The Fine Art of Finding Delicious Wine Without Being Intimidated

Restaurants, bars, and wine stores may have changed the way they operate, but the expertise and passion of the wine pros behind them burns brighter than ever.

A person faces a large display of wine
Photo: Yiu Yu Hoi / Getty Images

In the same way our social routines have been upended, the dining rooms and wine bars that we once loved have been on a roller coaster of remodels, pauses, new concepts, and closures for the past two years. Your favorite restaurant interior probably looks much different now from the last time you stepped into it.

These seismic changes have also impacted staffing at these spaces. Before the pandemic, finding a sommelier to help you make a wine selection at a restaurant was a reasonable expectation, but has become increasingly rare. Some of these highly trained stewards have pivoted or transferred out of the industry all together. Still, ingenuity and a passionate commitment to hospitality continue to drive wine pros to adapt their approach — and evolve their platforms — to provide personalized experiences to guests. Here's what to look out for.

There's a good story at every price point.

Nadine Brown is a living legend. For over two decades, her tenacious spirit has infused Capitol Hill dining rooms from Bistro Bis, to Charlie Palmer Steakhouse, and Society Fare. Reflecting on her tenure in Washington D.C., she says, "Ten years ago, most wine sold was Camus Cabernet. Everywhere! But now the landscape shows the palate has broadened."

As a mother of two children entering their teenage years, Brown has stepped off the floor, and is choosing to find a different way to deliver her signature expertise and tableside expertise. She spends most of her time consulting with smaller operators on crafting and executing on wine experiences appropriately scaled to their operations. She is writing lists that are sensitive to a persistent awareness that guests want to discover new wines and are price-conscious now more than ever. "People are willing to try things unfamiliar to them if the price is right, " Brown says with absolute confidence.

Think and drink off the (retail) shelf.

"People have been drinking at home, exploring at home. Now folks want to have bigger dialogues and we are going to meet our guests where they are," says June Rodil, CEO of Goodnight Hospitality. The company runs multiple concepts within one city block: casual fare at Rosie Cannonball, elevated retail at Montrose Cheese and Wine, and traditional fine dining at March.

When dining rooms closed during the initial shelter in place, many restaurants converted their wine cellars into retail, takeaway experiences to pair with to-go food. As dining rooms fill up again, many of these operators have folded these value-driven approaches common to retail wine into their dine-in operations.

The sommelier team at Goodnight Hospitality consists of nine employees and among them experience levels span from no previous wine employment to seasoned experts who have run wine programs that won Michelin stars. Integrating the team across all three spaces anchors their approach to wine through the retail lens, laying parameters for price sensitivity and emphasizing the importance of value for every guest.

June was one of the first women to earn the title of Master Sommelier, but for a long time, despite her achievements, she felt uncomfortable ordering wine in traditional settings. Now in her position of leadership, she strives to ensure that every experience is carving out space for as many people as possible to feel comfortable.

Travel along the spice routes.

If you are looking for wine programs that convey a depth of the romanticism and reverence for the craft of winemaking, they very well may be in restaurants that feature cuisine outside of the European palate. Neighborhood restaurants are expanding by-the-glass selections, offering multiple pour-size options, and creating intentional opportunities to maximize flavor.

"Why do we limit ourselves for the sake of tradition?" muses Miguel de Leon, General Manager and Wine Director of Pinch Chinese in New York City. "I want to maximize deliciousness and turn folks on to what thoughtful, intentional wine choices can offer."

During the early months of the pandemic, de Leon scrambled for months to figure out how to keep his business afloat, and to keep his workers employed. A number of the kitchen team members are immigrants, and shelter-in-place orders restricted their movement and prohibited their ability to travel. As most restaurants did, Pinch reverted to a take-out focused model and de Leon liquidated much of the wine collection through out-the-door retail sales.

As diners begin to flood back into the Pinch Chinese dining room, de Leon has begun to replenish his cellar once again. In its current form, it clocks in at about 300 selections with pricing to match the cozy aesthetic of the menu of dumplings and other rustic Chinese fare. There is a playful approach at Pinch, rooted in the joy of delivering a quality experience that you'll remember long after your departure.

Emrah Kilicoglu took over as the main owner of Kitchen Istanbul in 2014. It was already a vibrant neighborhood restaurant but as it recovered from the stalemate of the shelter-in-place orders, Kitchen Istanbul has quietly become one of the Bay Area's most cherished wine drinking experiences.

As his neighbors looked to outdoor parklets to stabilize their restaurants, Kilicoglu took a decidedly counterintuitive approach, reduced his indoor capacity by over half, and dedicated the front portion of the restaurant space to creating a retail wine display and tasting bar. He also intentionally grew the number of options available by the glass. A menu formerly divided between appetizers and entrees is now a continuous list of mezze options, with a dizzying array of potential flavor combinations that elevate the urfa peppers and aleppo spices that predominate the dishes coming out of the kitchen.

For Kilicoglu, whose first language isn't English, wine is a medium to kindle friendship and build community. As the bustle returns to his little corner of San Francisco, the service provided by the staff reflects the pride and relief that Kitchen Istanbul remains — with their core team intact. Asked to reflect upon this good fortune, Kilicoglu shared a Turkish turn of phrase that has become increasingly prescient for many restaurant operators: "Bir elin yaptigini diğer el görmez." Or, "What one hand does the other hand does not see, you do something special to some people, touching their life, but no one else knows that. Even they might not know that favor comes from you."

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