Jennifer Knowles of The Inn at Little Washington on local Virginia wines and ancient Chilean vines

Jennifer Knowles worked for a decade in San Francisco restaurants, including a stint with Larry Stone at Rubicon, before she headed east to join The Inn at Little Washington as Wine Director three and a half years ago. Stephanie Johnson spoke with Knowles about what’s selling on her 2,200-plus wine list.

Three of your best-selling wines are from Virginia. What do you think is driving the popularity of those wines?
Our top two wines are an un-oaked chardonnay and a cabernet franc from Barboursville. Both are private label selections that we pour as house wines. About 25% of guests buy because they’re house labels, another 25% because they’re well priced, and the rest because they’re interested in tasting something from Virginia. The state’s wine industry has gained quite a bit of notoriety in the last few years, and we get a lot of international guests who are curious to try something local. I didn’t know much about Virginia wines before I moved here, but one of my first assignments was to spend a day touring local wineries with the first lady of Virginia, so I learned about them very quickly. We now carry about 65 reds and 30 plus whites from Virginia.

You offer 30 wines by the glass. What drives those selections?
I choose our by-the-glass selections with the tasting menu in mind, and almost all are listed as pairings for the tasting menu (two are not, simply because of limited availability). The tasting menu is $168, which may make people think twice about ordering wine, so we’ve lowered the average glass price from around $20 to $16 since I started. We also offer all by-the-glass selections as full or half glass pours, which gives guests a chance to try more wines.

How has your list changed since you started at Inn?
When I first arrived, the list included a huge Burgundy section but only a handful of domestic pinot noirs. I started listening to guests who had been coming in for decades, and finding out what they really wanted. Larry Stone taught me that wine buyers have a responsibility to be respectful of what people want, and to make guests feel like their tastes are represented on the list. I beefed up the domestic pinot selections from California and Oregon, and even added some zinfandel because people were asking for it. The list is always changing, because we are constantly tasting and looking for great new pairings.

Your biggest success last year was Louis-Antoine Luyt’s Huasa de Trequilemu (País) from Chile’s Maule Valley. What sold that wine for you?
I first tasted this wine blind, and thought it was cru Beaujolais. The wine is so unique, and then when you hear about the history of it, that it comes from 200-plus-year-old vines…it really evokes a reaction. I bought it because it’s delicious, I thought guests would love it, and it works well with our menu. It’s surprisingly versatile, pairing well with foie gras to curry to steak tartare, and the flavors in the wine change with different dishes.

The Inn is known as a destination restaurant. How does that affect the wine program?
We’re an hour and a half away from Washington, DC, so a lot of people come here for a special occasion. They arrive with lofty expectations and want a life-changing experience. I wanted to make sure that the wine program was contributing to that experience. I changed some of the by-the-glass and bottle selections to provoke more of a conversation between guests and sommeliers. We have an 85-page list, so our sommeliers visit every table and start a conversation. Our guests tell us about different wines they’ve tried or wine regions they’ve visited. And we try to tell a story for every wine we pour, to give people a memory of their experience and a connection to the wines they’re experiencing with the tasting menu.

What’s your biggest challenge with an 85-page list?
Our cellar is located a block and a half away. We keep one bottle of each wine in the restaurant, but if anyone wants a second bottle, it’s a long trip to fetch it. We’re constantly running back and forth during service. One night, I had a large table that ordered a single vineyard pinot noir and wanted a second bottle. It was pouring rain outside with lots of lightning. I suggested that they might like a different single vineyard pinot from the same producer, but they insisted on the same bottle. I returned with the wine, completely soaked, and they said, “If you’d just told us what you had to do, we would have taken the other bottle!”

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