June 15 2010 issue
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CLOSING TIME Innovative pricing features Tyler Colman
Innovative pricing features make wine more fun (and affordable) to order.
Michael Madrigale likes to send diners on a treasure hunt.
The wine director at Bar Boulud, Daniel Boulud’s outpost on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, always hides what he calls a "nugget" on his list: a wine that’s priced at the wholesale cost he paid for it. "It’s fun for people who do their homework and really love wine," he says.
A recent example was the 2007 Prager Riesling Smaragd Wachstum Bodenstein, which normally lists for $165, at $55. "Nobody understands this wine," says Madrigale, so he rewards those who do. Other nuggets have included Eric Texier’s 2000 Hermitage rouge at $69, M. Chapoutier’s 2004 Cornas Les Arènes at $55, and the 2004 Château-Grillet at $75.
Madrigale is in the vanguard of sommeliers who are bringing an element of fun and accessibility to exciting restaurant wine lists across the country—particularly in New York City. At 675 Bar in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, for example, diners can try their luck in a "cellar grab." Shelves in a EuroCave represent different price points, with color-coded dots indicating $100, $200, and $350 levels. Diners decide how much they want to spend and then grab off the shelf, not knowing what they will pull out. (If they are disappointed, they’re allowed one "throwback.") Recently on the $100 shelf was the 2005 Michel Niellon Chassagne-Montrachet; a 1999 Salvioni Brunello di Montalcino could be found on the $350 shelf. Laura Maniec, MS, beverage director at B.R. Guest Restaurants, which owns 675 Bar, says she designed the cellar grab concept so that diners could "choose their own adventure. I created it as a place for me to have drinks with my sommelier friends."
Wine pros are also targeted at ’inoteca’s two locations, on 24th Street and the Lower East Side. Nightly reserve lists from ’inoteca’s all-Italian wine selection appear after midnight, featuring gentle markups on many back vintages. Recent bargains have included the 1988 Elio Altare Barolo for $200 and the 2002 Edoardo Valentini Trebbiano d’Abruzzo for $115. Ethan Richardson, a partner at the restaurant, says the policy is partly intended to catch sommeliers coming off work, but is open to anyone. "You can get some really spectacular wines at a deep discount," he notes. "The only caveat is that you have to come late in the night."
Bar Henry, which opened last year in the city, is another place where aficionados can explore entertaining wines without breaking the bank. The 70-seat bar and restaurant on West Houston Street may be hard to find due to its subterranean location, but it’s worth doubling back to get to. Beverage manager John Slover has set up a reserve list with classics such as a ’71 Marcarini Barolo and Northern Rhônes from the ’80s and ’90s. Many of these rare wines are big-ticket items, though they are often priced well below other restaurants that might carry them.
But the real action at Bar Henry is on the "market" list, where 116 wines are available by the bottle, or a guest can chop the price in half and get a half-bottle. When that happens, the staff writes the wine’s name on a mirror across from the bar. Other diners can then order the remaining half or just a glass. Added to the bar’s 24 wines already available by the glass, this feature makes for an impressive and dynamic selection. Does Slover fear imitators? Quite the contrary. "I wish more places would institute it, because I like to drink good half-bottles," he says. "It’s perfect for high-traffic places with great wine lists." Indeed, The Counting Room in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has just announced a similar policy for almost its entire list.
On the other hand, for those who prefer their bottles big, there may be nothing more accessible than the large-format special at Bar Boulud. Almost every night, Madrigale descends to the cellar and brings up a big bottle, often with age on it, to pour by the glass. Most of these wines are priced at less than $25. Recent offerings have included a 1991 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon, a 1994 Léoville-Barton, and a 2002 Nicolas Potel Clos de la Roche. "There’s something about the big bottle that makes my heart leap," he says. "You don’t get to drink wines out of large format very often. When I walk down the restaurant with a jeroboam or a 6-liter, the mood is electric."