I noticed an emerging wine trend in some of the snazzy new restaurants. I am talking about the kind of restaurants that will more likely snag a James Beard than a Wine Spectator Award. You will probably not find Bordeaux First Growths, big Champagne houses, or Napa’s Screaming Eagle on their wine lists. But that is the point. Their wine offerings are meant to pair with their food and not with Robert Parker’s scores. Let’s explore further.
|Food and wine by Lee Myungseong on Unsplash|
Two Restaurants, Two Wine Programs
If you live in Seattle, you have heard of Canlis. Perched on the edge of Queen Anne Hill with a spectacular view of Lake Union, Canlis has been awarded multiple James Beard and Wine Spectator Awards. In fact, it has won Wine Spectator’s highest level Grand Awards consecutively for over 20 years.
|Iconic Seattle restaurant, Canlis from Canlis.com|
Canlis’s line of wine directors hailed from the International Sommelier Guild and/or the Court of Master Sommeliers. Two years ago, the restaurant welcomed its first woman wine director. Linda Milagros Violago carries comparable credentials as her predecessors. The wine list is a book of over 100 pages with 2,600 wine selections, ranging from sparkling to still wines of red, white, and pink.
In 2019, Brady Ishiwata Williams at Canlis cinched the James Beard Award for the Best Chef in the Northwest. Two years later, Williams left Canlis to start his own restaurant, Tomo. Located next to an adult video store in a lower- to middle-income, admittedly grungy White Center, Tomo serves well-executed innovative upscale fare, which is a juxtaposition to its neighborhood.
|Tomo next to Taboo Video by Google Maps|
At almost 20 pages, Tomo’s wine list is a fraction of Canlis’s. Nonetheless, it boasts of over 900 wines, curated from small production wineries to complement their dishes. Tomo’s current wine director, Rebar Niemi, came from a background of technology and education. Rebar may not share the credentials of his Canlis counterparts. However, in my few interactions with him, Rebar is very much a wine geek with a pulse on the palate of the Millennials and Zoomers.
Let’s delve into their wine lists.
Both Canlis and Tomo have separate lists for Champagnes and other sparklers. Canlis showcases about 100 Champagnes, neatly catalogued by growers versus négociants, subregions, and vintages or non-vintages. In addition, there are 35 other bubblies from six countries with a good mix of French crémants, Spanish cavas, and mostly sparklers made in the Champagne style or traditional method. There are also a handful of Italian Moscato d’Astis and European Pet-Nats.
|Dom Pérignon in Canlis but not in Tomo|
Tomo’s Champagne list is not too shabby with about 30 selections, favoring grower Champagnes. You will not find the big négociants such as Billecart-Salmon, Dom Pérignon, and such. More interesting though is the list of 50 non-Champagne sparklers. There is one crémant and a Pet-Nat, intermixed with sparkling ciders and other non-classified sparkling wines.
Canlis’s impressive list of 2,000 reds and whites come from almost 20 countries. They are methodically organized by country, sub-region, winery, grape variety, and vintage. Canlis also has about 25 rosés. Each producer is respectable, and each wine is of a high quality. With a multi-year award-winning cellar, Canlis caters to a knowledgeable wine clientele who expect to find almost any special bottle to mark an occasion.
|Tomo’s Seasonal Wine Selections, May 2023|
Tomo holds its own with 400 selections from about 15 countries. You will be hard pressed to find a bottle of Bordeaux (compared to nearly 100 offered at Canlis). What you will find in Tomo, but not at Canlis, are the occasional Japanese wines as well as close to 80 orange wines. Listed under “Skin Contact” with 50 pink wines, that is the most orange wines I have seen in any restaurant wine list. Unlike Canlis, Tomo is catering to a younger and more adventurous wine clientele, who are willing to go off the beaten Robert Parker path to try something different.
About Skin Contact
While I love the incredible list of orange wines at Tomo, I am perplexed by the use of Skin Contact as a category. For those new to orange wine, it is made using white wine grapes with extended skin contact. White wine is typically made by separating the juice from the skin prior to fermentation. When making orange wine, these white wine grapes are fermented in the skin which leads to the orange hue in the wine; hence the term “skin contact.”
|Orange wine at Tomo|
Skin contact is, however, not an accurate descriptor for pink wine. Pink wine is technically the opposite of orange wine. Rosé, in essence, is made the same way as a white wine except that it uses red grapes. There are different ways to make rosé; separating the juice from the skin immediately after harvest or siphoning a portion of the juice from the red grape must into a different vat for fermentation. Regardless of the method, the goal is to minimize skin contact, not prolong it. Otherwise you will be making a red wine.
My Verdict: I am excited about the new wine trend I see in hip innovative restaurants, like Tomo. It introduces a myriad of wines that are not constrained by traditional winemaking methods or Old World classification systems. This may just be up the Millennials’ and Zoomers’ alley. That said, I also don’t want to lose the tried and true wine styles - the Bordeaux, the Barolos, and similar styles in the New World. So let’s encourage innovation but continue to celebrate tradition - in wine.