It’s not surprising that Burgundy would factor on your top-ten list this year. Where are you finding the best value in Burgundy right now?
We poured the 2008 Domaine de Montille Beaune Les Sizies Premier Cru by the glass, and de Montille’s Pouilly-Fuissé also did well. They’re very accessible—nice fruit, young and fresh, very classic. People are really receptive to Burgundy, and they almost expect it, because of Raj’s involvement—they associate Michael Mina with it.
We’re not all seafood, but the menu is mostly lighter fare. If somebody’s set on having a red wine, Burgundy works really well.
Also, the Mugneret-Gibourg Bourgogne Rouge and Vosne-Romanée were both selling like hotcakes. I’m running out of my allocation. The Bourgogne Rouge is a riper style, it’s a 2009, and they make their wines with more new oak, more extraction. It’s a gateway wine for somebody who likes New World pinot noir and who wants to try the Old World. People will usually order multiple bottles, so that’s a good sign for me! And it’s relatively inexpensive—it’s $99 on the list for the Bourgogne Rouge, and it is so, so good.
What about pinot noir from outside of Burgundy?
We have those broken down into two categories: Burgundy’s Devotees, and Opulence in the New World.
The Devotees have New World ripeness but Old World style, not as much extraction. The Opulence wines are jucier and more forward.
How is it that Ridge 2008 Geyserville shows up on a top-ten list otherwise dominated by chardonnay and pinot noir?
I was on this really big kick for a while with Geyserville and Ridge in general. People don’t expect it to be what it is. Paul [Draper] has been making wines like this from the beginning and stuck to his guns, to that Old World style. They’re not these juicy California wines that people expect. That [style] has been changing across [a range of varieties and producers], but Ridge has been doing it since the beginning and I appreciate that persistence.
One of your top-selling wines was Dagueneau Blanc Fumé de Pouilly. What do you think guests are looking for in a sauvignon blanc, and given that Dagueneau is pretty singular, how do you approach selling that particular wine?
Whether it’s Old World or New World, it should still have those sauvignon blanc characteristics, which would be that kind of under-ripe fruit flavor, acidity, grassiness and freshness.
But the thing with Dagueneau that’s cool—I go into the whole style of it, which I do find more concentrated, and talk about how when Didier made the wine he was very selective with yields. People thought he was a crazy man, but I think it’s badass. You get Old World style with a little more concentration and umpf. But once you get past that, it’s very classic sauvignon blanc: it’s got minerality, salinity, acidity—just presented in that kind of package. Most people love it, a few people don’t, and if they don’t I just take it away and drink it that night.
You cite the 2009 Ceritas Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir Escarpa as your biggest new success this year. What contributed to that?
It’s just a really good wine. I discovered it at the Pursuit of Balance tasting at RN74. It was sold out for a while, but then some came back on the market, so I bought it. I also visited the winemaker, John Raytek—his place is at the Copain custom crush facility.
It’s not jammy or big—a great New World pinot in an Old World style. And that’s been the theme for me lately. Not so much that you’re manipulating it to be something else, like picking super-early for extra-high acidity or something. It’s just letting the grapes do what they want to do.
I know that opening special bottles to pour by the glass has been a thing over at RN74. Have you tried anything similar at Michael Mina?
We just started something similar last Friday. I’m opening an older bottle or two and pouring it by the glass. We’re doing things like a 1983 Swan Pinot Noir, older Flowers pinots, older Brunellos, older Burgundies.
Also, we can Tweet about it and that seems to be working. That’s one thing I learned from my ex-boss Michael [Madrigale of Bar Boulud] in New York. He would open a large-format bottle and just Tweet it, and tons of people would come in.
It gives people an opportunity to try a wine without doing a whole bottle. If it catches on I’ll do it more: maybe two or three times a week.
It was surprising to see a 1999 Chateau Simard St-Emilion as one of your top by the glass pours. Why did you decide to pour it by the glass?
The story I remember being told (I’m not sure how true this is) is that the family releases the wine when they think it’s ready to drink. That’s their current vintage: It’s fairly cheap and I can offer it by the glass. It drinks really, really well. Most people just see the vintage and they order it. It’s very settled down now, not at all a beast, not a steak wine anymore. I find it to be very classic and elegant.
In terms of dessert wine, it looks like you’re selling a lot of other things besides Port.
I just want to have my favorites. We have a 1983, a 1985 and a 1988 Vintage Port, a ten-year Tawny and a twenty-year Tawny. That’s enough for me right now.
We now have all the styles of Sherry. And I’m trying to get every style of Madeira. Maybe somebody’s studying for a professional exam: I’ll happily pour a fight of all of them, so they can taste an Amontillado next to a Palo Cortado. I’m all about education, both for my staff and the guest. Because that’s something I would like: just get a whole flight and nerd out at the bar for a while.
I know that you’re pretty excited about the drier styles of Sherry right now as well. How are you finding a place for that in your wine program?
It’s just one of those things that’s so unappreciated. It’s the one of those things that if people see it on the list, they’re hesitant to order it. But I’ve been putting it on the tasting menu. When they have it with their food, they love it. We had a foie gras spear with huckleberry inside and nuts on the outside, and I poured a slightly sweet thirty-year-old Palo Cortado. It was the freakiest pairing ever, just so good, like as good as milk and cookies.
I explain about the yeast, I try to explain the whole process without boring them. When they enjoy it, it’s really awesome. And not everybody enjoys it, so I always have a backup.
What’s the most memorable wine that you opened at the restaurant this year?
It’s silly—because I’ve opened a lot of crazy bottles, like 1929 Pétrus and 1832 Lafite—but the one that really blew me away was a 2009 Panevino [from Sardinia]. It’s this really awesome wine, mostly cannonau with a bit of monica and carignano. It’s really interesting because it almost has the body of a riper-style Burgundy, but with a New World ripeness and pop. It also has these classic cannonau nuances: very floral, a bit of earth to it, and just awesome mouthfeel, super smooth. It just blew me away. It’s so well made, all hands-off. He doesn’t claim to be biodynamic, but he doesn’t do anything in the field, and it shows. There’s a rustic flavor and feel to it. There are a lot of cool wines coming out of southern Italy right now.
It’s the type of wine that nobody would ever order it if they didn’t know what it was, so I put it on the tasting menu. I have a whole collection: four of his bottlings. He labels it based on where the barrels are put in the bottling facility, like Over by the Door. For a long time I was like: “Is this an appellation, or what?” And the Dressner rep said, “No, it’s where the barrel are.” The wines are really tasty, and very affordable.
Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.