At wine-focused restaurants, embracing the unknown

David White —

“Representing real people who make real wine has always been very important to me,” explained Danny Fisher, the general manager and beverage director of Ripple, a wine-focused restaurant in Washington, D.C. “When you’re drinking wine—or any kind of beverage, really—you want to know that someone has put time and effort into it. It shouldn’t be mass produced, toyed with, or manipulated.”

Fisher and I were chatting about the wisdom—or foolishness—of loading up a restaurant wine list with small-production, unfamiliar offerings.

Sure, Americans have fallen for wine. We surpassed France as the world’s largest wine-consuming nation in 2010 and have been drinking more each year. But consumers still feel most comfortable with major grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. And most stick with easily recognized brands, like Duckhorn, Kendall-Jackson, and Chateau Ste. Michelle.

In restaurants and wine bars across the country, however, a growing number of courageous sommeliers are eschewing these obvious choices and gently guiding patrons outside their comfort zones. These efforts are having an impact. Thanks in no small part to people like Fisher, Americans are beginning to embrace the unknown.

Consider Ripple’s by-the-glass list. It’s home to 40 different wines, including an unusual blend of Vermentino and Grenache Blanc from maverick California vintner Steve Edmunds; an orange wine from Channing Daughters on Long Island; and a Teroldego from superstar Italian winemaker Elisabetta Foradori.

“From the beginning, one of our biggest things was that we wanted people to be able to taste different wines—and that’s why we have so many by the glass,” Fisher explained. “It’s so our customers can explore what different wines taste like with foods. You can do half glasses if you want; it’s all about tasting and seeing what you like and maybe discovering something new.”

The focus on food is echoed by David McCarus, the proprietor of a boutique wine distribution agency in South Carolina. While the general manager and beverage director of FIG, an award-winning restaurant in Charleston, he focused on the interaction of wine with food and the role wine should play at the table. And he saw how eager consumers were to learn.

When McCarus moved to Charleston from San Francisco in 2012, he wasn’t sure he would find a receptive clientele.

“I didn’t know if there was an appetite in town,” he explained. “But I had a strong enough belief that people would understand the wine program if it made the food taste better. Consumers might not know what they’re looking for. They might not really know what they want. But if the wine and food can combine into this organic dance—and it makes sense while it’s happening—people will be comfortable. And people will come back.”

McCarus saw his patrons come back again and again. A successful wine program satisfies virtually every customer, of course, so McCarus made sure to always have something for everyone, even if it was obscure and didn’t match the exact request.

“My point was always, ‘why don’t we try this?'” he continued. “So If someone comes in and asks for a glass of Pinot Grigio, we can say, ‘no, we don’t have a glass of Pinot Grigio, but we have this beautiful Erbaluce from Piedmont made by this great producer and it’s really delicious and it will be really good with your fish.”

What McCarus and Fisher have done isn’t unique. Nationwide, more and more sommeliers are showcasing small-production, interesting wines—and providing opportunities for people to try things that aren’t available at the local supermarket. They’re acting as educators, eager to share their palates and preferences with their customers.

The wine world is vast. And thanks to this work, NorthAmericans are beginning to make all sorts of discoveries.