It’s fairly routine, if not exactly inspired, for restaurant operators to turn their wine lists over to a local distributor, resulting in generally bland compilations of nationally known brands.
Others build their lists entirely in-house, crafting a collection to match food and market with the same care they take for cuisine and decor.
So it’s worth examining an alternate approach taken by one restaurant, which shaped part of its wine list based on the results of a blind tasting conducted with a band of area wine enthusiasts.
Pinot American Brasserie of Portland, Ore., turned to members of the Oregon Wine Brotherhood, a nonprofit that promotes the wines of Oregon and southern Washington, to review and recommend wines on both taste and value. The resulting selections made up nearly 20 percent of the restaurant’s list. And it’s not an insignificant part of the list, either. In the land where Pinot Noir is king, the restaurant, which opened last summer, used the blind tasting to select its 36 Pinot Noirs.
“The whole process was designed for us to have not just the best Pinots available, but to create a well-rounded list,” said Pinot’s sommelier, Drew Lehman. “Obviously a wine that costs $10 shouldn’t be judged as highly as someone’s reserve priced at $40, so we judged the wines by price point as well as vintage.”
The brotherhood members, all wine professionals or enthusiasts, tasted 246 Oregon Pinot Noirs submitted by area wineries. Over two days last June, a rotating panel of 20 — which included Lehman; current Pinot partner Manny Hilario; former chef Bill King, who is no longer associated with the restaurant; and Paul Hart, leader of the brotherhood and a former Oregon winery owner — evaluated the wine in groups broken up by vintage and price point, and narrowed the entries to 60 wines. From there, Pinot’s owners and sommelier sat down with Hart to retaste and bring the total down to 36.
“I’ve never done anything like that before, and the end result was a fascinating list,” Hart said. “Our goal was to create a subsection that had a wide range of pricing so they weren’t all high end. [We selected] good values and some exceptional and eclectic wines — basically the best wines we could get.”
Two crucial requirements set this judging apart from most competitions and scoring schemes: With immediate service in mind, panelists were instructed to select wines ready to drink, not those that might develop over time. The scoring method gave each wine not a score but either a “plus” or “minus.” Those with the most pluses in a group moved on.
That method is intriguing simply because it manages extreme opinions and removes any stigma from finishing, say, fourth out of 10. As it worked out, only one of the wines received a perfect score, but participants say it was relatively easy to sort out the top 60.
For Lehman an important result was discovering a number of small-production wines that are not especially well known but that have become his favorites and made him aware of the wineries’ other varietals.
There are limits, though, to what a tasting like that can provide. As Lehman points out, bigger, more extracted and higher- alcohol wines can obscure delicate, balanced and more food-friendly wines over a day of tasting. Also, with a number of wineries disinclined to enter a blind tasting, Pinot’s staff needed to add a few better-known wines to balance their list.
Still, the effort wasn’t exactly a risk, as Pinot opened with as few as three bottles of some of the wines. Those that haven’t sold by now have probably been shed.
With sommeliers often finding that their favorites don’t exactly match general consumer preference, the opinions of outsiders are worth canvassing one way or another.
While Pinot’s method might be too much to manage for most restaurateurs, any effort to break outside the insider wine bubble can’t be bad. It might even help bring a greater awareness of what nonprofessional palates find exciting at any given time.