Chris Keller of Tar & Roses in Santa Monica on Nebbiolos Still and Sparkling - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Chris Keller of Tar & Roses in Santa Monica on Nebbiolos Still and Sparkling

Chris Keller buys the wine for a number of restaurants in and around Santa Monica; he was the chief wine buyer for many years at Joe’s, a Venice institution that closed recently (though he still manages the list at Joe Miller’s tapas joint, Bar Pintxo). He also buys wine for both of Andrew Kirschner’s restaurants, Tar & Roses and the Santa Monica Yacht Club. All of these restaurants have a pronounced Mediterranean feel, as does his own wine label, Emanuel Tres, which specializes in Rhône- and Spanish-inspired blends.

Tar & Roses—that’s a little suggestive, isn’t it?

Yes, nebbiolo is how we roll. The waiters manage to work it into the conversation, and if that doesn’t work, on the wine list all of the nebbiolo-based wines are printed in red and everything else is in black. We have Barolo, Barbaresco, we have some other wonderful wines from outside of those places, Gattinara, Caremma. We have domestic nebbiolos from Palmina and Jim Clendenen. We have young and fresh ones, ones with some bottle age, we even have a couple of sparkling nebbiolos, like the Vajra: dark, a little earthy, scents of cranberry skin, a Lambrusco feel to the flavors despite the pink color. It’s freaking delicious.

So it’s not exactly the usual suspects at Tar & Roses…

I know right? It kills me. We sell almost no chardonnay, no cabernet, and everything else we sell is in a small category. We do sell some sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, but we’re really an oddball house. We sell a ton of Rioja, and lot of nebbiolo, of course. We sell some blends—one of which I make—and rosé. But for the most part, U.S. categories are not celebrated here.

Why is that?

Well, of course, we don’t offer a whole lot from those categories. When I was working at Melisse we had forty domestic chardonnays, which made no sense. “Dudes, all of these wines are competing with themselves: What’s the point?” Plus, they all taste like each other. Do you really need Lewis and Kistler and Rombauer to make your customer experience complete? Do they have to have this kind of wine twenty ways?

Of course, we’re working with a much smaller wine list. Everyone is. You need to be specific. Those fat lists are mostly a thing of the past.

Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.