If you let her, former Full House star Ashley Olsen might compel you to buy a glass of wine. Not the actual Olsen twin, mind you, but her name as part of a poem used to describe a bottle of Maria Ernesta Berucci’s skin-contact Passerina from Lazio.
The Olsen “tasting note” appears on the menu at Lil Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, New York. It reads: “Sno-cone, Ashley Olsen, bottle rocket, prickly pear, ostrich feather, edelweiss.”
Lil Deb’s wine director, Wheeler, who goes by one name, says that the restaurant’s wine poems are a “universal language that connect people to what they need.” Self-taught and 25 years old, Wheeler manages a team of restaurant newbies who enjoy decentralizing institutional wine language.
Their wine program is part of a slow yet exciting shift in the way sommeliers and vintners talk about wine.
Breaking the cycle of certified wine-speak
When the term “universal” is used in regard to language in the wine world, it often refers to terminology codified by the Court of Master Sommeliers and Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET).
“If you’re in the business, you have to be comfortable talking about things you see and smell,” says Scott Carney, Master Sommelier and Dean of Wine Studies at the International Culinary Center (ICC). Understanding the tasting grid and the common language it employs gives sommeliers confidence to describe what they’re tasting, but technical knowledge isn’t a prerequisite to enjoy wine.
Hardy Wallace, winemaker at Dirty & Rowdy in Napa, California, likens it to writing about rock ’n’ roll. “Nobody writes about guitar types and pickups,” he says. “They talk about how an album makes them feel. That it’s triumphant.”
“Someone might ask, ‘What the hell does that tell you about the wine?’ It tells you about the wine’s intention and spirit.” –Hardy Wallace, winemaker, Dirty & Rowdy
Before Wallace made sought-after, new-school California wines, he wrote about it on his Dirty South Wine blog.
“We’ve always talked about wine in a different way,” he says. “It’s far easier for us to convey emotion with wine than throw out subjective tasting notes.”
The note for Dirty & Rowdy’s 2018 California Familiar Blanc reads:
(That should really be the whole tasting note)
Our early drinking white blend from inner outer space.
Citrus oils, frozen banana, and life-affirming gin & tonics.
The Familiar Blanc is a blissful barrel selection from all of our 2018 whites. It is contemplative and ever-changing in the glass.”
“Someone might ask, ‘What the hell does that tell you about the wine,’ ” says Wallace. “It tells you about the wine’s intention and spirit.”
And it’s not just canned-wine loving millennials who want Mourvèdre that feels like “yacht rock for space pirates.” The average Dirty & Rowdy customer is 47 to 50 years old.
“We also have a lot of folks in their 70s, who are classic wine buyers and want a refreshing alternative,” says Wallace.
How do you describe desire?
Lil Deb’s clientele is similarly diverse, a mix of Hudson Valley day-trippers, locals, natural wine geeks and older diners. For the adventurous, the restaurant offers wine journeys. Servers select wine for patrons through a series of non-wine related questions.
During a visit last summer, it went something like this: Picture your ideal swim. Where are you? What time of day is it? How does the water feel? What are you doing? What are you wearing?
I’m an Alpine lake kind of gal, and my husband prefers the safe comfort of a swimming pool. The result? Vigna San Lorenzo’s 2016 Col Tamarie sparkling wine, and Domaine Leonine’s 2018 Que Pasa Rosé, respectively. Whether or not the glasses perfectly aligned with the aquatic narrative was beside the point.
“Our questions are about desire,” says Wheeler. “There’s a certain element of not being able to ask for what you really want. These questions help distract from that. If you’re talking about swimming, it’s sexy and fun.”
The same could be said for the overall experience at Lil Deb’s, where there’s nude male burlesque playing on TVs above the bar, and neon lights throw shades of pink across the dining room.
Nico Osteria, an Italian seafood restaurant in Chicago, has a much more traditional setting than Lil Deb’s, but wine director Bret Heiar still finds ways to weave unconventional storytelling into his program. His by-the-glass menu mixes tasting notes with pop-culture references and anecdotes about winemakers, regions and bottles.
“Some of the comments are just funny. They create discourse, and then you can talk about the wine itself.” –Bret Heiar, wine director, Nico Osteria
“When was the last time you bought a wine because someone said it tasted like cassis, black cherries and smoke?” Heiar asks.
On Nico’s menu, Heiar describes a Franco Molino Cascina Rocca Barolo as a “classic old school Barolo, it taste [sic] like being saved by Liam Neeson; Rose hips, Persimmons, layers of gorgeous fruit. An iron fist in a velvet glove.”
Some guests scan the menu and ask for the “Liam Neeson” wine, or one that “makes me want to be the person my dog thinks I am.”
“Some of the comments are just funny,” says Heiar. “They create discourse, and then you can talk about the wine itself.”
The extra effort Heiar spends on his list helps move wine. The descriptions provide context for by-the-glass pours, which frees up servers and allows Heiar to include more esoteric bottles. Rather than points on a tasting grid, the staff at Nico Osteria is armed with tales about producers, regions and bottles.
“ ‘Medium-plus acid’ means nothing to the general public,” says Heiar.
Changing the public perception of fine dining wine lists
Paul Grieco doesn’t think there are limits to how sommeliers should talk about wine. When he moved from the rarefied cellar of New York City’s Gramercy Tavern to run his own program at his groundbreaking wine bar, Terroir, he asked himself, “How do I make this different?”
Grieco homed in on how the wine list is presented.
“My love of wine is not a list,” he says. “My love of wine are the stories they tell. From that turn of phrase came everything we’ve done since.”
Grieco’s opening menu at Terroir effectively lifted his middle finger to conventional wine lists. “So much has changed in our industry—the look and feel of restaurants, the service we provide,” says Grieco. “But wine lists…Jesus and Mary Magdalene were probably presented a wine list at the Last Supper that looked just like wine lists we have now.”
Terroir’s list filled a notebook. It had graphics, quotes, history, art, asides and personal anecdotes. It was Grieco’s storybook.
“I’m a failed Renaissance man, and what I realized was that everything I loved—history, philosophy, art, culture, whatever the topic—I could see through the lens of wine,” he says.
Eleven years later, Grieco’s menus still have the same confrontational spirit. Over the years, he’s developed a style of service that he calls “aggressive hospitality,” a modified version of Danny Meyer’s philosophy of enlightened hospitality.
Grieco and his team employ aggressive hospitality when an unsuspecting guest opens the wine list and gets overwhelmed, intimidated and upset.
“I want you to close the list as quickly as possible so we can have a conversation,” says Grieco. “It’s done for the sole purpose of intimidating you, so you look at me and say, ‘Paul, just bring me a glass of wine.’ I want to have fun, and for you to have fun with me. I want to take you on a journey.”
It’s a recurring theme, sommeliers as storytellers. How do you get a wine drinker to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon? For Grieco, you skip over the deep ruby hue, blackcurrant notes and that hint of licorice in a bottle of Chateau Musar. Instead, perhaps you tell your guests about Serge Hochar, Chateau Musar’s iconoclastic founder, who missed exactly one vintage while producing wine in a war zone.
Aggressive hospitality isn’t for everyone but it’s highly effective. Maybe you upset a few people in the process, but with style and purpose.
Creating an emotional response, and “Bob, the big Pinot guy”
Maxwell Leer, a Wine Enthusiast Top 40 Under 40 Tastemaker of 2016, knows something about upsetting people. He’s responsible for perhaps the most controversial wine list of the decade, at Hatchet Hall in Los Angeles.
“It was beautiful, in a modern art sort of way,” says Wallace from Dirty & Rowdy. “As a producer, as someone who’s excited about how people talk about wine, it was revolutionary. I say fuck yeah for trying, for being remarkable.”
Headlines in 2015 weren’t so generous. Critic Besha Rodell wrote in LA Weekly that “Hatchet Hall’s Wine List Is a Cruel and Maddening Joke.”
“When you’re dealing with a wine connoisseur, you use a heavy tongue. It’s Harry Potter snake talk. You have to speak this code to make them trust you. Or you can talk to someone and tell them stories: who winemakers are, about their families, what they eat and drink, why they care and why you care.” –Maxwell Leer, former sommelier, Hatchet Hall
Instead of grape variety, color, region or producer, Leer and his compatriot, Adam Vourvoulis, arranged Hatchet Hall’s wine list by importer: Jerome, Robert, Amanda, Michael, Heather, etc.
Within each four- to six-bottle section, the wines were listed in ascending order of weight, aroma and body. A key at the top explained that sparkling wines were italicized, red wines were listed in bold type and white wines were in standard type. Rosé was left ambiguous.
For each entry, the vintage was followed by one or two words from each bottle’s label—Blowout’14, Wolfe Goldgrube’09, Von Winning’13. There was also an Instagram handle with which guests could interact, plus good old-fashioned tableside service.
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Leer and Vourvoulis didn’t want wine color to be the first influence for guests to make decisions. The duo also looked to Notes on a Cellar-Book by George Saintsbury.
“The resonating hypothesis [of the book] is that it doesn’t matter who the winegrower is or the vintage,” says Leer. “What matters most is that a wine came from a certain cellar and was served at a time it was ready to be drunk.”
Leer envisioned the list as a great wine equalizer. “Bob, the big Pinot guy,” the one who always orders for the table, would know just as much (or as little) as his less-experienced companions. Leer suspects that didn’t sit well with some sommelier peers or wine critics.
“When you’re dealing with a wine connoisseur, you use a heavy tongue,” says Leer. “It’s Harry Potter snake talk. You have to speak this code to make them trust you. Or you can talk to someone and tell them stories: who winemakers are, about their families, what they eat and drink, why they care and why you care.”
Leer’s menu flamed out one year later when he left Hatchet Hall. He now works as a marketing and branding strategist for New York Mutual Trading Company’s beverage portfolio.
The industry has shifted in the five years since his departure. The snobby sommelier is a dying breed, and the market has seen an expansion of category-defying wines from small producers and emerging regions.
But Leer says that restaurant wine lists still haven’t caught up, and that too few people are taking risks, but not for fear of backlash. He believes that if sommeliers are overworked, undercompensated and unempowered, they’ll never be their creative best.
“If you give people ownership, they’ll wear it with such pride,” he says. “And maybe the menu will reflect it.”
Making wine approachable again
“It’s grand fun,” says ICC’s Carney, who indulges in mod wine talk when the mood is right. “Wine is fashion, basically. There’s no end to the possibilities. I love the art, music, rhyme and pace of it. Do these lists sell wine? I don’t know. But they promote outrage. Quality outrage. It forces people to engage.”
What these establishments offer is an education in wine through storytelling. It engages visitors when they step into a world they may not fully understand. The approach is meant to let people connect with wine emotionally and intellectually. In the process, they can find something new that fits a moment in time.
“Why would [you] ever not applaud anything and everything that gets more people thinking about wine?” says Grieco. “Why would I ever be critical of that shit? As a businessman, I would be a moron.”
“I don’t care how you came upon the world of wine, or who your teacher is,” he says. “I hope that you come across my threshold one day, and we can talk about wine. To get you there, it takes a ton of people talking about wine.”