Archive for the 'dining' Category

The world’s most confusing wine list?

confusing_wine_listHave you ever sat down at at wine bar and thought, “Man, I’d really love a glass of vieilles vignes ’13!” Never mind what grape variety the vieilles vignes are yielding. Nor where they are grown. Nor who presided over that growth and subsequent fermentation and maturation. Just a straight up “vieilles vignes ’13”? Frankly, it sounds like an outdated campaign bumper sticker from France. Outtakes from the full campaign posters: “Victoire aux vieilles vignes! Contre la discrimination des vignes agées! On y go les vieilles en 2013!”

Anyhoo, if this sort of ordering sounds like what you’d like to do, then sidle up to the bar at Hatchet Hall in LA. The sommelier has put together a fiendishly minimalistic wine list that was first called out for its absurdity by Besha Rodell of LA Weekly and then retweeted by, well, everybody in the food and wine TwittoFacebookoblogoshpere. Rodell describes the list broken down into categories not of your quotidian color, variety, or regions but rather by categories like “Heather,” “James,” and “Michael.” Upon request for clarification, Rodell was told these were the names of the “portfolio managers,” whatever that means (distributor sales reps?). Then there are the woefully insufficient wine terms including the “vielles vignes ’13” as well as “Teleki ’13” and “Bela Jufahrk ’11”

Apparently, the list tries to emulate George Saintsbury’s 1915 “Notes on a Cellar Book” in it’s minimalism. But is woefully insufficient in providing actionable information for the diner. While I haven’t seen the whole wine list (it is not available online), the photos of it posted in Rodell’s thorough dismantling of the list make it make it worthy of including in a seminar of how NOT to write a wine list. Sure, some bistro wine lists in France only include the region and the price but those are not particularly informative either.

Wine is complicated. But there are ways of making it easier to navigate a wine list. This, however, is not one of them.

Why you don’t find winery restaurants in the US

Last year, one of Australia’s leading wineries, Henschke Vineyards, branched out. The Henschkes opened Hill of Grace, a fine dining restaurant in downtown Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval, a place filled with tradition and lore as cricket test matches are played among various national teams. The restaurant’s wine list is centered on a Henschke wines but includes other Australian and imported wines. Wines from Henschke Hill of Grace, arguably Australia’s finest single-vineyard wine, are currently available back to 1990 and a glass of the 2010 can be yours for $125 US. When I spoke with Stephen Henschke recently in New York, he said the restaurant was doing very well and they were thrilled with the reception.

While that’s great for locals and tourists to Adelaide, it does leave the American wine mind wondering…why are there no winery restaurants away from wineries in America? Where’s the Screaming Eagle Nest at SF’s AT&T Park? Harlan Estates on Houston in Lower Manhattan? Franzia on Freeways?

The simple reason is that vertical integration is not allowed in the wine industry. In the aftermath of Prohibition, various state and federal authorities passed various regulations that split the industry into three tiers (producer, wholesaler, and retailer–or restaurant) and banned them from overlapping (with some exceptions that allow for one company to straddle two tiers). Tied-house laws, as they are called, go so far as prohibiting wineries from even providing incentives to retailers. On a related note, given that AB InBev seems intent on siphoning many beer brands–and even spirits with Diageo rumored as a target–into one giant keg, tied-house laws have thus far prevented the emergence of the Bud bar, Stella saloons, etc.

So, if you want a dine at a winery restaurant that’s not at a winery, you’re out of luck in America. Better hop on the plane(s) to Adelaide.

Eataly: a lot of pasta

Fast Company has a piece on Eataly, the enormous and enormously successful (grocery) store with restaurants inside it. For those who haven’t been, the stores have an innovative concept that harkens back to an olde tyme market with different vendors for fish, meat, and pasta, interspersed with fresh fruit and vegetables, dried pasta and olive oils, restaurants of various themes, a wine store (now back), a rooftop beergarden, a wine bar, an espresso bar, a gelateria, and a bookstore. My kids never want to leave when we’re there. Eataly NY is a collaboration with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s B&B Hospitality Group.

No surprise, but it turns out that they’ve been doing very well: Nicola Farinetti, the 30-year-old CEO, tells the magazine that the New York City location has $85 million in revenues; the Chicago location will hit $50 million in sales. New locations in LA, Boston and a second NYC location in the World Trade Center are forthcoming. Eataly started in Italy in 2007 and now has 15 locations there and has 11 in Japan. London, Hong Kong, Moscow, Munich, Paris, São Paulo, Sydney, and Toronto all are in line to get locations.

That is a lot of pasta. Surely, even though the Fast Company story doesn’t mention it, after Shake Shack’s recent IPO, they have to be thinking of a public offering somewhere, sometime.

The Grinch who stole wine from The French Laundry

“Wine thief with nose for the best reaps huge haul at The French Laundry” – SFGate

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a grouse;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While memories of chanterelles danced in the diners’ heads;
The shrine to fine dining was closed for a remodel
All the foie gras put away, corks firmly in bottles. Read more…

Quick takes: Questioning the IMW; rebuffing Resy


“The IMW is little more than an elitist club, accessible by invitation only, designed to keep the riff-raff and rabble out.”

Such is one nugget in a trenchant opinion column on the Institute of Masters of Wine that appears on Be sure to check out the comments.

* * * *

What to do when demand for restaurant reservations exceeds the supply? Some restaurants, such as the innovative Alinea and sister restaurant Next, adjust the menu prices higher to coincide with peak demand times (check out this Big Data blog from Nick Kakonas of Alinea). For others, there reservation scalpers have emerged, much to the disdain of restaurateurs. A third way of creating a secondary market for reservations has emerged where diners pay surcharges for peak dining times and start-ups share share those demand charges with restaurants.

One SF restaurant owner says he rebuffs all such approaches as “borderline offensive.” [SF Gate]

I am intrigued by these sites but, while they may work for certain people, if one restaurant were full, I’d simply try another. What do you think about the value of these apps/sites?

New York City has the world’s best wine lists: WFW


New York City has the most top wine lists in the world according to a new ranking from the World of Fine Wine. London is second, San Francisco third, and Chicago fourth according to the British publication, which rolled out the annual awards for best wine lists for the first time this year.

Instead of taking the measure of a wine list’s length, the panel of experts looked at quality. Here’s how Neil Beckett, the magazine’s editor put it in a press release, “As we were judging, we had in mind the wise words of our fellow judge Francis Percival about the difference between ‘a great wine list and a mere list with great wines on it’.” More about the wine list judging methods can be found on the WFW site. It is not immediately clear if the restaurants had to pay a fee in the nomination process. And it’s not clear if value/markups played a role in the deliberations.

In all, 224 restaurants achieved the top grade, a three-star rating. The list of New York’s 36 restaurants follows after the jump. Read more…

Union Square Cafe is the latest victim of rentmageddon

A few weeks ago, Wylie Dufresne announced that he had been forced to close his pioneering restaurant WD-50 on the Lower East Side as of 11/30. The reason is that the building will be razed and a new apartment building will go on the site; and said he hoped to reopen elsewhere soon. Then Rouge Tomate announced they will be leaving their spacious locale next to Barney’s as of August 9, citing rent. They will be relocating to an unspecified location “downtown” later this year.

Now, the monstrous Rentmageddon sweeping the NYC restaurants has claimed another scalp: Union Square Cafe. The iconic restaurant that opened 30 years ago on East 16th street and contributed to revitalizing the Union Square has fallen victim to rising rents and will close at the end of next year. USQ also hopes to move to a new location, though one has not been announced. Julia Moskin has a good, if sad, story on the trend in the NYT that is today’s must-read. She says that USQ paid $8/sf or $48,000/yr back when it opened; now the rent may be as high as $650,000 as international retailers, banks, and pharmacies have driven up rents. She also mentions that Marco Canora and partners at Hearth restaurant have been hit with a 65% increase in rent–this year.

Moskin asks Danny Meyer, whose other restaurants include Gramercy Tavern and The Modern as well as Shake Shack, why he doesn’t just pay for a renovation and the increased rent out of his own pocket? Because it doesn’t make financial sense, he says, making the analogy that it would be like doing a million-dollar renovation on a studio apartment.

In twisting the knife for fine dining, the landlord is quoted as saying that he thinks a Shake Shack would do well in the space.

Alpana Singh on sommeliers, Chicago and The Boarding House

alpana_singhWhen I was in Chicago a few months ago, I met up with Alpana Singh at her new restaurant, The Boarding House. Alpna has reinvented herself, stepping down as host of “Check, please!” and from a corporate job at Lettuce Entertain You to open her own restaurant. Stretched vertically over three public floors, the main floor bar area at The Boarding House serves wine and pizzas made to pair with wines under the arttistic installation of 9,000+ wineglasses (only takes about 36 person hours to clean!). Although I didn’t eat there, I checked the availability of a table for two in the vaulted dining room: they were booking 10 weeks out. I think that officially makes it a hot spot.

She told me about how she got into wine, what she’s doing to resolve the dearth of sommelier jobs, wither Chicago wine is restaurant-driven or shop-driven, and which wines make people say “wow.” Oh, and which is the greatest country in the world to be in as a wine consumer. Check out my interview with her over on


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