By CONNIE DUFNER, Special Contributor
Goodbye, intimidating wine menus; hello, accessible. Adios to iPad lists and leather-bound tomes that, for all their commanding presence, detract from the intimacy of the wine experience. Arrivederci, Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and full-frontal sommelier cred. Of course, quality and expertise still matter, but in a dressed-down, casually serious way. The new era of wine in Dallas restaurants is all about food-friendly discoveries, diner engagement and even -- wait for it -- affordability.
"Wine can be very cerebral and overly precious, but we prefer it to be fun and approachable," says Aaron Benson, manager and beverage director of Wayward Sons, Graham Dodds' new Greenville Avenue destination for modern Texas cuisine.
It's not unusual to see Benson or his staff hanging with you while you savor the floral, herbal or earthy flavors that complement the buttermilk biscuits and house-made jams, vegan-friendly mushroom tamales and indulgent chicken and dumplings. An added bonus: the aerator decanter demo. If your red is in need of a little air, Benson will set a decanter device onto the open bottle and flip the bottle over so the wine decants. Then he flips it again, the wine goes back into the bottle and voilà -- a double-decanted pour.
Another plus of pulling out a cool somm's toy: getting a conversation going.
"Our wine list, like many, is based on the concept of terroir, but that's not to say it's all about dirt and weather," says Benson. "Terroir is also defined by intangibles like culture and heritage. A bottle becomes a story worth telling, and many of those stories are about people I know or places I've been." Perhaps that's why spending a few moments with his list, heavy on Napa and Sonoma with a smattering of Loire and Bordeaux, Willamette Valley and Columbia River and the Texas Hill Country, conjures up memories of inching along California's Highway 29 or sipping tempranillo on a shady deck overlooking the Pedernales River Valley.
"It's been very validating to see how receptive people are to a somewhat esoteric list," Benson says. "If a guest orders something boutiquey or unconventional without my help, I want to engage them and find out why. If they consider it and change their mind, I want them to taste it anyway." About a third of Wayward Sons' wines by the glass are $10 or under, which lessens the risk factor of trying something unfamiliar.
Pricing and a sense of discovery were also on the minds of Rapscallion co-owner brothers Brooks and Bradley Anderson. They introduced an all-American selection of 126 bottles, with 57 under $50, when opening the new modern Southern restaurant with chef and co-owner Nathan Tate last summer. As they sampled the menu, Brooks says, they didn't feel cohesion among European, Australian and South American wines, so they decided to go boldly USA. "Fun, interesting modern Southern food pairs fantastically well with the fun, fresh, clean wines from lesser known varietals and regions," he says. Tops on their list? Texas' Duchman Family Winery Vermentino ("clean, crisp, pure; great with oysters, cheese and fish"); Stolpman Vineyards Carbonic Sangiovese from the Santa Ynez Valley of California ("amazingly food-friendly wine, $48 for the bottle"); and Oregon's White Rose Estate Pinot Noir ("my favorite Oregon pinot").
"The importance of price cannot be overstated," says the co-owner of Rapscallion. "It's rather easy to say, 'Man this $150 Oregon pinot sure is great.' Well, it had better be. It's $150. It is much more satisfying to find an absolutely killer wine that is less than $50."
"There is a lot of bad, cheap wine out there. You have to spend a lot of time and pop a lot of bottles to find killer selections that are truly delicious, reasonably priced, and that have a fun story behind the label."
Dallas' evolving wine culture is about making diners more comfortable, but it's decidedly uncomfortable with lowering standards. (As in, think twice before you throw on any old pair of jeans to go to the Cattle Baron's Ball.) We are becoming a city where educating diners in fun, nonthreatening ways is as much of the experience as the food, with just enough flex in those sommelier muscles to refuse to compromise on quality.
On a recent visit to Filament – the new modern Southern restaurant from executive chef Cody Sharp and chef-owner Matt McCallister of FT33 fame – we had a cab franc moment when we noticed not one but two choices on the wine menu. Curious because we don't see these wonderfully food-friendly wines all that often, we asked general manager Leah Moorhead for advice. She couldn't say enough about Chris Camarda's version for Andrew Will Winery in Vashon, Wash. We were sold. But in the midst of a wide-ranging conversation from puppies to her kitchen romps around the country, she insisted on bringing out Bernard Baudry's offering from Chinon, France, to taste. As if the fried Appalachian chicken thigh, embraced by a cheddar chive biscuit, and thick Texas Wagyu beef slices weren't fine on their own, they received a delightful cab franc boost from our wine guide for the evening. It's the kind of dining encounter where you could break the bank, but there's absolutely no reason to. All but three of Filament's wines by the glass are under $15, and a compelling variety of bottles are comfortably in the $40s and $50s.
For Urbano Cafe owner Mitch Kauffman, inclusive wine pricing isn't only a break for diners; it's good business.
After opening six and a half years ago with no wine list and a BYOB attitude welcoming diners, he recently began selling wine and beer. He established a friendly pricing structure, based on cost and availability. As an example, some wines are priced at the retail bottle price plus $10, so diners get the same value as if they had bought a bottle next door at Jimmy's Food Store and paid $5 per person corkage for a party of two. The markups are much lower than conventional ones, which can easily add up to 300 percent of retail, often more. "Obviously we want it to make sense for them to order our wine as an affordable alternative to bringing their own," he says. "If they didn't have time to stop for wine, or if they want to open another bottle, they know they'll still get great deals from our list and they don't feel like they're getting overcharged, the way many of our customers say they feel when they go to other restaurants."
Of the 34 bottles on the list, all but three are $50 or under, and the most expensive glass is $12.
"As a BYOB restaurant, we want to offer wines that speak to the customer who is a real wine lover but is used to coming in to our restaurant and not spending a lot of money on the wine," Kauffman says. The restaurant so appreciates its wine-loving regular guests that Kauffman has chosen many of the wines he stocks based on their selections over the years. Feel like a white to accompany that mushroom risotto? He'll point you to the Paul Blanck Pinot Blanc. The Alsace varietal is a pleasant, drinkable lift for the cafe's Italian-American bistro fare, and the winemaker is also a friend – as are the folks at Merry Edwards, Martinelli and so many other wineries.
To maximize the new liquid offerings, Kauffman has recently opened the Back Porch, a covered patio with a view to a small garden (a nod to the legacy of the late Tom Spicer, whose shop and gardens were next door). Along with a second dining room offering live music and a pop-up retail-gallery-event space, Urbano has thoughtfully integrated wine into its identity without disrupting the BYOB vibe and Old East Dallas esprit de corps.
"I like talking with guests, no matter what their level of wine sophistication is, about the wines," Kauffman says. "Some people want to know more, some people just want to open and enjoy, and we follow their lead. We think wine should be a fun, natural part of enjoying a great meal."
You may live to scrutinize labels, study your appellations or revel in obscure grape research (godello or plavac mali, anyone?), or you may be the kind of wine drinker who just wants to learn and discover. Either way, there's a place for you in red (and white)-hot Dallas right now. Through thoughtful pricing, engaging wine lists and meeting diners where they are, a cadre of laid-back pros is changing the wine game.
To that we say – what else? – cheers!