Final Tinkering at a Soon-to-Open Restaurant: The Wine List


Sara Jenkins

This is the most recent post in Sara's series about her new restaurant, Porsena, which will open this week. To try Sara's recipe for pasta al pomodoro, click here.

One of the tasks I've taken on in opening my very own restaurant and being involved in everything from soup to nuts is the wine list. I started out by asking a friend of mine who had been the wine director at Lupa to help. He started it, set up all the tastings, made decisions with me, and spread it all out in an Excel document, but then he up and moved to Portland, Oregon, so I've been busy finalizing it and organizing it and costing it out and formatting it and following up with all the reps about the particulars of supply and demand.

I started with the idea that I wanted simple, uncomplicated Italian wines that were not "Parkerized" (manufactured to generate a high score from the critic Robert Parker and command exaggerated price tags). Those wines bore me: They all taste the same to me, whether they are produced in California or Sicily or Australia. I wanted indigenous varietals that were not overly aged in French oak casks, ideally no French oak at all. It's not a line in the sand, but a starting point in what I want to taste and what I want on the list.

Wine is like Italian politics—the minute you think you have
a grasp on it, it changes again.

But of course immediately I hit a snag. I want Brunello di Montalcino on the list—it's a wine I grew up with and a wine I love even though it is so expensive these days I don't think I drink it outside of Italy. But a lot of Brunello is aged in small French oak casks for some amount of time. But I have to have it on my list for all the reasons listed above, so I tasted and tasted and found two that taste like what I think they should taste like, austere and tannic, not soft and fruity.

My objections to the oak casks are twofold. One, they are not traditional in Italy, so the minute a winery starts using them I am suspicious that they are more interested in a wine that fits a marketable international flavor profile than making an honest wine that reflects the tradition of their terroir. Two, I don't like oaky wines very much. I think a skilled winemaker can make a very good wine using barriques, but too often it's an expensive trick. It's sort of like putting foie gras and caviar everywhere on your menu.

I am looking for wines that remind me of what we drink in Tuscany, at the picnic table under the chestnut tree over long drawn-out lunches in the heat of the summer where afterwards you want to wander off and fall asleep under a tree in the field as the day's heat passes. Wines that go with the food and the environment, and that you can drink large quantities of without regretting it later. Not wines that require decanters and crystal glasses and all the ritual that goes along with it.

And these wines are available. Every day I find more and more; every day a new wine rep I know comes by and drops off his catalogue and a couple of bottles of wine to taste. But I only want to start with 40 wines on the list (originally I said eight, but I got talked out of that idea pretty quickly). I also have to finalize my decisions so menus can be printed and buttons can be created in the computer system we use for ordering. Sebastian, my chef, is also my tech guy and it would be good if he didn't have to do both on the day we open. But every day new theories on the wine list are expressed by friends and partners. Right now I am wondering if I have to have a Pinot Grigio on there. One of my wine bar friends told me it is the most widely recognized and requested Italian white wine. Am I an asshole if I don't put it on the list? I put pasta al pomodoro on my food menu because it's a widely recognized dish and frequently requested. The difference, though, is that I also love it and I think it is the foundation of Italian food. You can't have Italian food without it. I do not feel the same way about Pinot Grigio.

As I put the menu together, I realize that although I know many of the grapes and wine regions there are some stunning gaps in my knowledge. Where the hell is Soave from other than Northern Italy? Good thing I cling to my copy of Burton Anderson's Wine Atlas of Italy; it's saved me before and it will save me again. Re-reading it, I am again impressed at the depth of his knowledge and amused by the wry observations.

Creating the wine list is humbling and challenging. I love Italian wine. I've worked for a winery in Italy before. I can explain malolactic fermentation. But I never really paid attention to the details. Wine is like Italian politics—the minute you think you have a grasp on it, it changes again. I've always been happy to find a few wines or varietals I liked and stick with those. But here I've got to write a list that will cover a broader swath of Italy then I know, yet I want the list to be a reflection of my personal taste. I'm scared about making the wrong choices.

Today I just need to bite the bullet and sign off on the decisions made so far. Changes can be made later—wines swapped out or added as we see what people drink. When we open this Thursday, I need something I can stand behind the same way I do my food menu.

Recipe: Pasta al Pomodoro