Recently, the two leading national wine publications released their annual lists of the country’s top restaurants. Good food counts of course, but their focus, unsurprisingly, is on the quality of the wine cellars and wine service. Only one Walla Walla eatery made either list (full disclosure, it was cited in Wine Enthusiast, for whom I contribute Oregon wine reviews). But this town is blessed with a number of establishments with exceptional, well-constructed wine programs.
Wine programs are expensive to maintain, and they must perform well financially. But that is only going to happen if the restaurant’s patrons, both locals and visitors, find the offerings to be interesting and reasonably priced. What makes a wine list a win-win?
A good wine list should offer variety. Happily, the days of massive wine tomes the size of a phone book are gone (so are phone books for that matter). Let’s face it — no sane person wants to sit at a table waiting for the designated wine fanatic to peruse an encyclopedic volume of choices.
Modern lists are organized so as to help you find what you’re looking for. With that in mind, most divide into basic categories: wine by the glass, sparkling wines, dry white wines, red wines and dessert wines. Some longer lists include sub-categories that may be organized by menu choices, grape varieties, appellations, bottle size, etc.
As a further service to customers, more and more wine lists are posted online, available for exploring at your leisure. Whitehouse-Crawford is a good example, starting with wines by the glass ($10-$20) and a generous selection of sparkling and champagne wines priced from $40 to $400 a bottle — something for everyone. Beyond that, there are impressive options for a wide variety of Washington, Oregon and European white and red wines, listed by region and variety. Such rarities as multiple vintages of Cayuse wines are offered and, though not cheap, prices are certainly fair by restaurant standards.
At Walla Walla Steak Co., the bottle list shows the most popular categories, such as Rosé and Cabernet Sauvignon, separately, then pulls together interesting whites and interesting red and red blends to include wines from France, Spain, Italy and New Zealand. Jim Kiefer, restaurant manager/beverage director, has included many back vintages on the list and is willing to make them available by the glass upon request.
“We want to offer something for everybody, whether that be a winemaker, a sommelier, or someone just getting into wine” Jim explains. “Many of our regular guests are in the local wine industry, and they drink local wine every day as part of their job. We enjoy being able to offer them wines they may not have come across before.”
At newly re-opened TMACS, wine choices remain fairly simple and straightforward, but with definite appeal to treasure hunters. There’s particular strength in Bordeaux–style wines and blends. Across the list, solid choices from Walla Walla wineries are counterpointed with comparable old world wines from such places as Burgundy, Tuscany and the Rhône Valley.
Of course pricing is where the rubber meets the road, and compared to virtually any big city restaurants you may visit, prices here in Walla Walla are undeniably at the low end of the spectrum. That doesn’t mean they’re cheap, however. The industry standard for selling wines by the glass is to charge wholesale cost of the bottle per glass. Full bottles are generally priced around triple wholesale, sometimes higher. With library wines from back vintages, costs climb still further.
One work-around is to bring a bottle of your own, and most restaurants allow it. Always ask first about the corkage fee (usually around $25/bottle). Remember, it is never okay to bring a wine that is on the restaurant’s list, so check it specifically in advance. And as a courtesy, it’s always a good idea to start your meal with a round of wines by the glass. One further caveat: It’s illegal to bring an open bottle, so you’re taking a chance that your special wine will be corked, or over the hill, or undrinkable for any number of reasons. So have a back-up bottle in reserve just in case.
Finding the hidden treasures — the best values on any list — is part of the fun. It’s been suggested that the second least expensive wine among a similar group was one place to start. A better idea is to find the median price (leaving out any outliers, where is the middle price point of the list?) and drop down about a third of the way from there. Then look for something you don’t know, rather than a big name brand.
Above all, ask questions, the more specific the better. “I like a dry red wine” isn’t much help. But “I’m having the pork ribs and I like this Syrah but I can only spend up to $50 a bottle” provides useful guidelines.
With such guidance your server (or the designated wine buyer if they are on hand) should be able to point out wines within your budget that will please you. If you are a choose-it-yourselfer, then find a wine you know and like that’s listed, scan the category for options less expensive that you don’t know, and take a chance. Odds are you’ll find a new favorite!