Lake Elmo Inn has been owned since 1983 by John Shiltz, who once worked there as a dishwasher. It’s the kind of place where servers spend entire careers, and diners from St. Paul’s eastern exurbs celebrate special occasions. Erik Forrest arrived at the Inn with a culinary arts degree and stints as a prep cook, server and barback. He took an interest in the wine program, sitting in on classes and tastings, and 12 years ago was promoted to general manager and sommelier. Now, when a sales rep has a new wine in their book, they call on Forrest for his professional opinion.
Your top three glass pours are from Oregon. Is that a particular area of interest for you?
I change the by-the-glass list every six months, but we usually have a pinot grigio. During the winter, I prefer the Oregon style which has more weight than most Italian pinot grigios. Riesling is always a fickle thing for me. I lean more toward dry styles, but our customers go more for slightly sweet versions. The Willamette Valley Vineyards riesling had a little spice, which was good for the holidays.
The Evolution Willamette Valley was a nice price point for an introductory pinot noir. Our customers often gravitate toward California pinots, but it was easy drinking with good body, weight and structure for the winter months.
Most of the wines on your list are domestic, but your biggest success was the 2016 Silk and Spice Portugal Red Blend. What drove sales of that wine?
Part of it was price point [$30]. It’s also just easy drinking—medium-bodied, with a little spice—and that went over really well with the staff. They like bringing out things they find unique and interesting, but can still connect with people. It’s more about the taste profile than the fact that it’s from Portugal, although it’s featured under our “unique varieties” section of the menu. Sometimes that section gets more attention, maybe because people come here hoping to try something different.
Just half of your customers order wine with dinner. What are the rest drinking?
Some don’t drink [alcohol] at all, others drink beer, but more people are starting to drink cocktails. This last year our cocktails sales dipped into wine sales more than in the past. Some of that is due to our barrel-made Manhattans: We mix specialty bourbons with other flavors like coffee, apple and maple, depending on the season, and then age them in barrels.
There seems to be a growing interest in bourbon lately, and that even extends to the wine list, where we have some bourbon barrel-aged wines, like the Cooper & Thief merlot blend. It’s aged in bourbon barrels, which adds more caramel flavor, so if you’re a whiskey drinker, you get that familiar flavor. It’s also a little higher in alcohol so it comes off as sweeter, which is not my style but appeals to many customers. We happen to be in an area where sweetness is a positive.
If you were eating dinner at your restaurant tonight, what would you order, and what would you drink with it?
I would order the fresh catch, which changes daily, and would go with Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc. It sits right at that middle point, with more weight and body than a New Zealand sauvignon, but not as heavy as a chardonnay, so it pairs well with seafood and doesn’t overpower it.