Elsewhere in Europe

Want to taste your way through another country? Local restaurants are a good first stop

Quinn is the very best person for the job for exactly that reason. French wine is intimidating, and the 10-page wine list at Vincent is enough to ratchet up anyone's pre-order jitters. Old World and New, Bordeaux and Burgundy, Rhone Valley and Loire Valley, Champagne and Not Quite Champagne (an actual category)...you don't even need a drink to start the room spinning.

Quinn is here to talk you down.

"I think one of my best assets is that I'm not one of these wine-snob type of people," he says. "You don't have to have a Cabernet with lamb. You can have red wine with fish. It's whatever is your favorite wine for that particular moment is what's best for you. My dad drinks Schlitz and wine from a box."

You want to know about French wine? It's all in your head--or rather, in their heads. What makes French wines different is the philosophy behind the winemaking, says Quinn.

"In France, they celebrate terroir," he explains. "At its core, [that] basically means earth. Where you plant the grapes is excessively important. The other thing they do is celebrate the grape and its flavors and not try to mask those flavors."

To simplify: Americans drink by the grape (Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay); the French drink by the region (Burgundy, Bordeaux, Beaujolais). And some Americans have learned to like wines where the grape is masked by a heavy oak presence, a taste easily obtained on the cheap, which incenses Quinn. He may not be a wine snob, but he's supremely irritated by poor-quality winemaking.

"In California, you have the Chardonnays--and it's starting to come away from that--but you still have people who want a stick of butter with a two-by-four in it," he says. "In some cheaper Chardonnays, they'll take wood chips and put them in a large teabag and that goes into the wine and steeps. It saves [the winemakers] money, because they don't have to buy brand-new oak barrels. [Also] you can add chemicals, you can add sugar...."

This is another key difference between the countries. In France, "a government body regulates all of it," says Quinn. "When to plant, when to harvest, what you can have on your label. In the U.S. we don't have laws like that. It was more about creating a product, not so much about the grape and the earth but what they saw as the public wanting to drink."

So how does all this help you figure out that daunting list? Again, Quinn is there to help. He'll ask what a customer typically likes to drink, then offer three choices--priced at the low, middle, and high end--or he'll simply ask if there's a price range they've got in mind. He doesn't mind customers asking questions--that way, he quips, "They don't have to spend all the time and the money to get certified as a sommelier."

The average diner spends about double the entree price on a bottle, he says: at Vincent, that's between $40 and $60, roughly.

Quinn loves finding deals for his diners. "That's where I think I do really well," he says. "I take the time to go and search."

Because he changes the wine list about every two weeks--something most restaurants do once or twice a year--he can buy in very small quantities; this allows him to buy premium wines at a reduced cost when distributors have small numbers of a particular bottle to sell.

"Those are the ones I tell people about," he says. "I've got it on a chalkboard in the bar and then on a card in front of the wine list. And those change regularly--maybe [every] week and a half. The one I sold the most of was one I mentioned there were hints of bacon. I sold it out in two and a half days."

Wine with hints of bacon: Now there's a philosophy a Minnesotan could love.

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Italian Wine's Open Arms, Seasonal Virtue, and Modest Price Make for an Easy Friendship

There's the comfortable couch and there's the company couch. Ditto for foot leather: There are scuffling-through-leaves-by-the-river shoes and toe-squishing night-out shoes. Tater tots vs. herb-sprinkled new potatoes. A comb vs. an hour at the salon. You get the idea.

Italian wine is a comfortable couch, maintains Heidi Birkholz. "Italian wine is better everyday wine," said Birkholz. "It's not a special occasion--you're just going to open a bottle at the end of the day and have a chat with your housemate."

Because Birkholz is wine buyer and front-house manager for Broders' Pasta Bar, the wine list there is infused with this premise: the simplicity, the seasonal selections, and the thoughtful prices all bespeak a designer who believes in the delight of the ordinary.

"Broders' is such a neighborhood restaurant," said Birkholz. "We want to be known as the kind of place where if you don't feel like cooking, you can bring the kids down. I will not put anything on the menu that's more than $7.95 a glass. I don't want anyone spending more on a glass of wine than on a plate of pasta. That doesn't seem right."

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