2016 Restaurant Poll Interview

Ryan Fletter of Denver’s Barolo Grill on the durability of Super Tuscans and an unexpected barbera

Ryan Fletter started as a server and captain at Barolo Grill in 1994. After a few stints away from the restaurant—opening another restaurant nearby and spending some time with the Michael Mina group in San Francisco—he returned to Denver with his family in 2003 to become the Barolo Grill’s GM and Wine Director. Last May, he purchased Barolo Grill, and 2015 turned out to be the restaurant’s busiest year yet.

Super Tuscans: gateway wine

Super Tuscans are more approachable than ever, and have a lot to offer. People are comfortable going into that section, it isn’t a risky bet. Now Super Tuscans are a comfort zone—first it was Napa cab, then Super Tuscans—and now with those as something guests order all time, they are coming in and asking about refosco from Friuli. Their familiarity is wider and broader and they are looking for more unique appellations. What was unusual is now usual and I think that the Super Tuscan category has allowed riskier bets for guests. People have more exposure or more experience or both.

Starting with Chianti

I think Chianti does really well by the glass; it does better there than by the bottle [the Rodano 2011 Chianti Classico is his most popular BTG]. Guests want to drink a bottle of a Super Tuscan or a nebbiolo or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. With Chianti by the glass, guests start the meal with it, but don’t drink it throughout. It could also be a comfort thing, like guests come in and don’t want to look at the list so they just order what they know. After settling down, they’ll look at the list. It’s a soft, easy catch.

Beyond pinot grigio

I don’t think people get excited about [pinot grigio], but they like it and drink it. Everyone is more excited about talking pinot bianco or other wines that are siblings rather than pinot grigio. Sauvignon blanc has been getting attention, also verdicchio and the more unoaked citrusy-style whites, like Soave. Gavi grabs pinot grigio drinkers. It’s almost as if pinot grigio is like merlot: do you have anything like that, but not that?

People back into pinot grigio and then move on. Some wines are just beverages and pinot grigio really fits this category of commodity. Guests don’t really ask about appellations or producers or even countries, not asking about anything in particular, just drinking it. I’m not hearing an exchange about it.

Pinot noir middle ground

One of my top sellers is the Elk Cove Willamette Valley 2013 Pinot Noir. I have several pinot noirs listed by the glass; one is from the Willamette, one is a European example. I don’t find any backing off of pinot noir. Willamette Valley is the middle ground between the Old World and the New World, not heavily oaked and with ethereal, floral notes. It fits a niche well, especially on a list that is Italian, with lots of sangiovese and autochthonous varietals—there is nothing like a great glass of pinot. It isn’t replacing anything Italian; pinot noir really just stands on its own. I find that for most guests ordering [pinot noir], it tees up the night, and then they decide to just drink a bottle of it. Not too light and not too heavy—it is hard to compete with that category. Pinot grigio is easily piled on by other varietals, there can be lots of substitutions, but pinot noir is not easy to substitute; guests aren’t going to stop drinking it and drink something in lieu of it. Pinot sales have really been booming.

On three barberas in the top ten

People are barbera-crazy right now! I can almost say that, like Super Tuscans, this is another category that people are comfortable with. There are many on the top end [in the $70 range] that are darker, weightier and plusher. These fit the merlot/Super Tuscan medium- to full-bodied category really well. There can be a fair amount of oak, so it isn’t for those looking for the nebbiolo experience, but I have different levels of barbera. Served by the glass and on the tasting menu—it is jaw-dropping how much activity there is on barbera.