New contributor Chad Walsh will be writing about wine and other beverages a lot for us starting now, so we wanted to kick off with a view into his psyche. For his debut, we asked him how he developed the wine list for The Dutch, the NYC restaurant from chef Andrew Carmellini and his team, where Walsh serves as Beverage Manager.

I’ve always liked to think of a wine in terms of a narrative, not just the potential of its bouquet to fill a novella, but the story of its place, its authors and the people that have made it available to you. Your own experience, the venue and the moment, can layer like in Borges, and the “why” of that choice, in a restaurant at least, has a lot to do with the narrative that the chef and the sommelier have hopefully spent some time thinking about.

When The Dutch first opened it was only the second of its kind, from the Andrew Caremllini-led team behind Locanda Verde, and its mandate was to be amazing and comfortable. Despite the deep connection to regional American cooking, the wines we all pictured our guests drinking were Champagne, Chablis and Chambertin (among other fancy French wines), and it was totally reasonable — those were the wines we wanted to drink with over-the-top platters from the raw bar and beef tenderloin cooked in a hay and salt crust. There were many great meals in that first year, and accolades to prove it, but something funny happened as the plans for Lafayette began to come together. Our mandate evolved, not just because all of our favorite esoteric French wines would be prominently featured on the new list, but because 2012 was actually a sort of watershed moment for wine made right here in the U.S.

  • Close to home, ’12 was, frankly, the best vintage ever for the Finger Lakes, which finally allowed the sometimes decade-plus year-old plantings of red varieties to ripen fully. Not only are the early releases of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc (not to mention Teroldego and Blaufrankisch, known ‘round there as Lemburger) promising, when the more serious wines are released later this year look for wines actually worth cellaring. It also gave the Riesling growers about as much choice as they wanted, and older vines that ripen grapes evenly[*] should make stunning examples, both sweet and dry.  Don't drink them all at once though, this past winter has been tough and yields this year will be low.
  • We didn’t have any wines from Long Island when the restaurant opened, not so much an oversight, but more a result what a lot of people see as a failure to reconcile the cost of the wines with the quality of what’s in the bottle. David Page and Barbara Shinn (who basically invented "farm-to-table" at the Greenwich Village restaurant Home in the 90's) have been making wines “the right way” for years, including an initially controversial commitment to Biodynamics. Patrick Caserta, a regional native who had done stints at Rudd and Le Pin and had been making wine at Plumpjack, came on board in '12, and they are one of the leading members of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing organization. Their Pinot Blanc, fermented naturally and left in 500-liter barrels with a bit of room for air, is the beginning of a new chapter for a region that is probably best known for trying to make “okay” imitations of Bordeaux. Look forward to their  Chardonnay and Riesling from a neighbor's site to be released in '14.
  • Although it was visible on the horizon to the people who were tasting tons of wine every day, the glasses in front of Jon Bonné was tasting and writing about the wines that he would include in his The New California Wine. 2011 was a difficult vintage for much of California, but cold-climate grapes like Cortese and Gruner, which could weather the extremes better than Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, were actually good. The book, which came out last year, tied up the loose ends that New York sommeliers loved about California: old vines of Gamay, Trousseau and Carignan, made by people who have read a lot of Rudolph Steiner and make nettle tea by the hectoliter.
  • Santa Barbara is beginning to subdivide itself more specifically, and new AVAs like Happy and Ballord Canyons, which are far better for darker varieties than the Burgundian stuff usually fermenting in the Lompoc wine ghetto, made some world-class Grenache and Syrah, to name a couple.
  • A similar story, in which the Willamette Valley begins to classify itself more specifically — see Ribbon Ridge — some winemakers are venturing outside the typical confines of Pinot Noir and the valley itself. Try any of Teutonic’s blends, whether Blanc de Pinot Noir and Chasselas, or Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Blanc, and you will get a sense that fresh and aromatic wines seem natural to the region.

The thing about a wine list, though, is that it can’t just be a solipsistic collection of wines that the buyer wants to drink — if I created a wine list based on my own desire, there might be more than a hundred Champagnes, verticals of white Burgundy and German and Austrian Riesling, a page of beer, and almost no Cabernet Sauvignon.  We could also only buy every kooky American wine, regardless of quality or personality, but I can’t imagine The Dutch ever going all-American. It would be a disservice to our guests to ignore what the Recoltant-Manipulants (Grower Champagnes) are making from just a single tenth of a hectare[‡], or the weirdly easy market for Bordeaux with a bit of age that aren’t first growths, and yet are drinking so wonderfully, e.g. Beychevelle 1970.

We want the wine list at The Dutch to be a conversation and not an argument. Jim Clendenen planted Nebbiolo in Santa Barbara in 1994, and now the '04s, with a decade of development, can be tasted alongside Barolo from one of the Conternos. Suddenly, an argument is being made for American wine based on terroir, instead of style, and it’s not contrived to feature as many of the good ones as you can. There is plenty of cheap wine, with some quality, coming from South America, Australia and New Zealand, but with the delicacy of what’s available right here, what’s the point? The absence of Malbec isn’t a challenge, it’s an endorsement of Zinfandel from Contra Costa, Carignan from Mendocino and Grenache from El Dorado. A great wine list gives you everything you want, even if it’s a surprise.

[*] Over-simply, a grape ripens in two ways, first, in the way that most consider, in terms of its sugar, and therefore its potential alcohol.  Grapes also ripen in a way that we refer to as phenolic, the quality of the stems and seeds and other aspects of the vine’s anatomy, which can negatively impact the quality of the wine if they are young and green.  Just because a twelve year old weighs two hundred pounds doesn’t mean he’ll have the narrative of an adult at a normal weight, you know?

[‡] Cedric Bouchard, Jerome Prevost, etc.

Read these wine stories on Food Republic: