In France, I like to drink the house wine in restaurants. There, that generally means decent value, by the glass or carafe or “bottomless” bottle, usually something from the vineyard out back or just down the road a ways, right in the ’hood.
The French buy into strong regional favouritism: they are the most chauvinistic wine drinkers in the world. Well, they started it, if not inventing the concept then certainly giving it a name, what with Nicolas Chauvin. They like to drink local. Me too, so it’s Pinot in Burgundy and Edelzicker in Alsace. Ordering Chablis in Montpelier? Not on my watch.
Here at home, house wine has for too long meant something generic from a big box that’s been sitting in the beer fridge for weeks if it’s white or on the counter by the dishwasher if it’s red. Frequently, the white’s too cold and the red’s too warm. There it is, then.
Recently, more and more restaurants are taking a good, close look at the very idea of house wines, and it’s a trend well worth encouraging. Here’s a list of a few favourite eateries that have put more than desultory thought and effort into providing good wine choices by the glass or carafe.
Le Bistro de Paris (751 Denman Street)
A long-time Vancouver favourite, the former Café de Paris, has been reopened and re-energized by a couple of guys from just down the block. Bruno and Mario of Ciao Bella have brought in chef Michael Riley, who cooked here some years back; sous-chef Todd Neil; and one of the city’s great maítre d’s, Ben Bencherif. Plus, they’ve revitalized the wine list with plenty of French and Okanagan wines and some very good prices.
It’s all there to go with the traditional bistro fare, and the “house wines” are three tasty treats from Naramata’s Van Westen Vineards (which regularly turns up on my Best of the Year lists in this space): Vivacious (white), Vino Grigio, and Voluptuous (red). Acquaint yourself with the Bistro de Paris and get there while the Van Westen getting’s good. They don’t ever last very long.
Le Gavroche (1616 Alberni Street)
This is the other long-lived French favourite with Vancouver diners—the one with the legendary French wine cellar. While Manuel Ferreira likes nothing better than opening one of his discoveries, something obscure and delicious, if you ask for a glass of house red or white, you’ll get Tinhorn Creek from the South Okanagan: the 2007 Cabernet Franc or the 2008 Pinot Gris.
Bishop’s (2183 West 4th Avenue)
If there’s one iconic Vancouver restaurant, it’s John Bishop’s tiny enclave of good taste. Over a dozen house wines are on offer: three bubbles, including one from Summerhill; five whites, including one from Burrowing Owl; a rosé; and five robust reds from all over the map, including CedarCreek.
So.Cial at Le Magasin (332 Water Street)
The deco-decorated Gastown eatery/oyster bar/takeout place/butcher shop doesn’t strictly speaking have a house-wine program at the moment, but GM Jim Bateman says there will be a B.C. house-wine selection within a couple of weeks, maybe Mission Hill. For now, there’s a changing choice of six whites and reds by the glass.
YEW (791 West Georgia Street, in the Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver)
This stylish spot has no house wine offerings as such, but features a daily “fresh sheet” of by-the-glass selections, running to 25 or so regular options. However, the restaurant did come up with a very cool concept some months ago, offering to open any bottle in the cellar—regardless of vintage, origin, or price—if you agreed to buy at least two glasses’ worth. Of course, it wasn’t the first to do that here; see below.
Cactus Club Cafe (588 Burrard Street, in Bentall Centre 5)
This is the one that started doing the above many months ago. When it was announced, I commented in this space that this was your chance to have a glass—two, actually, because that’s the deal—of something legendary like Opus One with your Rob Feenie burger. It’s still going, but only at this location: pick a bottle, agree to drink two glasses, and they’ll open it. So who gets the heel?
CinCin Ristorante (1154 Robson Street); Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar (1095 Hamilton Street); West (2881 Granville Street)
These are the three Vancouver restaurants of Jack Evrensel’s Top Table Group. They’ve always distinguished themselves by their extensive by-the-glass offerings in lieu of a so-named house wine. Blue Water offers such treasures as Black Hills Alibi, JoieFarm’s Noble Blend, and Sumac Ridge Tribute; CinCin pours Ravenswood Old Vines Zinfandel and Frescobaldi Nipozzano, along with an intriguing Old World vs. New World comparison flight of three-ounce pours. West has Hugel Gewürztraminer and Ruffino Ducale Chianti Classico Reserva among the many, and the wonderful Nicolas Feuillatte Brut. It’s a wine browser’s paradise.
La Buca (4025 MacDonald Street); L’Altro Buca (1906 Haro Street)
The two popular Italian eateries by Andrey Durbach like to tailor wines to customers’ dinner plans but offer three wines by the quartino, the premise probably being that just one glass is never enough: a Chianti, that sprightly springtime treat Gabbiano Pinot Grigio, and a real-deal Prosecco.
Bistro Pastis (2153 West 4th Avenue)
Restaurateur John Blakeley doesn’t use the rubric “house wine”, preferring to offer a large choice of by-the-glass and half-litre selections: 12 choices each of white and red plus four bubbles, including the “single serving” (200-millilitre) Pommery Pop Extra Dry.
Wild Rice (117 West Pender Street)
Andrew Wong’s ultimate Asian-fusion restaurant offers some serious surprises: Nk’Mip Pinot Noir, La Stella Allegretto Merlot from Osoyoos, Wild Goose multi-medal-winning Gewí¼rztraminer, and similar delights.
Provence Marinaside (1177 Marinaside Crescent); Provence Mediterranean Grill (4473 West 10th Avenue)
Pick and choose from 35-plus selections by the glass, half-litre, or bottle—bubble, white, pink, or red—from Gehringer Brothers Ehrenfelser to Mission Hill Compendium. A particularly pleasant way to sip here is to order one of the three tasting flights—three three-ounce glasses of sparkling, aromatic white, or French reds.