On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, Bobby Stuckey, co-owner and master sommelier at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, tells Eater what he's observed of local wine programs. Stuckey is up for the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Wine Service award, and he won in 2000 for his work at The French Laundry, so we had to ask — where does Bobby Stuckey like to drink wine?
When Adega opened almost ten years ago, they offered the city of Denver a restaurant that had great design, food, service and a fantastic wine list. While the restaurant is not around anymore, it helped move the Denver restaurant scene forward. I think it really helped the kitchens of Denver and Boulder strive for and blossom into the exciting food scene that exists now. We are blessed with so many great chefs in the Denver food scene now. That being said, the front of the house service and wine programs in Denver did not respond to that same jolt in order to attain a national level of excellence.
In the last 10 years, it has actually become easier to access great wines in Colorado that were at one time limited to just the two coasts or major markets. Today, we have seen the emergence of many great new importers and people like Scott Lauck (Synergy) and Steve Lewis (Giuliana Imports) that have helped the wine accessibility from continuing to improve. So, technically we should be able to have a much more advanced wine and front of the house landscape today than we did ten years ago. I think this is a part of the business we can all work hard to improve upon here in Denver and on the Front Range.
We should at least have as many great front of the house teams as we do kitchens in Denver, and I honestly cannot say we do. Denver and Boulder have become nationally known as emerging food communities, which I believe is well deserved thanks mostly to the back of the house. In comparison, Colorado has seen sixteen of its residents pass the rigorous Master Sommelier exam, but we do not have one of them working a dining room floor in Denver. Front of the house excellence is not all about great sommeliers; it’s just about outstanding service and respect for the craft. If FOH service progressed as much as the chefs have in our city, we would be knocking down the doors of any major city in the U.S.
Here in Colorado, we are blessed with a great mix of seasoned vets and young sommeliers. Here are a few that I like to go visit on my night off.
Ryan Fletter, Barolo Grill: This is a spot where your server might know more about the crus of Monforte than most sommeliers. There is a great mix of training in the front of the house and a deep well thought out list. Also they offer the guest a chance to drink wine with a bit of age on it, which is a huge plus.
Lynn Whittum, Bonnano Concepts: While the flagship Mizuna is her home base, Lynn constructs a broad range of wine programs. From drinking great white burgundy at Mizuna to a bottle of Super Tuscan at Luca, she puts together a dedicated list with a educated team working behind her.
Todd Rocchio, Elway's: Steak houses command a high percentage of wine sales in the state of Colorado. Matter of fact, many of the top selling wine lists in the sense of sales volumes are steak houses. This doesn’t always translate into inventive programs. However, Todd and his team are the exception and have one of the best wine programs in the state of Colorado.
Kelly Wooldridge, Trillium: They’ve created original and thoughtful cuisine with a wine list that complements the menu very well. Well edited and compact. It is by far one of the best new lists I’ve seen this year in Colorado. It is surprisingly harder to put together a small compact list than a massive tomb. And Kelly does it wonderfully.
Tim Wanner, The Kitchen: Tim takes care of the wine selections for The Kitchen Group. Putting together a list from tap wine at Next Door to putting together off the beaten path producers from Austria at The Kitchen. Also a favorite place for sommeliers to drink a great beer. (Remember: it takes a lot of beer to become a master sommelier).
Matthew Mather, Frasca Food and Wine: Matthew is the unsung hero in the world of sommeliers. Having been at Frasca Food and Wine since we opened, he really is the heavy lifter of our wine program. (I think the guests forget he is the creator of our wine list, not me)
Honorable Mention: While this piece is supposed to be about wine lists and sommeliers on the Front Range, I have to give a nod to what happens west of us in the mountains. Some restaurants in Aspen and Vail have wine programs that rival anything in the country. Just a peak at the wine lists of Master Sommelier Jonathon Pullis (Montagna) and Alex Harvier at Cache Cache and I am reminded that these have been great lists for the past twenty years.
I’d like to talk about what makes a great wine director or sommelier. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about spending the most money building a massive wine list. What good does 1,000 selections do if only 10 percent of them are great wines? You’d end up with 900 bottles of fluff and distraction.
Here are a few things that I consider to be overlooked when creating a healthy and strong wine list:
Building a successful program: Wine programs that I consider successful are part education/part for the restaurant staff and the guest. If the staff is not trained to walk a guest through an “off the beaten path” wine, then it sits on the list and no one is able to enjoy it. Or, it ends up at the wrong table because the guest didn’t know what they were getting themselves into.
Procuring truly delicious wines: Too often wine buyers fill their list with wines that they hear are great or have read to be great. However, what a lot of buyers fail to remember is that wines and winemaking teams change with each vintage. What may have been a “rock star” wine making team last year could be in a batting slump this year. The last thing you want is to have a dud on the list. To avoid this, a wine buyer needs to be consciously tasting each vintage and assessing the wine with their own well-trained palate.
Working with the food of the restaurant: Make sure the wines you are listing work well with the restaurants cuisine. For instance, wine that pairs well with the food at an Asian fusion restaurant might not work with the menu at a traditional French bistro. You would be amazed by how many times this happens.
· All Frasca Food and Wine Coverage [EDen]
Bobby Stuckey [Photo: Wine & Spirits]