STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Wine is happiness in liquid form. It takes the edge off a bad day, brightens any conversation and improves your companion’s looks.
Trust me on this.
No wonder Durango restaurants are selling barrels of it, and beyond that, winning recognition for it. Four restaurants in Durango (all on Main Avenue, no less) scored Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence this year, equaling tony Telluride, creeping up on swanky Aspen and besting the much bigger Fort Collins.
It’s no accident, either. The owners and managers of the four winners – Guido’s Favorite Foods, Ken & Sue’s, Mahogany Grille and Seasons Rotisserie & Grill – put long hours of thought, effort, and yes, tasting, into creating their wine lists.
Other Durango restaurants did, too, of course, but these four managed to garner the award from the magazine that is the chronicler and watchdog of all things wine.
So what makes a restaurant worthy of the prestigious award?
“A thoughtful mix of top producers, varied regions and diverse styles with some vintage depth,” the magazine declares. The list itself must have “a logical, consistent organization with complete information including vintages and appellations and no spelling errors.”
It may seem an overly precise description for an inexact science, but there you have it. And don’t think you can simply apply, pay your $250 fee and earn the award.
Mike Shepherd, general manager of Mahogany Grille at the Strater Hotel, tried twice at a previous restaurant and failed. When he took the helm at Mahogany Grille, he focused on winning the award.
“There’s an element of keeping up with the Joneses if you want to be a premier restaurant in Durango,” he said. “It’s a way to attract a higher-end diner.”
In case you hadn’t noticed, Americans are drinking more wine than ever. At Seasons, wine accounts for 27 percent of business, compared to 6 percent for beer and spirits. At Guido’s, about 75 percent of customers drink wine with a meal, and a similar percentage quaff the magic elixir at the bar.
“An Italian would not consider eating a meal without a glass of wine,” said Susan Devereaux, chef and co-owner of Guido’s with her husband, Sean. “It’s expected.”
Now that’s how to live.
The Devereauxs fell in love with Italy when Sean went there to work for a year and brought the family with him. Susan learned Italian (which she also teaches here in Durango) and how to cook in the Italian way.
Susan channels her passion for the Italian way of life not only into her scrumptious central Italian food – think seafood pastas, lemony sauteed chicken, prosciutto with everything – but also into her exclusively Italian wine list.
Want a deep, rich, substantial Barolo? She has a 2004 Michele Chiarlo for $89, a relative value for the king of Italian wines. Prefer a lighter, softer white for these scorching days? Guido’s offers a fruity, peachy, Venica Pinot Grigio for $42. And who doesn’t love a glass of prosecco to start an evening? You can enjoy a bottle of La Marca on the terrace for $24.
So, who drinks wine in Durango?
Everyone, say the restaurateurs.
Everyone, says the wine expert at Star Liquors, Jolyn Fleshwood.
Well … not quite. The folks who buy the best vintages, pop for bottles from the world’s most expensive regions – Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa, Piedmont – are just who you’d expect them to be. They’re established professionals who travel frequently and who live and visit Durango from sophisticated urban areas such as Phoenix, San Francisco and Dallas.
But younger diners and consumers have tapped into wine’s allure, too. You have to love a beverage connoisseurs describe as “racy,” “lush,” “full-bodied” and “daring.” No one ever said that about a beer.
And while older dudes may order big cabs at the dinner table, young women are leading the way at the bar, restaurateurs say, ordering wines by the glass instead of cocktails and often cajoling their dates into joining them.
Nationwide, more people are drinking wine, and in Durango, we’re fortunate to have proprietors who have a passion for the grape. They bring that to their businesses, share it with their customers and fashion their cellars after their own tastes.
Seasons owner Karen Barger describes her own wine epiphany.
“Wine enhances a meal, like peanut butter and jelly, like cream and coffee,” she said. Can I find that perfect pairing of wine that makes food taste better?”
If you were dining on a beautiful piece of salmon with sauteed mushrooms from Oregon, for instance, she would search her Willamette Valley pinot noirs to pair with it, keeping harmony with the ingredients sourced from the same place.
Barger’s list is the most of comprehensive of the four award winners, and her restaurant, which she owns with husband Wayne, has held the award the longest, since 2003. Barger can taste up to 100 different wines in a week, always seeking the perfect match for her restaurant’s sophisticated Continental food.
If you’re in a celebratory mood, you can splurge on Harlan Estate’s 2006 Proprietary Red, a gigantic blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot, that carries a score of 94 points from Wine Spectator and a price of $640. If you simply want a tasty bottle of white to go with your grilled fish, you can find it in the 2010 Eberle Viognier for $42, from California.
Restaurateurs work hard to provide wines we can all buy, frequently offering bottles for less than $50. Keeping wine affordable means restaurants attract diners they otherwise might not and encourage younger customers to try wine. (At Star Liquors, where wine accounts for 60 percent of sales, the imposing line-up of under-$20 wines at the front entrance flies out the door.)
All four award-winning restaurants court the budget wine-buyer with tempting deals. Looking for a light, yet substantial wine to go with Mahogany Grille’s roasted chicken and spinach Parmesan? You might try its 2008 Simi Roseto for $29. Want something fresh yet full to complement Ken & Sue’s killer seared tuna appetizer with tangy slaw? The restaurant’s 2009 Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches chardonnay for $38 would fill the bill.
Barger has gone so far as to offer a 20-for-$20 list, with five whites, a sparkling wine, a rose and 13 reds to choose from. The wines are simple, but correct, she said, allowing diners a chance to experiment without breaking the bank. (I’m dying to know what the 2009 Chateau Blouin Bordeaux tastes like or the 2009 Mark West Pinot Noir, both on the list.)
The attempt to make wine affordable spurred the boom in the availability of wines by the glass. Believe it or not, as recently as a decade ago, only a few restaurants and even fewer bars offered the libation by the pour. And if they did, it was often so foul you couldn’t bring it to your lips without a grimace.
Not so any more and certainly not at the Wine Spectator four. You’ll find an elegant Ciacci Super Tuscan blend for $9.50 at Guido’s (amazing with a red-sauce pasta); a hearty Fox Glove Cabernet Sauvignon for $11 at Mahogany Grille (marvelous with the pepper steak); a striking glass of bubbly Mumm Napa Brut Prestige for $7.50 at Seasons (good anytime, with anything, in my book) and a smooth after-dinner Cavit Moscato for $7 at Ken & Sue’s.
So award yourself this summer. Buy a glass wine with dinner or at the bar – and find out why they call it happy hour.