Minnesota native Ben Dale learned the ropes about wine while living in the Willamette Valley and while working at Libation, a retail wine shop in the northern California town of Arcata. He returned to Minnesota in 2014 and took a job as a server at Gavin Kaysen’s Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis, working his way onto the wine team and taking over as wine director in 2018. Last year, he and his team sat down and reimagined their 150-bottle wine list, grouping different styles of white wines under ‘Ski~Swim~Hike’ and creating ‘The Wine Rainbow’ category for rosés, skin-macerated whites and oxidative wines. Along the way, he sprinkles amusing quotations and pithy explanations designed to make the list less intimidating.
Your top ten bottle list covers a broad wine of countries, grape varieties and wine styles. Is this attributable partly to the way you’ve organized your wine list?
I hope so. Our goal was to make it as fun and uncomplicated for the guest as possible. It had been organized very traditionally, completely by geography, and we realized we were doing this more for ourselves than for the guest. We wanted to make it easier for the guests and for the servers as well. Guests respond really well to it; they flip through and chuckle at the quotes..
Your biggest success was La Rioja Alta 2008 Rioja Reserva Ardanza. What made that wine such a hit?
We were offered a great price to sell this by the glass, and everyone who touches that wine falls for it. The tertiary character is really interesting to people, they love the oak implementation, and it’s really versatile: You can drink it with steak or with fish. Our servers all fell in love with it. It’s just one of those magical wines, the right style at the right price. People keep coming back for it.
Pinot noir doesn’t leap to mind when thinking about Alsace, yet your top-selling bottle and glass pour was Emile Beyer 2017 Alsace Tradition Pinot Noir. What drove sales of that wine?
Everybody is into pinot noir and that’s great, I love it too, but we like to find examples that take people out of the usual pinot noir regions. We especially favor cooler climate areas like Alsace, Austria and California’s Sonoma Coast. Those wines are so versatile and match well with our food.
Your #2 most popular by-the-glass selection was Château de Hauterive 2016 Cahors Malbec. Why did customers respond so well to that wine?
I love doing French malbec because people see it’s not from Argentina and it starts a conversation, “Where is malbec from?” or “How does it express differently from different areas?” This one is more restrained and it can work throughout a meal.
What led you to offer a canned sparkling wine (Old Westminster “Farm Fizz” from Maryland)?
Part of our motivation is to offer new experiences or deviate from what is expected. The can format keeps wines really fresh. I tasted this wine and it was so coastal, crisp and mineral that I immediately thought of oysters. And I thought, wow, a wine from Maryland is making me think about oysters. We decided to put it in the center of a tray surrounded by the oysters. People wonder what it is when they see the try go by, and then you casually pop the can open at the table and everyone is interested.