A literary guide through my favorite Albuquerque wine lists and the people behind them
By Joseph Baca
Anyone can build a wine list. It’s just a list of bottles, after all. But ultimately, the love and enthusiasm that a sommelier (or wine steward) invests in writing the list is what makes for a page-turner.
If a restaurant wants its customers to enjoy their wine experience, it’s imperative to have someone with great wine knowledge onboard. Beyond simply creating a list, a good wine steward will generate interest and enthusiasm among staff and customers. If the restaurant can help its staff to better understand wine, it will show in the service.
Like wine itself, determining what qualifies an excellent wine list is subjective. I look for wine lists that have a varied selection of by-the-glass pours, served in proper glassware. I also look for a decent half-bottle selection, a great alternative to wasting wine or overconsumption. I then look for obscure varietals (uncommonly used grapes), rare bottlings or wines made by my favorite artisanal wine makers. Most importantly, the offerings on a wine list must complement the food—in both style and cost. I always check to see if the pricing is reasonable by comparing the retail price of a bottle I’m familiar with to the restaurant’s prices. Standard restaurant markup is about two times as much as retail, less at the higher end.
But fancy wines, glassware and knowledge are only part of the story. Like a good book, a wine list should have passion, intrigue, some mystery and a little drama. Here are some of my faves.
A New York-Italian setting so authentic, Don Corleone would feel comfortable. Co-owner Sal Cerami has compiled a simple list that’s better than those found at most small Italian restaurants. It won’t win a Wine Spectator Award, but that’s not his goal. Cerami’s love and excitement for wine is contagious as he mills around the tables selling bottles of Chianti. The real treat is having him personally recommend your wine—somehow, Cerami always finds a hidden jewel stashed away, as though he were saving it just for you.
Sharp, concise and to the point, with 20 superb choices offered by the glass or bottle. Written by Stew Dorris, the brains behind Artichoke Café’s stupendous wine bar, Farina’s wine list is straightforward and focused. The bar is comfortable and every wine is perfectly matched to the kitchen’s chic pizzeria fare and the mod surroundings. The only downfall? Those pesky stemless glasses (see “Bar Gear” sidebar).
With 500 selections, Prairie Star’s wine list is a religious experience and its wine bar an altar worthy of worship. From Old World to New World, Samuel McFall’s text is so commanding one gets the feeling it was divinely inspired. For the newly converted, several flights are offered for your initiation. And for those already on a higher spiritual plane, staggeringly expensive bottles are available (a DRC Richebourg for $1,050, a Grace Family Vineyard for $1,895). This wine list is immaculate and includes 50 by-the-glass pours maintained in an argon gas Cruvinet(see “Bar Gear” sidebar). Try the Ornellaia Masseto or a glass of Shafer Hillside Select.
When it comes to wine in Albuquerque, McFall is the high priest. “My employers let me do what I think is exciting; other people aren’t willing to take risks,” the always passionate McFall elucidates. “Our goal is to create a cutting-edge, comfortable environment.” The restaurant is gorgeous, the staff considerate and knowledgeable. The wine bar has some incredible values, and the restaurant, which is pricey, offers several deals, including a Wednesday night “Wine and Dine”—dinner for two and a bottle of wine for $60.
The centuries-old Casa Vieja has served as a courthouse, a home to Mexican tight rope walkers and a stagecoach stop. A few supernatural residents are widely reported to reside there. Combine all that with a highly lauded chef and a sommelier with accolades too numerous to mention, and any first-year literature student will tell you that this is magical realism—an experience where reality and fantasy become one.
Casa Vieja’s co-owner and sommelier Kate Gerwin has a thick stack of credentials, earned by working at wineries throughout Napa with renowned winemakers like Helen Turley. As for Gerwin’s wine list, it can be summarized in one word: impeccable. Casa Vieja’s bar is surreal in its perfection and the enriching wine experience it produces.
America’s greatest novel may be Moby Dick. The underlying theme of Melville’s masterpiece is the battle between good and evil—which is exactly what comes to mind as I question my values upon entering a restaurant so deliciously decadent. Marcello’s promotes itself with the phrase “Life is too short to drink bad wine,” and its excellent list, compiled by wine steward Phillip Hirrel, reflects this philosophy. Sit at the alluring and relaxing bar, or pull up to a fire pit on the year-round outdoor patio. The list, primarily California Cabernets, is exceptional, and includes 16 offerings from the Cruvinet such as Caymus Special Select and Stags Leap “Fay.” Hirrel’s goal is to open people’s eyes to wine, and his passion for maintaining Marcello’s wine program is apparent in his flawlessly trained staff’s enthusiasm.
Jennifer James is undoubtedly the queen of Albuquerque cuisine. Just like the “Petit Madeleine” in Marcel Proust’s stream of consciousness novel In Search of Lost Time, the mere mention of James’ name to local gourmands evokes flashbacks of sensual culinary encounters from her kitchen. James works on a small scale with every detail carved to perfection—and that’s how she’s constructed her wine list. Though not lengthy, it’s lively and exciting, every glass or bottle a magnificent venture. James is a master at combining wine and food; her wine list selections will always bring out the best in your meal. (Though, once again, there are those pesky stemless glasses.)
You will be seduced by Savoy’s garden of Bacchanalian delights. The Napa country inn setting, filled with vineyard photos, wine cellars and wine bars, is a prime setting for romance or an illicit tryst. Sister restaurants Zinc and Seasons always seem to outshine this place in popularity polls—but I prefer Savoy, with its impeccable environment and wine service. In addition to a brilliant wine list, Savoy offers patios, drink specials throughout the day, and a cordial and well-informed staff.
Modeled after a New York loft, Slate Street’s wine bar has an ultra-hip, modern, minimalist feel. This wine list is rhythmic, flowing and poetic, and it’s the most pleasurable to read and easiest to comprehend in Albuquerque. The wines are listed by style—“just a little sweet,” “ABC: Anything But Chardonnay” or “sexy, elegant, austere”—not varietal or region. Demystifying the label like this makes it easy for patrons to pair wine and food. The listings are simple, but not simplistic. Ian McKay, the new wine steward, has become one of this city’s highly sought experts.
This list may appear to be the size of a footnote, but it offers the intrigue of a full-size novel. The Grove is a hip breakfast and lunch café with a tiny wine list that’s just as chic—five reds and five whites are marked on a chalkboard, and all are constantly changing. This list is extremely well thought-out and offers a sampling of some of the most esoteric varietals and brands available in Albuquerque.