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Renata in Portland, Oregon, has a finely articulated, themed wine list.

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Hyper-focused wine lists encourage conversation with guests, eliminate the confusion created by lengthy choices, and effectively complement a specific cuisine.

By Kristine Hansen May 2016 Wine

When Aldo Zaninotto was developing his wine list at Osteria Langhe, which he opened in Chicago’s Logan Square in 2014 after selling wine on behalf of a distributor for esteemed restaurants like Charlie Trotter’s, he looked to one region only. Italy’s Piedmont region called out to him like a siren. After all, it was the place whose wines had converted him into a wine expert years ago, made him thirst for more Barolo, and turned him on to the nuances of wines—even from within a particular region.

The result is a wine list that’s nearly 100 percent Piedmontese, and not only dances from Barbaresco to Barolo to Brachetto but also ties in with the food. All of the dishes stem from the Piedmont region of Italy as well, including antipasti like Cocotte (baked sunny duck egg, with winter black truffle, cream, and Parmesan and Fontina cheeses) and Tajarin, a classic Piedmontese pasta that’s long, thin, and ribbon-like, served with meat ragù.

A side trip to Piedmont while attending Vinitaly quite a few years ago got him further hooked on the region’s wines. “That’s what really captivated me—the region, the wines, the people,” Zaninotto says. It’s a story he now eagerly passes along to diners, sharing his emotional reactions from his twice-yearly travels to Piedmont. “It is a region that should be known by people,” he says. “In 1996 or 1997, Piedmont [wineries were just] trying to find their way in the market in the U.S. Most of these guys are very passionate about their wines. They’re not just winemakers; they’re farmers.”

The check average for wine, he’s found, is between $45 and $49, which he knows is in response to his passion in building such a curated list. Italian wine can also feel complicated and confusing to diners, with so many regions and varietals, but by narrowing in on one region Zaninotto feels he’s demystifying the process. By partnering with Chicago chef Cameron Grant—whom he met while Grant was cooking at the former InterContinental Chicago O’Hare—the restaurant was born. An added perk: Chef Grant is skilled in cooking Piedmontese fare.

Zaninotto was also adamant about operating a restaurant that would attract a local, regular clientele who would enjoy dining at the same place several nights each week—just like in a small Italian village. Logan Square was the perfect spot, not downtown Chicago. He works at Osteria Langhe almost daily and enjoys greeting diners at the door. Nightly specials, like a three-course prix fixe menu on Tuesday and grill night on Wednesday, when the weather is warm enough to use the back patio, encourage diners to come back for a slightly different experience each time.

From Diversified Selection to Specialization

It used to be that the more diverse the wine list, the more it was acclaimed. These days, a hyper-focused wine list garners raves. At The Carneros Inn in Napa Valley’s esteemed Carneros region—known for putting out high-scoring Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—wine director Brian Penly looks no further than the land on which he grew up. “I’ve lived in Sonoma my whole life. It’s an agrarian society. It’s a lot of farmers and a lot of ranchers.” He feels a calling to represent local wineries that source grapes grown organically or biodynamically, a nod to not just the region, but also to a segment of the world’s wines that adopt either of these two methods. “Most of the best wineries in the world use biodynamic methods, including Chäteau Latour and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti,” he says. While it’s not 100 percent of the wine list, these wines are a large focus. “It’s gotten easier to source these wines,” he says, adding that more local grape farmers are lessening their use of pesticides. “Benziger was the first to get certified in California. The proof is in the pudding. You can’t argue with the results. When I first started doing this, you heard organic and you assumed low quality.” Thankfully, this is no longer the case.

When ALdo Zaninotto was developing the wine list for his fine Italian Chicago restaurant, Osteria Langhe, he looked to one wine region alone: Italy’s Piedmont region, the place that converted him into a wine expert years ago. Credit: Osteria Langhe

A page in the front of the wine list at Farm, which is the fine-dining option of The Carneros Inn’s two restaurants, introduces the faces behind Napa Valley and Sonoma County organic and biodynamic wineries that are on the wine list. “That’s intended to start a conversation,” Penly explains. The inn also serves wine in its room service, event space for weddings and other catered events, and a retail café.

Like Zaninotto at Osteria Langhe, Brian Kane, a sommelier at Zahav in Philadelphia, homes in on a geographic region. In this case, as the fine-dining restaurant serves solely modern Israeli cuisine meze (small plates) style, Israeli wines—along with those from Turkey and Lebanon—are a natural fit. Co-owner Michael Solomonov wanted “to showcase the food he had growing up but with French techniques and more classic techniques,” Kane says.

When the restaurant opened in 2008, it presented a chance to educate diners about wines from a region that is rarely represented. “Almost 50 percent of [the wine list] is from the Middle East. This seemed like a unique opportunity to put some wine that guests hadn’t yet discovered [on the menu], and the boutique-wine movement was just starting,” says Kane, adding that about 22 of the wines are Israeli. “We took away the four grapes that most people know about—Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot—by the glass. We only offered them by the bottle, and from Israeli producers.” By focusing on less-familiar varietals in the by-the-glass list—such as Carignan, Grenache, and Dabouki—Zahav quickly got customers hooked on Israeli wines. In fact, on the menu there is a special section called “Wines of Israel & Palestine.”

Like Zahav, Renata in Portland, Oregon, focuses on a wine theme. Chris Wright, the wine director, curated a special “island wines” section on the wine list, featuring selections from Sicily, Italy; Spain’s Canary Islands; Corsica, France; and Tasmania, Australia. Creating this section was a way he could communicate to diners how special island wines are. “We try to be playful with it. As island wines, they’ve been off the beaten path and tend to be less influenced by the wine critics,” he says, adding that they tend to be higher in acid and lower in alcohol. And, because they stem from a volcanic region, the wines “add intensity and minerality.”

They also marry well with the restaurant’s food—which includes dishes like lamb riblets with hazelnut butter and razor clams with black garlic—because the wines are “bright and fresh, to help cut through the richness and fat in our food,” Wright says. “There’s this element of fire and smoke in the food.” In fact, a wood-burning oven helps match the sandalwood and cedar notes depicted in these island wines. “People are more interested in a concise, focused list,” Wright says. “It becomes easier to use, less intimidating.”

Editor’s Note: Sadly, Chris Wright lost his battle with cancer last month. He will be sorely missed. FSR expresses sincere condolences to his friends and family.