By Pam George

Between April 24 and 29, corks will pop in Wilmington restaurants. That’s because City Restaurant Week is returning to Wilmington, and patrons want an excellent wine to complement their dining deals. But it’s not easy to craft a memorable wine list. The program must address the restaurant’s concept, cuisine and target audience. 

Here’s some insight into the process. 

The Perfect Symphony

Food and wine should work in harmony. “The kitchen makes the music, and the beverage is there to sprinkle in the lyrics,” agrees David Govatos, owner of Swigg, who helps Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar and other restaurants with their lists. 

In Bardea Food & Drink’s case, the music comes first. Italy inspires the menu, and the wines are from that country or made with an Italian varietal grown elsewhere, explains Chris Unruh, sommelier. Fortunately, options are plentiful.

Caffe Gelato in Newark, however, crosses culinary boundaries. In addition to Italian wines, the Main Street eatery has Spanish reds and French whites. That’s partially because Caffe Gelato is also a wine bar with the accolades to prove it. The restaurant has repeatedly received the Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence.

Bardea Steak’s list also takes a global approach, but the emphasis is on wines that go well with red meat. “A lot of people come to a steakhouse and want big, bold California wines,” Unruh notes.

Bold flavor profiles are also on display at Ciro Food & Drink on the Wilmington Riverfront, says owner Venu Gaddamidi, who added wines that can hold their own next to chef Michael DiBianca’s dishes. 

As for brands, expect an innovative kitchen to offer adventurous wines. “You want to give the list an identity and create a unique experience,” Govatos says. For the most part, beverage managers will choose wines that aren’t common in retail liquor stores. For instance, domestic selections might come from upstate New York or Virginia versus California, and imports may include Canary Island wines, he says.

Paul Bouchard, managing partner at Tonic Seafood & Steak, puts effort into finding value-driven wines that reflect a winemaker’s craftsmanship. As a result, you won’t find wines designed to taste consistently the same from year to year. Those wines are “a science experiment,” he says.

Size Matters — Sometimes

Both Ciro and Bardea have limited storage, which can affect the wine list’s size. On the larger side, Caffe Gelato has storage space for some 3,500 bottles — more than 200 wines — many of which are in a glass-enclosed wine room and a below-ground cellar. 

Nevertheless, Caffe Gelato hands customers an easy-to-hold 11-by-17-inch paper with white on one side and red on the other. Some wines are grouped by varietal, while others are listed as Italian, French or “interesting.”

Tonic separates wines by varietal, while Snuff Mill groups them under red, rose, white and sparkling. (There is a separate category for after-dinner drinks.) These user-friendly formats detailed on a page — or two — are an approachable alternative to the leather-bound tomes of the past. (Think Dilworthtown Inn.) 

Riley Quinn, one of the new owners of Bin 66 in Rehoboth, who previously worked in New Castle County restaurants, says many restaurants have trimmed the offerings to make the list approachable. However, there’s a place for them in the right venue, Govatos maintains. “The theater of it has a luster.”

The Price to Pay

Book or paper, wine lists in splurge-worthy restaurants will include special occasion wines. For instance, Bardea has a category called “Money Doesn’t Matter,” with wines ranging from $500 to $1,100, and there are regular customers who prefer that section, Unruh says. Bardea Steak’s higher-priced wines can cost $1,800.

These high-end wines will give most people sticker shock, but a good wine program will have a variety of prices, and yes, there is a markup to pay for glassware, storage and the server pouring the wine for you.

Most restaurants are limited in the space they have to store wines, which can impact their wine menu. Newark’s Caffe Gelato, however, can store 3,500 bottles.

Don’t hesitate to order the least-expensive option if you enjoy it. “Seriously, we industry people care a lot less about this than you think,” Quinn says. But a low fee isn’t always a good thing. Indeed, stay away from wine if other patrons in the restaurant aren’t drinking it, she suggests. That restaurant clearly isn’t known for its vino.

If the restaurant lacks trained wine personnel or the server is busy, download the app Vivino, suggests Ryan German, owner of Caffe Gelato. Take a photo of the wine list or label or search by wine using the program. The app then pulls up the wine’s rating, review, price, tasting note and suggested food pairings.

Always be honest about what you’d like to spend, Quinn says. “So many people get uncomfortable when we ask about price, but the reality is that this is as important as flavor,” she says.

According to Wine Enthusiast magazine, industry-wide markups average two and a half to three times wholesale costs. So, if a bottle’s wholesale price is $10, you might pay $15 in a retail store and up to $30 in a restaurant. Generally, the higher markups are on the cheaper wines.

The price will depend on a restaurant’s overhead — wages, rent and food costs — and the menu’s price point. A casual restaurant, for instance, won’t offer $100 bottles of wine. Restaurants may also put a lower price on a wine if they can’t store it for prolonged periods.  

Another way to save is to take advantage of area wine promotions. For instance, Caffe Gelato’s bottles are 50% off on Tuesdays. On Wednesdays, the restaurant features $6 glasses of featured wine.

By The Glass

Modest drinkers and those who like to change wines with their courses prefer wines by the glass. With more than 30 choices, Caffe Gelato can quickly oblige. But, again, storage space will impact the offerings. Since Bardea has more limited space, Unruh likes to feature fun varietals, such as a Nero di Troia, an ancient red grape from Italy’s Puglia region (the “boot heel”).

An extensive wine-by-the-glass program also requires a preservation system. Without one, the shelf-life of an open bottle is limited, and after a requisite number of days, it’s poured down the drain. As a result, some restaurants only offer more popular products to reduce waste. 

Some experts recommend asking if the bottle for a glass of wine is newly opened to avoid getting something that’s sat around. It’s good advice, but some bartenders may have just come on duty — they have no clue.

Pro Tips

Not sure what to order? Tell the server which wines you like to drink — and which you don’t. No wine jargon is necessary, Quinn says.

Gaddamidi agrees. “We can make wine pairings super complicated or simple,” he says. “I like simple: Big, bold dish gets big, bold wines, and delicate and nuanced dishes get delicate and nuanced wine.”

When the server offers a taste, swirl the wine in the glass and lower your face to the opening — forehead close — to see if you smell vinegar, wet cardboard or nail polish remover — all signs that the wine has faults, Quinn. But refrain from refusing your selection if you don’t like the taste. 

“Refusing a good, fault-free bottle of wine is a cost that has to be entirely absorbed by the restaurant or bar, where margins are already thin,” Quinn says.

Restaurants want you to be happy, so the more information you can give them, the more satisfied you will feel.

 “We listen to their needs and get them what they want,” Gaddamidi says. “The best wine in the world is the one you like — this is my answer to anyone who asks.”

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.

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