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Follow the three R's: Research, Read and Request


September 2014

Photo courtesy of The Bartolotta Restaurants

All this back-to-school hoopla reminds me of the other three R’s. Sure, reading, writing and arithmetic are important life skills, but having mastered those lessons, you’re ready to learn the other three R’s — research, read and request — to order wine at a restaurant.

Before opening the list, do your research. Decide on the table’s budget, desired wine color and style or grape. Although seemingly obvious, these decisions, along with simple buzzwords like sweet, dry, light, heavy, fruity or earthy can help you narrow down the list considerably.

Next, read the list and determine how it is organized. A well-executed wine list groups wines by region, grape varietal, style and/or price, and then utilizes standardized formatting for each wine to facilitate easier navigation. For example, grapes may be italicized or prices bolded. This exercise will help transform an overwhelming amount of unfamiliar information into an organized map to your next wine order. Scan the list, seeking "road signs" like major headings and formatting techniques to find wines possessing the characteristics you deemed important in your research. If the layout isn’t immediately apparent, don’t waste your time — employ the third and most important pillar, request help.

There is no shame in asking for help. As a wine industry veteran, I always request help. Why? Because I know any serious wine buyer should have tried every wine on that list, while I, no matter how thirsty or dedicated I may be, cannot taste every wine produced. Our conversations almost invariably unearth tremendous values, esoteric gems or even unlisted wines due to their limited availability.

Four Milwaukee restaurants — All Purpose, c.1880, Ristorante Bartolotta and Sanford — maintain some of the city’s most extensive and finest wine lists. I have included the cliff notes from my experiences with each of these wine programs.

All Purpose
814 S. 2nd St.
(414) 672-6000

Research: All Purpose offers one of the city’s most well-appointed esoteric wine lists, with a whole section devoted to "Weirdos and Rippers" — a wine nerd’s dream. My sister and I craved a full-bodied Old World white wine.

Read: The bottle list is organized by country, after being split among white, red and Weirdo wines. Unfortunately, the Weirdos were out of our price range that night, but we narrowed the remaining contents to two Italian whites.

Request: Justin Anthony. At first, I was concerned when I learned Anthony, All Purpose’s part owner, general manager and sommelier, had that Tuesday night off. Would his team be able to advise on such an eclectic selection of wines?

I shot the young bartender a bullet, asking him to comment on the differences between the 2012 Graci Etna Bianco and the 2008 Sartarelli Verdicchio. He deflected it with grace, commenting that the former, a Sicilian wine, comes from the northern slope of Mount Etna, giving the wine the high acid we sought. Sure enough, the wine’s tropical fruit was beautifully balanced by minerality and high acid.

I later learned Anthony tastes wines with his crew on a daily basis, encouraging them to take notes. The result is not only an impressive wine list, but also an all-around remarkable wine program.

1100 S. 1st St.

Research: I admire c.1880’s commitment to being local, all the while retaining a certain je ne sais quoi that makes it feel global and cool. From its name, to the menu and decor, all the way to the wine list, the restaurant cleverly draws on local inspiration. Circa exudes "casual sophisticated," making it a favorite for date night. My husband prefers reds I fondly describe as "elegant" — dry with bright red fruits, fine tannins and high acid.

Read: The wine list opens with two pages of wines with roots in Wisconsin. For example, I spot one of my favorite value-driven sparkling wines from California made by Milwaukee native Roger Scommegna. The rest of the list groups the wines by grape, followed by a reserve list offering more expensive options, old vintages and large formats.

Request: Joshua Wolter. On the lookout for an elegant red, I narrowed the list down to two Oregon pinot noirs from the Wisconsin-inspired list and a merlot from Bordeaux. Wolter, c.1880’s general manager and beverage director, offered stylistic contrasts between the two pinot noirs, but then shared a little background on the Bordeaux, 2009 Mauvais Garcon "Bad Boy." The wine’s attempt to rebrand itself provided welcome fodder for conversation that did not involve mention of diapers or school supplies.

Ristorante Bartolotta
7616 W. State St., Wauwatosa

Research: After hearing from various industry insiders that Ristorante Bartolotta’s wine director had implemented impressive changes to its all-Italian wine list, I enlisted a good friend with a preference for robust Italian reds to join me for a little market research.

Read: With hundreds, some say thousands of Italian grape varietals, organizing an Italian wine list can be challenging. Ristorante Bartolotta has responded with ingenuity, offering several approaches to understanding its wines. In addition to organizing the list by both grape and region, there are regional features and staff picks.

Request: Todd Hasselbacher. I had worked with Hasselbacher many years ago when I was the wine buyer at Bacchus. I looked forward to being on the other side of the table, having him teach me about his wines. After exchanging some ideas, he revealed that he had both a Brunello and a Barolo, Italy’s two king wines, available by the glass. We reveled in the opportunity to try two first-rate wines, all for the price of a half bottle.

With half our wine budget still remaining, Hasselbacher offered a wine from one of his favorite Italian grape varietals, Sagrantino, describing it as very "cabernet-like" with its dark fruit and full body. I enjoyed both the wine and the quick lesson on an unfamiliar grape.

1547 N. Jackson St.

Research: Sanford’s owners, Justin and Sarah Aprahamian, continue many of the traditions that have made their restaurant Milwaukee’s preeminent spot for 25 years, including exquisite cuisine, James Beard Award-winning chefs and my favorite, a wine list organized by price. With salads and gazpacho to start, followed by heartier main courses, my husband and I decided we needed both a white and a red wine.

Read: Price, followed by wine color, is probably the most deciding and yet unspoken consideration when choosing wine. Milwaukee’s classiest restaurant acknowledges this reality without cheapening the experience.

Request: Jeffrey Zastrow. Having two young children whose internal alarm clocks buzz around 6 a.m., I gravitated toward the half bottles, hoping to find a white to start and a red for our main courses. Unfortunately, Zastrow, Sanford’s wine director and a former student, was on vacation.

Sarah, a beacon of kindness and sincerity, promptly brought over "The Binder" with detailed notes on every wine. As expected, every detail had been considered. The notes erased any concern I had had about the potential age and vintage of the 2008 Tablas Creek’s Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. Sarah even recommended decanting it, per "The Binder." We enjoyed it tremendously and followed it with a half bottle of Burgundy pinot noir. M



This story ran in the September 2014 issue of: