Elsewhere in Europe

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

Just as she strives to match the wine to the neighborhood, Birkholz also tries to offer wines that match the season. "Certain red wines are better in the summer than the winter. Especially the wines from the south of Italy, from Sicily in particular--we've got a Nero d'Avola, it's very light and it goes well with seafood and chicken. It's just not as heavy as a Cabernet or a Chianti. And right now we have a Lambrusco, very dry, that's excellent with a cold meat plate--but I wouldn't think about serving it in the winter, because it's a patio wine. In October you think about getting into the heartier things."

The Nero d'Avola is $26, the Lambrusco $23.

For fall wine drinking, Birkholz prefers the Capezzana Barco Reale ($31)--"A little bit of chocolate against the blackberry"--which she says goes well with lamb and eggplant with black olives.

Autumn also brings the return of the "After 8" special: Beginning September 25, Sunday through Thursday nights, after 8:00 p.m., two people can dine on an appetizer, salad, pasta, and a half-bottle of wine for $25. (The special is on in the summer, too, but it's for early birds dining before 6:00 p.m.)

The warm flush of comradeship (or is that the second bottle of Chianti?) at Broders' extends to the servers, who are invited to become familiar with the wines. "At the end of the shift, while they're finishing up, we encourage them to have a glass of wine," said Birkholz. "We sit there and talk about it, almost like a book club. 'What do you like? Well, what do you like?' Because everybody's palate is a little different."

Birkholz knows there are skeptics out there who just don't buy the whole "wine is your friend" approach--too many rigid teachers, too many frigid memories. She encourages them to come in from the cold. "I can't stress enough that wine is an adventure. Sometimes I don't drink a wine on the list for a while and then I taste it and think, 'That's not how I remember it.' Wine changes all the time. It's a living, breathing thing, so whenever you go drink a wine remember that. Keep your mind open."

The Italian's Italian

Osteria I Nonni Stocks the Most and the Best

Just when you think you know wine--that's when someone goes and introduces you to a place like Osteria I Nonni. The restaurant, deli, and wine store (descendants of Buon Giorno, a former St. Paul landmark) combined sell enough Italian wine each year to turn the Mississippi red from Brooklyn Park to Lake Pepin.

Marc MacKondy, third-generation owner of the business, estimates that they're among the top 15 sellers of Italian wine nationwide--not the top 15 percent, the top 15. "Our wine sales are probably over $1 million a year," MacKondy guesses. "At the end of the day we sell more Italian wine than most places in the country."

And this is not just any wine. This is serious company-couch territory. In the restaurant, diners spend an average of $40 to $50 on a bottle--during the workweek. On the weekends, the average climbs to about $70.

MacKondy makes it his mission to find the best wine in Italy. He knows the country well through semi-annual trips and one six-year stint as an importer; consequently, he casts his net much wider than most. "If you're a large producer in Italy, I probably don't sell your wine," he says. "We try to stay with the smaller family-run estates. I think the wines have a better sense of place. In the search of quality, that's where it is." As a result, you'll find wines at Osteria that you won't find anywhere else in the Twin Cities.

Despite having cornered a swath of the market, MacKondy insists that his markup on wine is minimal compared to other restaurants. "That's not just because I want to be a nice guy, but because I've got a wine shop," he explains. "I'd look like a real jerk if a Barolo was $89 in the wine shop and $110 in the restaurant."

If your wallet won't accommodate a $90 bottle, no matter how good a deal it is, you can still glimpse the good life by ordering a glass. "That's a real true value," says MacKondy. "We pour wine by the glass that most places don't, simply because in their backyard they don't have 500 bottles of wine. I've poured $50 Brunello by the glass. It helps me go through my inventory."

MacKondy's personal favorite is Barolo. He collects the wine for his own cellar--"When I'm 50, if I do this right, I can be drinking 25-year-old Barolo"--but he also ensures that Osteria has plenty on hand. "Normally we carry about 50 Barolos," he says. "It's a big part of what we do."

Barolo is made from the Nebbiolo grape in northwest Italy, near Turin. When Nebbiolo is "on," it's said to produce one of the best wines on the planet. But it's a fickle grape--very sensitive to weather, soil, and a vintner's processing--and it must have exactly the right conditions to produce a good vintage. This uncertainty adds to the wine's cachet. The Barolos of recent years, from 1996 to 2001, have been five-star vintages, MacKondy says.

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