Viniculture for Vagabonds
Hotel stays yield surprisingly amazing wine selections and edification.
Fresh off a series of flights to Dubrovnik, and plunked down along Croatia’s glittering shoreline, I’m bleary-eyed but starving and thirsty. When the option to eat and drink in the lobby bar at Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel is presented, I don’t assume the wine list will be curated with gems hand-picked by a sommelier. Nor do I expect to be impressed. This is a hotel bar, after all.
Fast forward two hours, full belly and all, and I’ve just had a crash course in Croatian wines—along with beers—and picked up some pairing tips while nibbling on regional foods. Seated in a sofa on the hotel’s Piano Bar terrace, gazing out at waters that celebrities like Beyonce and Jay Z, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, have crested across in yachts, this is the perfect check-in amenity.
It used to be that a hotel bar was a dimly lit sports-themed environment humming with the static of television sets. Guests went there for a cold beer, maybe a greasy burger and fries, but certainly not a glass of wine to pair with a selection of small plates teeming with locally sourced ingredients, each artfully plated.
Today the scene is much improved—to the relief of business travelers everywhere. Wine bars tucked into hotels often have a separate entrance to coax locals to come in for the night and partake of the star-studded talent—from celebrity chefs to wildly popular local chefs—cooking in the kitchen.
Sheraton Hotels & Resorts around the globe, recognizing this trend, launched an innovative program last summer called Paired, designed to give weary travelers like me a warm introduction to the region’s noshing and imbibing options. Now, Sheratons from Paris to Pittsburgh are answering the growing consumer demand for localized, authentic experiences. All wines folded into the Sheraton program—of which as many wines as possible are local—must have received at least 85 points from Wine Spectator. Guests can order 2-ounce tastes, 6-ounces glasses, or the entire bottle of a recommended pairing wine.
It’s important to know that my experience in Dubrovnik wasn’t simply a series of plates plopped in front of me. Eight different pairings were offered, consisting of either a taste of beer or small pour of wine paired with an appetizer-sized food item. Half of the wines were Croatian. Chef Tomislav Niksic and the hotel’s beverage director were on hand to entertain questions about Croatia’s best wine pours, as well as to share information about tourism to those wine regions and a tip on truffle hunting, too.
For instance, I found a glass of 2013 Korta Katarina’s strawberry aromas and clean, fresh salinity was a good match with octopus satay, while a Croatian Chardonnay (2012 Korak Sur Lie) featured candied nuts, nice acidity, and a lingering finish. A surprising addition was a Dingac Radovic from Croatia’s Peljesac Peninsula, practically a dessert wine with its 14.5 percent alcohol content. Armed with this survey of Croatian wines, I felt prepped to peruse wine lists in Old Town the next day.
A week later, I checked into the Sheraton Lake Como Hotel well after nightfall, doing the same airport dance as I did to get to Croatia (two flights, two countries). Two nights later, after exploring the cuisine in this Northern Italian region, I slipped onto a bar stool at Bar Fresco and fully experienced this property’s dining ambiance courtesy of its own riff on Paired.
Through this veritable tour of the country’s wines and foods, I enjoyed a Contarini Valse Spumante (the crisp sour-apple notes went well with tarallo, a doughnut-shaped bread with cracker-like appeal), and a Barbera d’Asti (marked by black-cherry notes laced with dark chocolate and smoke on the finish). The latter was even more delicious with an artsy plating of hard cheese, berries, and smashed potatoes.
Like the Dubrovnik experience, the Paired tastings took place in a chic-but-informal environment. I wasn’t looking out on the water as I had been in Croatia, but the space was very home-like, with sectional sofas alongside shelves holding books and vases. And in a country like Italy where navigating a wine list is both a treasure and an act of torture (for those who aren’t familiar with Italian grape varietals), the comfort of a tutorial at the hotel was a real treat. As small plates were brought out and the wine glass refilled, I realized I had been wrong. These days, hotels are stepping up to the plate and offering guests memorable wine experiences, replacing that dim, impersonal sports bar with an intimate, light-filled lounge.
Since experiencing Sheraton’s Paired program last fall, I’ve looked at other chain-hotel restaurants with fresh eyes, pushing aside the misconception that hotels don’t offer awesome wine lists. Nowhere was this proved truer than on my first night at a SpringHill Suites by Marriott in downtown Denver, where I stayed in early December.
Denver is known for its craft beer, not its wine scene. And yet, at this hotel, I was presented with a flight of vino options from The Infinite Monkey Theorem, courtesy of the hotel’s new partnership. (Cans of the wine are even in the hotel’s in-room mini-bars and on the menu at its restaurant, Degree.)
Not only is this a boutique winery—but the vino is made a few miles from the hotel in the Mile High City’s hip RiNo (short for River North) district. It’s a detail that baffled me at first, but after trying the wines I was hooked. Almost all of the fruit is locally sourced within Colorado, on the far-west side of the state in Grand Junction. That’s still 250 miles from Denver, but so much closer than Napa.
Terroir—the French term for wines that have a sense of place, showing expressions of the soil from which the grapes are grown—shone through on the palate, whether it was a Malbec from Grand Junction or Bubble Universe, also made from Colorado grapes.
Nearing the end of my trip I felt compelled to visit The Infinite Monkey Theorem’s tap room in the RiNo district, thinking this is how all hotel guests must feel when they are introduced to a great wine at the hotel and can’t wait to get out on the town to taste more of the winery’s products. As I stepped up to the bar and ordered a glass of The Blind Watchmaker Red, which is a blend of Petite Sirah and Syrah, I took in the Friday-night crowd clustered at tables and sofa sectionals alike, as an art show and Star Wars viewing party surrounded it all. And then I realized: I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for a certain tasting experience back at the hotel.