Phil Collins and Steve Hackett, circa 1977. Photo by Armano Gallo.

Spoon and Stable: The Prog Rock of Wine Lists

Let’s start with Steve Hackett.

Who?

I doubt if many of you know who he is (and if you do, we should be friends). Steve Hackett is a guitar virtuoso. He’s a musical philosopher. Inventor of the string-strike method of playing an electric guitar called “tapping”, and a major influence on many of the top guitarists of the last 40 years. A totally independent thinker. He writes what he wants, records what he wants, and tours when he wants. He’s a creator of his own universe.

Hackett got his start with one of the most creative, iconic, and influential rock bands in history, the early 1970’s incarnation of Genesis. The same Genesis that had an equally talented musical prodigy behind the drums (but not the microphone) by the name of Phil Collins.

Yes, that Phil Collins. He of the unfortunate hits “Two Hearts” (from the even more unfortunate movie Buster), “Separate Lives” (from the movie White Nights which is a movie I love dearly so shut the hell up) and of course the ultimate 80’s earworm “Easy Lover.” Yes, that guy.

Here’s why I bring them up.

In the early 1970’s Genesis was at the forefront of the Prog Rock movement (so called “Progressive Rock”) which involved extremely complicated music and arrangements, long-format songs that weren’t for everybody, and challenging lyrical compositions that had a smaller but rabid fan base (mostly consisting of young men who didn’t have girlfriends … this was geek rock at its finest).

Steve_Hackett_And_Phil_Collins_1977_By_-Armando_Gallo-copy

Phil Collins and Steve Hackett, circa 1977. Photo by the amazing Armando Gallo. Click on image to see his website.

They lived, breathed, sweated, cried, and bled music. They were all in their early 20’s and living in the moment.

In much the same way, in the Twin Cities in the 1990’s, a group of wine buyers/managers/sommeliers in their 20’s started creating serious wine lists. Wine was still something foreign for many. It was a weekend indulgence. It was not on the mind of most diners. Wine lists were often stuck in the mud of earlier generations, afraid (or unable) to try new things, but these new young buyers were shaking things up.

The wine buyers of the 1990’s that daringly put things like Rioja and Viognier on their by the glass programs were considered crazy by many, but trailblazers to others. This handful of wine buyers pushed against popular brands and predictable wines (including getting rid of the ‘house wine’ at many restaurants, which usually consisted of California “Burgundy” White and Red), and started to re-define what a wine list is and what it can be.

Just after the dot com bust, around the year 2000, there was a fork in the road for many wine buyers and managers. Those early sommeliers had to choose what path to take: the safe, profitable, predictable, popular road (let’s call it Phil Collins Way), or the keep-to-my-guns, push the envelope, never relax, never figure you know it all, and always push your audience toward the path of discovery (let’s call it Steve Hackett Avenue, located in Prog Rock City).

Pasta with goat (yum!), creamed spinach with cheese curds (double yum!) and a glass of Lapierre Morgon (triple yum!)

Pasta with goat (yum!), creamed spinach with cheese curds (double yum!) and a glass of Lapierre Morgon (triple yum!)

Sadly, many of the top wine people from the 1990’s went the way of safe and predictable, never to develop a challenging wine list again, never bringing forth what they wanted to show us, but rather concentrating too much on what they assumed customers were looking for. (To be honest, much of the pressure for “safe” wine programs was coming from the top down, as restaurant owners clamored for every customer they could get. It was a race to mediocrity for many. They went down Phil Collins Way.)

Lucky for us, Bill Summerville chose the road less traveled (as well as working for people that could let him chose that route). From his early work at D’Amico Cuicina, to his establishment of the wine program at La Belle Vie, he never wavered from a clear goal: that a wine list can be a journey of exploration. To paraphrase Terry Theise, I think Summerville is doing a better job than most in remystifying wine.

Bill Summerville and his glass box wine room at Spoon and Stable.

Bill Summerville and his glass box wine room at Spoon and Stable.

The same way that Progressive Rock pushed the boundaries and redefined what is possible (ask any Prog Rock nerd what the greatest song of all time is and they’ll often cite Supper’s Ready, a 25 minute long opus in multiple parts including one section in a 9/8 time signature), certain wine lists have done the same.

In other words, wether or not you’re a fan of the wines on the Spoon & Stable list, you have to give it props for what it is: an expansion of what we view as possible on a wine list.

Onto the list at Spoon and Stable, which is clearly the Prog Rock of wine lists.

(Note: I’m not going to explain where or what Spoon and Stable is. If you have a heartbeat, live in the Twin Cities, and follow food news at all you know the stories. If you don’t already read this. When you have the likes of Marcus Samuelson saying it’s the best new restaurant in America, or when your final training sessions for the staff includes visits by Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, there is nothing more to say.)

What you need to know going in

#1 This is not a ‘wine for the people’ wine list with easy to recognize brands and varieties throughout. If you’re looking for the predictable line up of Sauv Blanc – Chard – Merlot – Cab you’re not going to find it here (or you will, in ways you don’t know about or expect). You will be challenged with varieties you’ve never heard of, with regions you didn’t even know made good wine (or wine at all!). My suggestion going in? Take advantage of Summerville and his staff. For such a large room there are surprisingly few seats and a surprisingly small staff, and Summerville has done of a fine job of training them. Look for their suggestions if you feel stuck.

#2 The menu has tremendous variety to it, separated by “Garden – Chilled – Pasta – Sea – Land” (I can’t wait to be there with a group large enough to simply say “We’ll take one of everything”), and therefore you might have a tough time picking a bottle to carry you and a guest through the whole meal, and that’s okay. The wine by the glass list, for me, is where it’s at especially for two people dining. Take advantage of the variety!

Wine list printing and organization

The by the glass list is on the opposite side of the food menu, and is presented along side the cocktails and beer program. Clean and readable fonts and layout. One quip: some of the wines by the glass are named on variety (Malbec, Riesling, etc) but some are labeled by wine name (49M Cremant) and some are labeled by region (Rias Baixas, Chianti Classico, Chinon, etc), all of which might make some confusion for some customers when they see “Dafnios” or “Coenobium Ruscum” or “Torrette” and wonder if it’s a grape, wine name, or region. Hell, even I don’t know!

Links
The Spoon and Stable Bar Menu (with the wines by the glass)
Note: the wine by the bottle list is not available online, so plan on some time to browse through it when you are there

The by the glass program at Spoon and Stable

(based on the opening menu, November 2014)

Sparkling: Three selections, ranging from $10 to $18. A Cremant from the Loire, a Champagne, and a great Lambrusco (yay!) … if you’re going to have three sparkling wines these are the three categories to have! (Note: for sparkling wine, often more is not better unless you are a 200+ seat restaurant that can guarantee the freshness of the selections by going through lots of inventory, or if you have a preservation system in place to help this out.)

Whites: Nine selections, ranging from $9 to $18, with something for all prices … all from Europe except for the “Reserve White” from South Africa.

Rose’ and Orange: Two selections (one pink from Germany at $12, one orange from Italy at $16 … if you’re not familiar with the orange wine movement read this article).

Reds: Ten selections, ranging from $8 to $19, skewing toward $12-$15 on average … nine from France and a lone Pinot Noir from California.

When presented with a wine by the glass like this, some consumers will howl with joy and some will sit in frozen confusion not knowing what to do. The key is to realize the staff here is trained in tasting wines with a gear toward flavor, rather than pigeonholing styles. In other words, when asking for wine suggestions do NOT simply say “I’ll have a Chardonnay” but rather explain what you like and put yourself in the server’s hands. Start with light-medium-full bodied. Talk about acidity. Indicate how many wines you’re thinking of having over the evening and what variety you seek out. Then listen to their suggestions (and ask for samples of the wine if you’re unsure).

By the glass highlights (bang for the buck):

Sparkling: Chiarli Lambrusco di Sorbara, $13.

White: Landhaus Mayer Riesling (Austria), $10. Herman Moser Gruner Veltiner, $9 (which I ordered a few days after they opened, and got an even better glass from the same producer because the distributor was out of stock of the regular version … very cool to be upgraded instead of just told they are sold out).

Red: Castello di Rampolla Chianti Classico 2005, $11 (!). Marcel Lapierre Beaujolais 2013, $15 (a legendary Cru Beaujolais producer).

Stemware

Rona Stemware, photo via tabletopstyle.com

Rona Stemware, photo via tabletopstyle.com

“I was going to do the Riedel thing,” says Summerville, “but then I found these!” The stemware is from Rona, a series I have not come across before. They looked and felt extremely good, but I raised an eyebrow about the short and fat little tulip glass for sparkling wine. “Chuck (Kanski, of Solo Vino) was in here and brought some Champagne and it blew his mind how good it was in this stem.” I haven’t tried the sparkling stem yet, but it does look like Spoon and Stable is taking their stemware seriously. On a personal note, however, I’ve gotten so used to having my Burgundy and Champagne in the Riedel Pinot Noir XL glass that I wonder how it will show out of the Rona.

The by the bottle program at Spoon and Stable

Sparkling: Fourteen selections, ranging from $29 (49M Cremant) to $325 (Billecart-Salmon Mareuil-Sur-Ay 1998) … four wines under $100, and a solid line up of vintage Champagnes in a range of styles between $100 and $150.

Whites: Sixty Five selections, ranging from $24 (Terra Antiga Vinho Verde) to $185 (Bitouzeet Les Perrières Meausault 2009) … Europe-heavy, arranged by region, and every section has both affordable and speciality/higher end selections.

Reds: One hundred and four selections, ranging from $29 (Liatko Dafnios from Greece) to $890 (Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino 2000) … like the white list, Europe-heavy (especially in Burgundy and the Rhône, fine by me!) and including some fascinating rarities at fine prices.

The wine by the bottle list is interesting: arranged by region (with a European focus) but with little highlighted sections focusing on particular producers. Summerville obviously has a love affair with these producers, and this is a wine list tweak I wish we’d see more of on other lists. When a wine buyer loves a producer so much as to tell the story a bit, buy a vertical of wines, and offer them at slightly lower markups, we all win. On this particular list one that stood out is Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which I’ve never had before but if I want to enjoy a 1982 from him I now know where to go. Another excellent highlighted producer is Weingut Prager of Austria, with eleven selections ranging from $64 to $150 a bottle.

The greatest bang for the buck on the white list is not in one particular section or region, but rather spread out a little bit here and there. Under $50 superbuys include: Jean Claude Thevenet Macon-Pierrclos 2011 ($39), A Coroa Godello 2012 (on the list as “Valdeorras, A Coroa 2012” $39), and Brooks “Amycas” from Willamette Valley ($34 … it’s an Alsace style blend leaning on Pinot Blanc and Riesling). For a more indulgent evening you’d be hard pressed to find a more deliciously un-Californian Chardonnay than the Mount Eden Chardonnay 2010 from Santa Cruz ($125).

The greatest values on the red list are found in the Rhône section (which also has the widest variety of the styles offered, for Northern Rhône, Southern Rhône, and the outlying areas of the Southern Rhône are all jammed together). Here you can find a great Mas Champart Languedoc for $45, a dreamy little Messes Basses Cotes de Ventoux for $28, or an incredible Voge Cornas for $89 (which might be the best buy on the list).

Summary

This is a great list for Spoon and Stable. Gavin Kaysen is bringing what many anticipate to be a higher level of food to the Twin Cities, and the wine list should reflect a higher level of thinking and planning. This one does. Will it alienate some diners in obscurity and complexity? The answer is yes, but only if those diners are too shy to ask for help or suggestions. Take advantage of the extensive training the servers have been put through by asking questions and taking a recommendation.

This wine list holds open a door, but does not push you though it. That’s a fine line to walk, and Summerville has done it.

It’s not for everybody, but neither is Prog Rock. But no matter what, you have to respect the creative process that went into it. Kudos to Summerville.

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