Elsewhere in Europe

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

Cabeza o Corazon?

Drink First, Think later? Think First, Drink Later? With Spanish Wine, Either Works.

There are two ways to approach Spanish wine: with the head or with the heart.

Talk to Bill Summerville, managing director at Solera and the recently relocated La Belle Vie, and you'll glimpse the romance of the Iberian grape. Summerville traveled twice to Spain last year to tour vineyards, and the rocky peninsula hasn't yet released its grip on him. He tasted Basque wine along the northern coast and sherry in the south. He reveled in the dramatic landscape of the west coast. Everywhere, his hosts plied him with sumptuous meals.

"You're either eating to death or starving to death," he recalled. "If you hit two wineries a day they both want to feed you."

In Priorat, a dry, steep region just south of Barcelona, lives *ACCENT SECOND E Rene Barbier, the vintner's version of a mad scientist, according to Summerville, and one of Spain's top winemakers. "He's a big burly guy wearing shorts and a beard and these lace-up espadrilles. He reminded me of a cross between a hippie and Grizzly Adams," says Summerville.

Barbier can dress funny if he likes: Founders of dynasties get to do that. He's one of a group of winemakers who moved into Priorat a few decades ago and have met with remarkable success. "Now their kids are making wine and they're actually marrying each other, which is kind of scary," laughs Summerville. "There's definitely an artsy feel to it. Kind of hippie in a 2000 kind of way."

Barbier's eccentricities show up in the details of the winemaking process. "His winery is a clash of the smartest winemaking methods around, and incredibly low technology," says Summerville. "He'll cover a window with cardboard so a room will stay a little cooler."

You can judge for yourself--Solera offers a few selections from Barbier: the Clos Nelin 2003, for $59, and the Clos Mogador 2002, for $145. Though $59 is more than the average customer spends on a wine bottle, Summerville said, the Clos Nelin is a criminally good deal. "I should be charging so much more money for it because it's incredibly limited," he says. "There's not much of it, and we didn't mark it up much. We got maybe two cases."

A Classic Glass

Drink the Essence of Greece on a Busy Corner in Minneapolis

On a chilly October night, the headlight-smeared streets of Minneapolis seem very far indeed from the rocky seashores of Greece. If you're the literary type, you can close the distance with that dusty volume of Homer stashed somewhere in the basement. If you're more the bon vivant, you start mapping your route to the nearest bottle of Amethystos or Moschofilero.

If that's the case, you'll most likely wind up at the northeast corner of Lyndale and Lake, following the smell of roast lamb through the door of It's Greek to Me, a family-owned restaurant that's spent nearly three decades educating Minnesotans about Grecian cuisine and wine.

Co-owner Aris Arambadjis says their efforts haven't been in vain: folks in the Twin Cities have come to know and appreciate Greek wine. "They used to be hesitant before, because all they knew was retsina," he laughs. The pine-flavored wine has little appeal for people raised far from the Aegean. "Unless you're familiar with [retsina] or you acquire a taste for it, you don't like it."

Arambadjis is proud of the fact that the landlubbers who frequent his place can tell a Skouras from a Kouros. "They know what to order," he says. "Because we've been there and we have our regular customers, they know what wine they want." He doesn't often see diners falling back on more familiar wines, either. The restaurant lists a small selection of California wines, but sells few.

Over the years, at the same time that Midwesterners have been warming up to Greek wine, many farmers in the northern part of the country have shifted from growing crops to producing wine, and Greek wine itself has gotten better. "Greece became more adventurous in the last 20 years," says Arambadjis. "Northern Greece was more into agriculture before, and vegetables. The past 25 years, northern Greece started to get more wines."

The wine list at It's Greek to Me is a contradiction in terms: Though you'd have a hard time hunting these bottles down anywhere else in town, the prices don't reflect their scarcity. Most are priced between $16 and $26.

One of Arambadjis's favorites is the Moschofilero Boutari, for $26 ($6.50 by the glass). This is a powerful, flowery white that makes you hungry for mousaka and spanakopita. That's with the first sip. By the end of the first glass, that painting of the Greek fishing village starts to look familiar. You start to wonder if a wine can taste like the sea, or at least like being lost. As you finish the last forkful of galakotobouriko (phyllo-wrapped, cinnamon-sprinkled egg custard), you're pretty sure that you've remembered exactly where that dog-eared copy of The Odyssey is, and you're pretty sure you need to go home and find it and read it right away, before the taste of orange blossoms fades from your tongue.

Don't fear the Riesling

The Grape of Germany Might Seduce You If You Give It a Chance

Here's the conundrum. On the one hand, we've got a city full of Deutschophiles. Folks who not only worship the brat, but who will eagerly scarf down heaping platefuls of wienerschnitzel and sauerbraten and any other German food you place in front of them. These folks will also gladly sample German beer till their heads swim. Where they draw the line is at German wine.

Erica Christ, longtime bar manager at the Black Forest, Minneapolis's oldest German restaurant, understands this reluctance. She says most people tend to shy away from Riesling (which she calls "the grape of Germany") because they think it'll be something like grape-flavored Shasta, without the fizz. That's not the case, she says.

"The easy way to characterize Riesling is sweetness balanced with acidity," she says. "It makes the wines very accessible. They're very fresh-tasting and they go well with food. You can get a medium-bodied Riesling that you could have with a beef stroganoff."

Stroganoff with white wine?

Sure, says Christ--the acidity of the wine is the perfect foil for a dense, creamy dish.

But even if you wanted to order a German red to go with your rouladen, you couldn't. Not by the bottle, anyway. "There's not that many good [red wines] to start with, and if they make decent ones they just stay in Germany," says Christ. "They're hard to get." By the glass, she does offer Spätburgunder from Allendorf, which she describes as a late-ripening clone of Pinot Noir.

Christ makes out the wine list once a year, after she tastes her distributor's selection. She's been to Germany for a wine seminar, which she says is one of the reasons she understands the immensely complicated ("Byzantine," she calls it) terminology of German wines. That and because she's worked at the Black Forest for 14 years and she's the daughter of the owners.

"It's organized along harvest," she explained. "Kabinett is the first designation; that's a regular harvest wine. It's light-bodied and sort of acidic. Then there's Spätlese. That's harvested a week to 10 days later. Then Auslese. Which means, literally, picked out, left out. That's 7 to 10 days later. [Then] you have to pick around rotten grapes."

Further designations apply to grapes picked even later--until the grapes are in the state called noble rot.

Each winemaker has to send the wine for testing every year in order to be granted one of the above designations, says Christ. "It's very tightly controlled. They don't want anything going out of Germany that doesn't reflect well on Germany. [The wines] have to meet minimum quality standards. The wine cannot go below or it doesn't get to say what it wants to say [on the label]."

Because of the complexity of the German system, Christ has found that having her servers become familiar with a few wines works better than asking them to memorize descriptions of every wine on the list. "They pitch a couple wines that they can describe really well, instead of trying to get the whole list under their belt," she says. "If the server likes it, they can sell it much better."

The wines are all within a narrow price range: $20 to 40. "That's the range of customer we have, for one thing," says Christ. "I could go up on a higher end but I probably wouldn't sell as many."

She doesn't fault her customers for that. "When I go out to eat, for the most part, I'm not going to spend more than $30 on a bottle of wine," she admits.

That said, she does urge diners to buy bottles instead of wine by the glass: They'll get a better wine, she says, for just a few dollars more. Those willing to splurge on the expensive wines here can actually wind up with the best deal of all. Because she wants those wines to stay within sight of the rest of the list, Christ doesn't mark them up as much as she does a less costly wine.

The 1999 Schloss Johannisberg ($38) is one of those-and one Christ wouldn't even have been able to get but for her Chicago distributor, who found some that had been produced under a second label.

Another find is the 2004 Ürziger Würtzgarten ($36). The grape is grown on red volcanic clay, says Christ, and it has a flavor like nothing else. "Wines grown 10 feet away taste totally different," she says. "It's sort of half way to a Gewürtztraminer."

She suggests tasting it alongside a more traditional Riesling: "It's a nice experiment."

But to do that, you'd have to order a bottle.

Michael the Lionhearted

Vincent's Sommelier Explains How to Get Over That Whole French Wine Thing

To break the rules, first you must know the rules. This must be Michael Quinn Jr.'s motto, though he never said as much. But he talks about wine with the irreverent glee of a hacker describing his first break-in, and with not a trace of the solemnity you'd expect from the sommelier of a top-flight downtown French restaurant.

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."

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.

There's also the question of how to produce a proper Barolo: Some (the traditionalists) say the only way to do it is to let the tannins soften for a decade or so; others (the modernists) say it's okay to produce a fruitier version of the wine, one that doesn't require so much aging to make it drinkable. The Barolos made by the traditionalists are collector's items (read: valuable). All told, there are more than 1,000 producers of Barolo.

MacKondy also stocks bottles of less expensive wines, like a $13.99 Micante Solo Maremma 2003 from southwestern Tuscany, 100 percent Sangiovese, on which he'll stake his name. "There's a big misconception that all of our wine's expensive," he says. "But the wines I do have under $20 I would put up against anybody's, because they're ruthlessly chosen."

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