It’s easy for restaurants with European, wine-friendly cuisines to assemble an appropriate wine list. Stockpile French bottles for French food, and include a smattering of bottles produced in other countries but from the same grapes. If the food is even more regionally specialized, then do the same thing with the wine. Assume that any wine-knowledgeable customer wants Sauvignon Blanc with a bordelais plateau de mer, Riesling with Alsatian choucroute garnie, Pinot Noir with boeuf bourguignon and so on.
The same is true of pairings with Italian, Spanish and German wine and food.
Standard wisdom also says that varied-but-still-Eurocentric menus, such as those featuring American comfort food, should just sell a bit of everything. But how does a restaurant specializing in more exotic foodstuffs, where some ingredients may be wine-friendly but many are not, build a wine list appropriate to the cuisine?
Lotus of Siam, a Las Vegas restaurant that for six straight years has received Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence and got a “Best of” award from the publication in 2009 and 2010, solves the problem by eschewing formal training, emphasizing weekly staff tastings and focusing on juice that just plain tastes good. Its 73-page list effortlessly pairs wine to signature dishes, promoting culinary harmony and providing assurance to customers that whatever is chosen will work out just fine.
Bank Atcharawan, Lotus of Siam’s wine buyer and head sommelier, doesn’t have any formal sommelier designations but thinks that’s not a necessary element of his job.
“When I started the wine program at Lotus of Siam, the list consisted of five choices, all of which came from boxes,” Atcharawan said. “Over time I taught myself with the help of many friends and peers. Now I am in charge of more than 1,300 selections. You don’t need formal training as long as you have a passion for food and wine, which is, of course, also food.”
Atcharawan’s philosophy is that he and his staff are primarily responsible for educating their clients about pairings, not necessarily specific wines. That steady emphasis has begun to pay dividends.
“Now whenever customers come through the door, they are looking for the wine that matches the food.”
Such intimate knowledge of both customers and pairings requires a lot of informal training, hence the weekly tasting sessions with the entire staff.
“It’s important to let them know what’s new on the list so they can pass it on to the customer,” Atcharawan said. “In the long run I think it helps wine sales because the customer can rely on our staff without being intimidated by such a big list.”
How big? Lotus of Siam has more than 700 selections of Riesling alone.
Atcharawan knows that whenever wine is paired with food, the sommelier has to help the customer look for the right balance.
“Thai food consists of exotic spices and herbs, so the best pairing in my mind would usually be Riesling. When we first made a green curry and paired it with J.J. Prüm Riesling Kabinett Wehlener Sonnenuhr, our customers went crazy. Now it’s one of our standard suggestions.” Other inspired German Riesling matches include ginger-topped sea bass and Josef Leitz’s Eins Zwei Dry Trocken from the Rheingau, and for dessert a by-the-glass Geil Rieslaner Bechtheimer Geyersberg out of the Rheinhessen — it’s heaven with fried banana roll.
Head chef and owner Saipin Chutima, nominated for James Beard awards in 2008 and 2010 as well as this year, specializes in northern Thai and Bangkok-style recipes. She travels widely and has always appreciated fine wine. Gourmet Magazine called Lotus of Siam the single best Thai restaurant in North America, and Chutima completely understands the complex interplay between wine and food, even with such an exotic menu.
A restaurant’s passion for wine comes straight from the top, and Atcharawan knows that Chutima’s knowledge and support is a big part of what distinguishes Lotus of Siam from the competition.
“Saipin helps me to be creative with the list while allowing me free rein in deciding scope and focus. I wouldn’t change a thing about the way we run our wine program.”
It’s not easy to create an intelligent wine list at a restaurant that features non-European cuisine. Chutima and Atcharawan have done it, in part, by paying heed to some of the traditional rules of wine pairing. But they also enthusiastically break other dogmas that they consider to be peripheral to the idea of wine as simply another expression of food. Lotus of Siam’s success shows that what matters most to consumers isn’t brand or label as much as the thought that goes into the pairing. It’s a lesson to which some European-style restaurants should pay more attention.
Ben Weinberg is a wine writer and can be reached at [email protected]