Review published July 2006
IN THE 1990s, media moguls, dot-com evangelists, and other captains of industry liked to blather on about the power of “synergy.” From the Greek word sunergos (working together), synergy was supposed to make the world a smarter, more efficient, more productive, and more enjoyable place, and, if memory serves, also help people lose weight, find true love, and live forever in golden cities in the sky.
It didn’t always work, of course. But after a decade of hot air and failed mergers, a wine bar in Minneapolis, it seems, has up and gotten it right. Through a (business-speak alert) “strategic marketing partnership” with the Twin Cities’ wine shop Haskell’s, Willie’s Wine Bar & Coffee House offers the kind of synergy you can actually use, or in this case, drink. Every wine served at Willie’s is available for purchase at Haskell’s; each glass comes with a business card bearing the name of wine, its country of origin, and the predominant grape. The card is good for 10 percent off a bottle or 15 percent off a case. Drink a wine you don’t like and toss the card; find a wine you love and pocket the card until your next trip to the liquor store.
In addition to solving such age-old problems as being too tipsy to remember the delightful wine that made you tipsy, Willie’s approach instills in drinkers an almost missionary-like zeal to find a wine that, as they say, works. During our visits we lined up rows of two-ounce glasses (you can also buy wine by the five-ounce glass and by the bottle) and pitted a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Grenache, a Malbec, and a Gamay against each other. With the whites, a Riesling squared off against a Sauvignon Blanc and a Muscadet before a Drouhin Meursult Chardonnay—a rare, reasonably priced choice that didn’t coat the tongue in butter—took the prize.
True wine aficionados may cringe at the notion of ignoring vintage and estate and instead going grape-to-grape. But for novices who simply want to learn something, anything, and then walk away knowing they can repeat the experience at home, Willie’s is a pleasure. It doesn’t hurt that the menu created by chef Bruno Oakman, a former executive chef at Pazzaluna in St. Paul, also has its high points. While not a Spanish restaurant, Willie’s serves its dishes tapas-style, with small plates that are easily shared. One wishes the pizzas were stronger, but the cheese plate was wonderful, and the beet salad with Stickney Hill goat cheese, frisée, and bacon, as well as the lamb chops in a light curry broth, disappeared quickly. Bread is served with unsalted butter and a tiny mound of sea salt for individual sprinkling; it’s touches like these that make for a fine night of nibbling.
Unfortunately, Willie’s has what business people call a “downside.” The décor and atmosphere feel like a hotel restaurant from a time when hotel restaurants weren’t allowed to be interesting. Willie’s features live jazz during Sunday brunch and on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights, but the jazz soundtrack that plays the rest of the time borders on the smooth variety, adding to the generic feel of the place.
Fortunately, your tongue can’t hear. By the end of a night at Willie’s, you will have a new favorite wine, and the next time you saunter into a wine shop, you’ll know what you want. Now, that’s what being a mogul is all about. MM