guests as well. Of course, I try not to be rude, but sometimes I just can’t help it.

This assignment – as some see it, or dependency as it is more likely – is especially evident when I’m somewhere with a long list that takes time, hours in some cases, to digest. A long and deep list can be more fascinating to me than a good novel and can, just like a great story, take me on a journey far, far into my mind as I scan wines from regions of the world that I have either visited in the past or hope to do so in the future.

Fortunately, we have a preponderance of exceptional wine lists here in Aspen and throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. Few would dispute the dominance of The Little Nell, whose list has been recognized annually since 1997 by wine spectator as a Grand Award winning list – one of approximately 100 on the planet. A comprehensive collection of 20,000 bottles of wine spread over 112 pages, it could be considered a local treasure. (And that wouldn’t be an affront to the plethora of other thoughtful listings around town, including Hotel Jerome, Matsuhisa, Duemani, Casa Tua, Ellina…the list goes on.)



But, Nell’s List, a book in fact, is a classic. The work of dozens of wine-obsessed sommeliers who have worked the floors of historic restaurants that have been in the hotel over the decades are reflected in its many pages. This is both an extensive and in-depth list, which means that it not only features wines from a large number of regions, but also different vintages of the great wines of the world.

Chris Dunaway, Wine Director at The Nell, explains the importance of diversity on a menu.

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“To me, a great list includes not only the beautiful and the rare or a running list of references, but also an abundance of diverse expressions from the periphery and lesser-known regions inspired by these classic expressions,” he said. declared. . “These wines can not only help to better understand and appreciate the classics, but also inspire a more adventurous journey through the world of wine, which often leads to wines of extraordinary value and intrigue.”

To get an idea of ​​what, besides the number of bottles, makes a great wine list, I asked some of our other local wine professionals for their thoughts. Steve Humble, owner and wine expert at Basalt’s Free Range Kitchen, and Greg Van Wagner, who served as wine director at Jimmy’s for decades before moving this year to a new position at the soon-to-be-open Aspen Park, had similar thoughts on how they put together great wine lists.

“I’ve always been a firm believer that wine lists should be customer-centric, not sommelier-centric,” Humble said of his quest to select the right wines for his restaurant.



Steven and Robin Humble in front of their Basalt restaurant and Free Range Kitchen wine destination

“The role of the summit should be to steer the program in the direction dictated by the clients. My mentor — the late and great “Jerry” Jeff Walker — always taught me that wine lists should reflect the palate of the diners, not the buyer.

Van Wagner echoes the concept of the customer as king.

“I think a good wine list should treat every restaurant guest with multiple bottles that match their taste profile and price. A good wine list should also have plenty of bottles with age,” a- he said, “I always think that’s where the wine world really starts to get interesting. So if it’s all current-vintage, it’s missing that side.”

In either case, these sums feel that the listing should match the restaurant. This means that the wines offered should reflect the cuisine, as well as the style and prices of the establishment. It should be an integral part of the dining experience and allow customers to make easy and affordable wine choices that enhance their experience.

Sometimes that means having a selection of wines available from the same wine region as the dishes on the menu. Carlos Valenzuela, who has enjoyed a long career here in Aspen both working the soil and selling fine wines to the community, noted that his experience at some of the best European-inspired restaurants dictated wine lists from these regions.

“I ran L’Hostaria’s wine program for 12 years, I knew exactly what we were focusing on and we wanted to promote Italy,” he explained. “Acquolina was the same idea (Italian cuisine), so I felt comfortable with the management, and I always needed to focus on Piedmont, Tuscany and Friuli. With Duemani, even if the name was Italian, we had focused on the Mediterranean, which opened doors to wines from around the world. We focused on France, California and Italy, but we also played with great Spanish wines, which was very funny.

Dunaway has a similar understanding of the power of pairing the right wines with the right foods.

“Wine is a curious drink capable of evoking pleasant memories of the past, while also harmonizing with the chef’s menu, creating an unforgettable and fulfilling life experience,” he said. “That moment can be just as unforgettable for all the wrong reasons if the wines on the menu clash with the flavors and tastes on the menu.”

Organizing a list is also something to consider. Some lists use the obvious wines and list wines by the glass first, then by varietal from lightest to heaviest, starting with champagne, going through chardonnay, then lighter reds (like pinot noir) before to switch to Cabernet Sauvignon. Others group their wines by region, starting with the country of origin with, for example, their wines from Italy broken down from north to south, with wines from Tuscany in one section and Sicily in another. Then there are some lists that use a bit of creativity to organize their wines by flavor profiles and descriptive words. “Light and Fruity” or “Big and Bold” headings direct customers to styles of wine they may enjoy.

Regardless of the organizational structure, having great wines from a myriad of regions is essential for an exceptional list.

Humble remark: “I’ve always loved ‘global’ listings that make the most of what each region of the world has to offer. It also satisfies my own cravings, as I am a total omnivore when it comes to wine.

And, of course, price is always a consideration.

“You want to have an array of options and regions, whether you’re looking for a great bottle under $100 or a no-cost experience,” Van Wagner explained.

Humble agrees, noting, “I also really appreciate wine lists that span the price spectrum. Nothing frustrates me more than going to a restaurant and seeing the lists loaded at the high end of the price range. It doesn’t matter how much money you have; you don’t always want to drink an ultra-expensive grand cru. There are many days when you crave a good cheap Gruner or Langhe Nebbiolo.”

Living in Aspen, we are fortunate to have caring, professional sommeliers who provide wine lovers with carefully curated and curated wine lists.

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