I’ve been drinking wine and loving it for more years than I care to count, but in the unique way wine manages to be both celebratory and sustaining, I’ve always thought of it as more of an art form than a simple entertainment. Wine is one of the few things in life that can be either playful or serious, sometimes, depending on the occasion (or the vintage), both at the same time. But from a restaurant’s perspective, building a cellar can be an ongoing conundrum. Even a lot of money invested towards creating a stellar list doesn’t ensure the final product will have heart, must less integrity.
For a start, you need to remember that no two customers will look upon your list (and judge it) through the same eyes. Some diners come in hiding their preferences, or not knowing them, while others wear their new found expertise like a badge of honor, or use it like a high powered flashlight.
A few years back, hoping to address this diversity of interest, we created narratives for our wine book - with chapters titled Local Heroes, Hands Across the Water, Off the Beaten Path. We even called one 97+, because while we held the opinion Robert Parker’s rating system was deeply flawed, if that’s what customers came in looking for, we wanted them to have it. We were happy, if not relieved, when diners gravitated to Local Heroes, followed closely by the foreign entries on the list, but we had to admit we still hadn’t cracked the code.
Though we live in the heart of arguably the best wine growing region in America, our list has always had a healthy percentage of foreign inclusions. It was our hope that the vintners who might become regular customers (they did and thankfully still are) already had plenty of access to local expressions of terroir and style. What they sought when they dined out - what we sought ourselves - was expanding a life-long love of the grape and the almost mystical way it transforms itself - with a little help from the human hand - in the bottle.
Figuring out the secret of what drives an exciting wine list is a conversation we’ve had with every wine director we’ve ever hired. Our litmus test was never how much ego they brought to the job - too little and the list floundered, too much and we soon parted ways - but how creatively they tapped into a hunt for gems, how closely they wore humility next to prowess.
Which brings us to our new list, and the talented woman now guiding it.
I can give you Alexis Iaconis’ impressive achievements - she was Head Sommelier at the Restaurant at Meadowood, and has reached level three in the four level Court of Master Sommeliers - but a careful reading of her résumé does more than shout accomplishment. To command respect in what remains the still very cliquish, male centric world of wine takes hard work, long hours, and incredible focus. It takes mastering the ability to communicate what you know with elegance instead of verbosity. She worked as a food runner at Cyrus to get her fine dining knowledge, and before that was the brains (if not the heart) behind the still much lamented Green Grocer in Windsor. Once upon a time, after art school and the CIA in New York, she had thought work behind the scenes in the kitchen was the future, but life had other plans. These now include, in addition to being Barndiva's Wine Director, the demanding full time job of Hospitality Director at Copain Winery where she manages the tasting room, direct sales, a huge wine club and all their events, while raising two great kids with new husband Matt Iaconis. Who just happens to be a terrific winemaker.
In the course of getting to know Alexis I’ve learned that it’s not the bragging rights of having an exquisite palate that is her favorite part of the life she’s chosen, it’s sharing her excitement for wine and its flavors, passing on the story behind the region, the history and culture that cross-pollinates wine and food. I don’t just love the fact we have a woman now managing our wine program, I love the fact it's this woman. One who cares about how grapes are grown, and every step they take after they leave the vine. Because it’s the same way we feel about food.
It's early days in knowing what lasting changes Alexis will bring to our cellar, but we’ve already seen an end to the line of rolling suitcases that used to form on tasting days. There is a sharper focus on balancing new winemakers with revered ones, with special care taken to bring back old friends. With Lukka and Cathryn’s help we’ve introduced a single page “snapshot” of wines-by-the-glass, splits and specials treasures for those who don’t want to peruse the book. And for those guests who have longed to taste a glass of a precious vintage without committing to a whole bottle, Alexis has instigated a Coravin program where single glasses can be extracted from bottles without pulling the cork - a thin hollow needle is inserted to withdraw the wine before the cork reseals, with argon gas preventing any oxidation in the bottle.
Perhaps the art of curating a discerning wine list is allowing that it is an organic document, and so, by its very nature, will always be a work in progress. Therein lies the fun and the challenge. I look forward to growing the list in more ways that fully reflect the diversity of talent possessed by the growers and vintners we are so fortunate to know. And most especially, with Alexis' help, to revitalizing our commitment to creating a cellar with a personality reflective of the multi-faceted Barndiva experience.
For the look at our complete current wine list, click here.
For a look at how Alexis is pairing our wonderful menu for New Years Eve , click here.