WineInk: The anatomy of making a great wine list, from red to white |

WineInk: The anatomy of making a great wine list, from red to white

Kelly J. Hayes
Wine glasses sit on the table during the Food & Wine Classic member luncheon on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Other than the sports pages and airline flight magazines, I’ve probably spent more of my reading time with wine lists than any other kind of document. I’m that guy who always picks up the list from the table as soon as he sits down and spends an inordinate amount of time perusing the pages, much to the consternation of my wife and often my fellow diners, too. Of course, I try not to be rude, but, sometimes, I just can’t help it.

This affectation — as some view it, or addiction as is more likely the case — is particularly evident when I am someplace with a large list that requires time, hours in some cases, to digest. A large and deep list can be more fascinating to me than a good novel and can, just as a great story does, take me on a trip far, far away in my mind, as I scan wines from regions around the world that I have either visited in the past or hope to do so in the future.

Fortunately, we have a preponderance of outstanding wine lists here in wine-savvy Aspen and throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, as well. Few would argue the domination of The Little Nell, whose list has been recognized annually since 1997 by Wine Spectator as a Grand Award winning list – one of just 100 or so on the planet. A comprehensive collection of 20,000 bottles of wine spread out over 112 pages, it might be considered a local treasure. (And, that would not be a slight to the plethora of other well considered lists on offer in town, including at the Hotel Jerome, Matsuhisa, Duemani, Casa Tua, Ellina … the list goes on and on.)

But, the Nell’s list, a book actually, is a classic. The work of dozens of wine-obsessed sommeliers who have worked the floor of the storied restaurants that have been in the hotel over the decades is reflected in its many pages. It is a list of both breadth and depth, meaning that it not only features wines from a broad number of regions, but also different vintages of the great wines of the world.

Little Nell’s wine list

Chris Dunaway, wine director at the Nell, explains the importance of the diversity of a list.

“For me, a great list is comprised of not just the fine and the rare or a running list of benchmarks, but also of an abundance of diverse expressions from the periphery and the lesser-known regions inspired by these classic expressions,” he said. “These wines can help one to not only better understand the classics and appreciate them, but can inspire a more adventurous journey through the world of wine, which leads often to wines of extraordinary value and intrigue.”

To get a handle on just what, other than the number of bottles, makes a wine list great, I asked some of our other local wine professionals to weigh in with their thoughts. Both Steve Humble, owner and wine expert at Basalt’s Free Range Kitchen, and Greg Van Wagner, who was the wine director at Jimmy’s for decades before moving this year to a new position at the soon to be opened Parc Aspen, had similar thoughts on how they put together great wine lists.

“I have always been a firm believer that wine lists should be all about the customer and not about the sommelier,” said Humble of his quest to select the right wines for his restaurant.

Steven and Robin Humble outside their Basalt eatery and wine destination Free Range Kitchen

“The somm’s role should be to steer the program in the direction that the customers’ dictate. My mentor — the late, great ‘Jerry’ Jeff Walker — always instilled in me that wine lists should be a reflection of the customers’ palates and not the buyer’s palate.”

Van Wagner echoes the concept of customer as king.

“I think a great wine list should treat every guest in the restaurant with several bottles that fit their taste profile and price point. A great wine list has to have a lot of bottles with age, too,” he said. “I always think that this is where the wine world really starts to get interesting. So, if everything is current-vintage, it lacks that facet.”

In both cases, these somms believe that the list should fit the restaurant. That means that the wines that are on offer should reflect the cuisine, along with the style and price points of the establishment. It should be an integrated part of the dining experience that allows guests to make easy and affordable choices of wines that enhance their experience.

Sometimes, that means having a selection of wines available from the same wine region as the food on the menu. Carlos Valenzuela, who has enjoyed a long career here in Aspen both working the floor and selling fine wines to the community, noted that his experience in some of the best European inspired restaurants dictated lists with wines from those regions.

“Running the wine program at L’Hostaria for 12 years, I knew exactly what we were focused on, and we wanted to promote Italy,” he explained. “Acquolina was the same idea (Italian cuisine), so I felt comfortable with the direction, and I always need a strong focus on Piemonte, Toscana, and Friuli. With Duemani, even though the name was Italian, we had a focus on Mediterranean, which opened up doors for wines from the world. We focused on France, California, and Italy, but also played with great Spanish wines, which was a lot of fun.”

Dunaway has a similar understanding of the power of pairing the right wines with the right foods.

“Wine is a curious beverage capable of evoking pleasant memories of the past, while simultaneously harmonizing with (the) chef’s menu, creating an unforgettably fulfilling life experience,” he said. “That moment can be equally unforgettable for all of the wrong reasons if the wines on the list clash with the flavors and tastes of the menu.”

How a list is organized is also an element to consider. Some lists use the obvious and list wines by the glass first, then by the variety of grape from lightest to heaviest, beginning with Champagne, moving to Chardonnay, then lighter reds (like Pinot Noir) before moving along to Cabernet Sauvignon. Others group their wines by region, beginning with the country of origin with, say, their wines from Italy broken down from north to south, with wines from Tuscany in one section and Sicily another. Then, there are some lists that use a bit of creativity to organize their wines by flavor profiles and descriptive words. “Light and fruity” or “big and bold” headers direct customers to wine styles they may enjoy.

Regardless of the organizational structure, having great wines from a myriad of locales is critical for an outstanding list.

Humble notes, “I have always loved ‘global’ lists that take the best of what each region of the world has to offer. This also satisfies my own desires, as I’m a total omnivore when it comes to wine.”

And, of course, pricing is always a consideration.

“You want to have an array of options and regions, whether you’re looking for a great bottle under $100, or a no-expense-spared experience,” Van Wagner explained.

Humble concurs, noting, “I also really appreciate wine lists that span the spectrum of the price points. Nothing frustrates me more than going to a restaurant and seeing the lists loaded on the top end of the price range. It doesn’t matter how much money you have; you don’t always want to drink an ultra-expensive grand cru. There are plenty of days when a great inexpensive Gruner or Langhe Nebbiolo is what you’re craving.”

Living in Aspen, we are lucky to have caring and professional wine sommeliers providing wine lovers with expertly collected and organized wine lists.

Under The Influence: Jordan 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon

I find myself in a fair number of steakhouses while on the road and this Jordan offering from the Alexander Valley is almost always on the wine lists. At a recent dinner in Denver at Elway’s not only was the wine in the house, but so was Jordan’s CEO John Jordan. Naturally we drank the concentrated juicy and sumptuous wine with our meal. The vintage is still in its infancy, but it was a perfect pairing with a petite filet and is a steakhouse classic.

2018 Jordan Alexander Valley Cabernet