Exceptional Vintage

Richard Fleischman
Cesare's Wine Bar
102 S. Second St., Stillwater

You can't open a major publication these days without getting a sharp pop in the eye from some article hyping some new study that demonstrates how people who drink wine have healthier hearts and fewer strokes; live longer, less stressful lives; and, generally, awaken every day to the sound of angels trilling while their doe-eyed, doting romantic companions check the financial pages to see how much wealth the household has concentrated in the night. And so, wine sales shoot up. And so, wine bars open. And so, that most piteous of accursed wretches, the local wine and restaurant critic, finds her e-mail box nearly as full with queries about what to drink to live forever as she does with offers to extend body parts she does not possess.

Of course, I can't help but be suspicious of all these studies. For instance, let us consider several meals and their attendant beverages:

Meal, with coffee: At your desk, the night black and glittering on the other side of the office windows, fear for your job rising in your throat till you know how electric eels feel.

Meal, with Mountain Dew: In the cab of your truck, hurtling toward Indiana at sunrise, while your wife, a thousand miles distant, demands to know what your seven-year-old has done with the BB gun.

Meal, with water: Wishing the other monks would lighten up.

Meal, with milk-thistle tea: Staring listlessly at your plate of sprouts, wishing they would sprout along and grow into something interesting, like steaks.

Meal, with Kool-Aid: Plotting how many sticks of Juicy Fruit and/or Camel Lights you can sneak out of Mom's purse when the phone rings.

And of course, Meal, with wine: Across the table from people you love, or, at least, don't much want to stick a carving fork into, drawn out over a few hours, and including both laughter and conversation that allows you to untangle your thoughts, unburden your soul, and both problem-solve and appreciate the various levels of your life.

Now, for me, only one question remains: What were all of you Johnny-come-latelys doing with your days before you decided to have a glass of wine and live a little? Were you just crouched in your basements, clutching, white-knuckled, your Prevention magazines, staving off death with the very force of your pop-eyed terror? I mean, did you ever have any fun? I recently read that pharmaceutical companies are hoping to be able to get the beneficial properties of wine into a pill, so that you can do an end-run around all that pleasure, relaxation, and conversation, and get right to what really matters: eating pills so you can work harder and earn more, so you can afford more pills.

Me, I think I'll continue to choose pleasure as the reason to drink wine, especially now that I've rifled through the joyful medicine cabinet of Cesare's Wine Bar in Stillwater. Now, Cesare's opened about a year ago, and has a wine program so big and so well thought-through it boggles the imagination. The list features more than 400 bottles, relies on a generous system of four-glasses-to-the-bottle glass-pours (instead of the standard five), and has a terrifically big-hearted policy of opening any under-$80 bottle on the list if you'll buy two glasses of it (and pay half the total bottle price). Furthermore, there are lots of cheap wines for folks on a budget (try the unusual, muscular, plum-coffee of Argentinian wine Bonarda from Alamos for $19), as well as amazing opportunities for wine geeks, such as the "verticals," in which you can get three bottles of the same wine from different vintages. For example, $100 gets you bottles of Domaine Sainte-Anne, a Côtes-du-Rhône Villages from Saint Gervais, from the years 1996, 1998, and 1999. Try them all together, and you should learn things about the differences between those Côtes-du-Rhône vintages that other people can just read about. Try them all together and drop me a postcard--I am intensely curious.

For wine folks who were interested in wine before wine was the new shark cartilage, this wine list answers questions you didn't even know you had. Questions like, Is there an American Albariño? Yes! From Havens, it costs $32, and is fairly thin, yet fragrant with the smell of almonds. Can a Malbec cost $108? Yes! (Again, drop me a postcard.) Is there any possible way I can demonstrate my knowledge of how to pronounce the Austrian grape Grüner Veltliner when there are actual members of the opposite sex around? Yes, yes, and a thousand times yes! (It's groon-er felt-leener, iffin' you were wondering.)

In short, this place has the kind of wine program that could only have been put together by people who care truly, madly, and deeply about wine, and a little digging has revealed that this is so. I talked on the phone to one of the four owners of the place for this story, and it turns out that these four owners are two married couples, Richard Lay and Kirsten Lysne, and Robert and Leslie Alexander. The Alexanders had been involved in the wine business, and the two couples met when they all became leaders in the local chapter of the national Slow Food movement, a group dedicated to old-style food ways, which includes everything from artisanal, small-batch cheeses to preserving the kinds of livestock, fruits, and vegetables that our grandparents and great-great-great-grandparents ate, not the kind currently best suited for factory farming.  

Anyhow, over the years, the four got to fantasizing about the elements that would go into the ideal wine bar, and one day, says Richard Lay, the phone rang and it was Leslie Alexander asking if he remembered those conversations, and did he want to see a building? That began, says Lay, "the 100-day march. I started drawing up plans that night, then we did all the building and work ourselves, except for some mechanicals, and then we opened." If that seems to violate all the laws you know about buildings and building, please know that Lay, conveniently enough, is an architect, while Robert Alexander is, conveniently again, a cabinetmaker. Leslie Alexander has a background as a pastry chef, and anyone who knows about restaurants and restaurant building can only presume that Kirsten Lysne's day job as a psychologist came into play as well. By fall of 2002, Cesare's was born--and however you think that word is pronounced, you're likely wrong. It's pronounced in the most counter-intuitive way possible: Chezz-a-ray's.

The first time I visited the restaurant was last winter, and I never wrote about it because all of the foods that required more than simple assembly on the plate were truly a mess. I mean, we're talking gnocchi that tasted and looked like lumps of school craft paste. And yet, I kept going back, because the wine list is so utterly captivating, the service so friendly and well educated in that most Stillwater of ways, and the warm, well polished wood of the restaurant space is so soothing to be around. When I went, though, I mostly stuck with the excellent olive, wine, and cheese plates. The Cesare's gang works closely with Scott Pikovsky of Great Ciao, whom I've written about before, and consequently showcase some of the best salamis, freshest olives, and more interesting cheeses around. You really can't go wrong with the wine-lovers' plate, a $15 assortment of all of the above. A big plate of warm bread comes with your wine order, along with a fruity little bowl of top-flight olive oil, which is nice.

Lately though, I have been delighted--and I am not kidding you, absolutely delighted, with the kind of delight that won't fit into any tablet or gel-cap--to find the kitchen catching up to the wine list. Last week, for instance, I had one of the best salads of the year, a collection of mixed greens featuring both lettuces and a biting-but-sweet green the likes of which I have never seen before--and I've seen a lot of greens in my day. It was an exotic, thick-stemmed little plant with purplish stalks and nodding yellow flower-heads, and it just about jumped from the plate, saying, Different things are afoot here!

Turns out those fascinating greens come from local Twin Pines farm, and they paired nicely with a few slices of local apple and a not-too-sweet scattering of fat candied pecans. An enormous plate of risotto cakes ($8) followed: charming fellows brown on the outside, glossy inside with good olive oil, topped with a dark cloak of long-cooked tomatoes, olives, figs, and balsamic vinegar that combined to taste like the end of fall itself, with all the concentration and salt you need to get through the winter. A couple of entrées were plain, good cooking of the most comforting kind: A pistachio-crusted chicken breast ($19) was a quarter chicken de-boned, marinated with preserved lemons and rosemary, coated in a thick mosaic of chopped pistachios, and cooked till it was absolutely tender. The meat was sweet and simple and the pistachio crust plain the way good bread is plain, which is to say, just as it should be. The bird was served with a breathtakingly rich Castilla olive-risotto in which piquant, chubby, purple olives swam with good olive oil among the plump grains of risotto. Plain, sautéed pattypans made themselves friendly on another side of the plate. It was a dish to please the most jaded epicure or the most restaurant-timid Marine-on-St. Croix grandma, which is quite a feat.  

A seared piece of beef tenderloin ($25) was adeptly cooked, perfectly seared around the edges and well seasoned, and while the square of thinly sliced, layered potatoes that came alongside were under-cooked, the place is definitely on the right track. Okay, admittedly, desserts were still lackluster (a too-thick, too-dry blueberry tart on a macadamia crust, $6, tasted mostly like a packaged cereal bar), but ever since the restaurant hired young chef Per Carver to head the kitchen and dropped lunch service, the food at Cesare's has gotten better and better. If they keep this up, they'll be one of the prime destinations in the St. Croix Valley.

Of course, the meal I had was made terrifically more fun because of Cesare's excellent wine. For our meal we ordered exclusively from the 21-item by-the-glass list, and tried a mushroomy Jaume Llopart Alemany Cava ($8), a wine with the distinct nose of leaf-raking on a dry day; the vegetal, acidic, salad-perfect Grüner Veltliner from Llois ($6); and the Ridge Zinfandel flight, for which you get half-glasses of three different Ridge Zinfandels, namely the Three Valleys, Sonoma Station, and Lytton Springs bottlings ($15), along with an incredibly detailed placemat explaining the difference between the wines--it's like a free 20-minute wine course.

Our server was even sweet enough to split the single-glass orders of the two whites into two glasses for us, and so we soon had two or three million fancy pieces of stemware on the table, and felt like Henry VIII, but without all those pesky wives to behead or commoners questioning our motives. I mean, we felt like the luckiest people on Earth, blessed with the greatest bounty, the best wines, and the absolute most stemware possible. And it was right there and then that I began to suspect that the evening was the health equivalent of a big vitamin shot, and that it's not just wine that's heart-healthy and good for you, but it's also nice servers, good olives, and acres of stemware.

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