Phillip Dunn moved from Canlis in Seattle to Wolfgang Puck’s Spago Beverly Hills, as had his predecessor, Chris Miller. Dunn has been at the helm since November 2013, and feels he’s finally getting his arms around managing this enormous list and incredibly busy dining floor.
On taking over a fabled list
I inherited an amazing wine list, from Chris [Miller] and before, all the way to Mike Bonaccorsi and Kevin O’Connor, whom I’ve never met personally but I know is a serious burghound. I knew Chris at Canlis—I knew his palate and I knew what motivated him. When he took charge here he went to the moon with it, incredible riesling and Burgundy, out of control. I think the white and red Burgundies were most exciting things I inherited.
So for the first few months I just worked hard to meet everyone, all the regulars, the wine people, not so much changing the list, not so much selling as being present.
After about four months, when I got a feel for our guests, I worked to alter the format of the list, slightly. Now it’s formatted to what I think works best for our guests. Like, there was a huge section of Loire reds, from Saumur and Chinon, and I decided to list everything in a Cab Franc section. Little things like that.
It was all about maintaining strengths at first. I started buying into some places that Chris had deliberately depleted for me—Barolo, Barbaresco, a few more Spanish wines. But then I really started to expand the pinot selections, California pinots mostly, from Sonoma, Russian River, Carneros.
Yes I noticed that one of your top sellers was the Failla Sonoma Coast Pinot.
I love that wine, I’ve been pouring it by the glass for about five months. We’re coming to an end on it, but we’re going to go to the Peay, Sonoma Coast. And I’m working on the chardonnay selections too.
On Vegas tastes and Washington pride
When I first got here I was amazed by how much Burgundy was in play, more red and white Burgundy than I’d ever had the opportunity to sell. At Canlis it was a tough sell, but not here. That was the most exciting for me, for all of the curiosity and interest, and everyone so nonchalant about it. And Bordeaux just sells.
At Canlis, of course, most people wanted to drink Washington wines. But the list is so much more diverse at Spago, there are so many obscure regions that can move here, we have so many international guests that we actually get people asking about Mornington [Australia] pinot noir, Corsican, Northeastern Italy. How about South Africa, like Eben Sadie’s wines, they’re insanely good and people are loving them here, they’re more open to things like that. And of course tons of grüner, but we’ve got this chef, he’s Austrian…
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.