Drinking wine is like kissing: You can read about it, look at it on the Internet, and talk about it till the cows come home, but that ain’t nothing but dust in a tornado compared to 30 seconds alone in a room with it.
For more on the first part of my example, take a look at some of the notes being passed at your nearest middle school; for more on the second part, slip into a booth at Spasso restaurant in Minnetonka, because it features a wine-program that could change your life.
Why? Because Spasso is attached to a wine shop, and it has a policy that you can buy any bottle from the 1,600 or so in the shop and bring it in to the restaurant to drink with your meal—without paying a corkage fee, the usual fee that restaurants charge to bring in wine. This means that if you have a great fascination with Oregon Pinot Noirs, for instance, you can browse the wine shop’s selection and try something you’ve never had before.
If you know nothing about Pinot Noir, you could spend all year reading about the “heartbreak grape,” the hardest-to-make wine in all the world, revered for its ability, at its best, to taste like a chocolate thunderbolt of smoky berries, and despised, at its worst, for its tendency to create sour, thin grape water. You could also spend all year reading about Domaine Serene, the Oregon winery that is a standard-bearer for American Pinot Noir, with its perfectly cool and moderate weather and red volcanic soils. You could track Domaine Serene’s gazillion awards, and discover that one critic has called it the “Château Lafite of Oregon,” and that the winery’s Evenstad Reserve was named one of the top wines of 2008 by Wine Spectator. Still, all that will make you only about 5 percent as knowledgeable as someone who orders a glass of Domaine Serene’s Evenstad Reserve at Spasso.
This is what happens then: Your server brings you a glass of wine that’s as black as ink, as silky as the thick air on a stormy summer night, as concentrated as a code, and perfumed with chocolate, pepper, and blackberries. You sink into the glass in blissful reverie—an unusual occurrence in a booth in Minnetonka.
The fact that Evenstad Reserve is on Spasso’s list at all points to the second remarkable part of the restaurant’s wine program. In addition to not charging a corkage for any wine from the shop, Spasso sells all the wines on their wine-list at retail prices, as opposed to the standard 200- to 400-percent markup. So while Evenstad Reserve, a $60-on-release wine that starts selling for more when supplies run low, would typically cost $200 in a restaurant (making a glass pour prohibitive—glass pours are usually calculated at a quarter or a fifth of a bottle price, so a $200 bottle would maybe $30 or $50 by the glass), here they charge $19.
If all this talk of wine markups is making your head hurt, you’re not alone. Wine pricing is one of the most annoying aspects of the restaurant experience for aficionados and neophytes alike. Wine lovers resent that a lot of restaurants justify phenomenal markups by pointing out the profit on wine is what floats a business that can’t make money on food. The thriftily minded constantly question whether they have to tip on wine. (The short answer: Yes, you must tip on wine.) People who know little about wine tend to go into reading wine lists with a feeling of having already been defeated: All this obscure international geography, all these peculiar names, and doubtless whatever you can afford you won’t like. But Spasso solves all these problems. Wine newcomers will give thanks for the exceedingly customer-friendly marginal notes that give a wine’s point scores from various publications. (For instance, I’m not familiar with California’s Dierberg Estate Vineyards, but after seeing that its been highly rated by Wine Spectator, I want to go back to taste it.) The mark of a great restaurant is that you start formulating plans to return as soon as you leave—and that’s how I feel about Spasso.
This is despite the food, which isn’t operating at the same heights as Spasso’s wine list. The best thing they’ve got are their pizzas: wood-fired rounds of chewy dough topped with good toppings. I particularly liked the one with crisp prosciutto slices and Taleggio cheese. The burgers aren’t bad. I liked the bruschetta-melt one, topped with an appealingly chunky, savory layer of oven-roasted tomatoes.
But much of what I tried was felled by some fatal flaw. Many dishes were too sugary. The Caprese salad, for example, is made of very nice ripe grape tomatoes and oddly tough and dense fresh mozzarella, but it was destroyed by a syrup-sweet balsamic dressing. Some dishes needed better ingredients. I was not pleased with the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on the sweet and creamy penne Bolognese. Why was it so hard? Why did it taste like wax? Why wouldn’t it melt? And a couple of the dishes are just odd. The polenta fries are both gummy and greasy. The black and blue salad has a decent piece of skirt steak—nicely charred, nicely tender—on a bed of romaine lettuce smothered by about a quart of cold, fried shoestring onions, the whole thing squirted with an icing-sweet chilled roasted-tomato vinaigrette. The house-made gelato was so sweet that the vanilla and dulce de leche were indistinguishable, and the blood-orange gelato tasted—as my server proudly advised it would—like a creamsicle. Blood-orange gelato should not taste like a creamsicle.
Still, I’d go back to Spasso with great delight for a grilled skirt steak and a glass of that Evenstad Pinot Noir, or just for another taste of their Tokay. Sometimes rendered in English as Tokaji, Tokay is one of the world’s great dessert wines. They’ve been growing it in Hungary since the ninth century, and it’s usually made from a blend of Furmint and Hárslevelü grapes. But it’s a difficult wine to get to know well when you’re living in Minnesota—very little enters this marketplace, and when it is available, it tends to cost upwards of $50 for a half-bottle. Spasso has a fantastic offering on their list. It’s from one of Hungary’s greatest vintners, Istvan Szepsy, and it just leaps out of the glass with fragrances of apricots, almonds, nutmeg, orange peel, marzipan, and honey. I’d write more about it, but frankly, I’d far rather you spend 30 seconds alone with it.
Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a senior editor at Minnesota Monthly.