One of my favourite things about this time of year is when I’ve finished up an afternoon of holiday shopping and running errands and take a load off at the bar of one of my favourite restaurants. Regardless of what wine gets poured for me, it’s pretty much guaranteed it’ll totally, totally hit the spot.
On any restaurant’s wine list, there will always be a handful of wines to which I gravitate, but in most scenarios, I ask the resident wine gal or guy to pick something for me.
This is something you should do too. It’s a great way to discover new favourites, and you really needn’t worry about receiving something you’re not a fan of.
First off: any decent sommelier will always ask you what you’re in the mood for, and that’s where you can be as general or as specific as you like. I generally err toward the former, saying something as simple as “light red” or “sparkling”.
In saying this, always feel free to get way more specific; if you’re into a Chardonnay, share the style you generally like, whether crisp and citrusy or full of tropical notes with lots of oak. Most often, there will be an option for you to taste a small splash before committing to a glass, so no worries about being stuck with something you don’t want.
At the same time, don’t take these kinds of opportunities for granted and run the scales, requesting tastes of everything offered by the glass. Needless to say, that’s kinda pushing it.
Here are a trio of places where the person running the wine program manages to hit the nail on the head every time I visit.
L’Abattoir, 217 Carrall Street
Lisa Haley is the wine director at Gastown’s L’Abattoir, and I trust her palate so much that I brought her on as part of the winery-selection committee for Top Drop Vancouver, the terroir-focused wine event I run every year.
Along with sommelier Kristi Linneboe, she oversees a program offering approachable wines by producers you’re likely to be encountering for the first time. Current highlights include a stellar Jean Bourdy nonvintage sparkling Chardonnay from the Jura region of France, offering plenty of roasted hazelnuts and almonds, sea salt, marmalade, and tangy lemon notes.
Speaking of sparkling, the ladies have recently introduced a Bubbles at Brunch program on Saturdays and Sundays, where they’re offering a great selection of sparkling wines and Champagnes, listing them at ridiculously low markups. Last time I swung by for that, I may or may not have had to ditch plans I’d had for the rest of the day.
Cinara, 350 West Pender Street
Cinara’s owner (and the guy running the burners), Lucais Syme, is one of my favourite chefs in the city because of his comfy, elegant take on Old World cuisine; his pastas are some of the best you’ll find in town.
When first sidling up to the bar, though, my main mission is to ask wine guy Neil Ingram what I should be drinking.
Ingram has been pouring me wine for more than 20 years now, from when I first met him as he pulled corks at chef Andrey Durbach’s long-shuttered Étoile on Hornby, through his tenure at chef Rob Feenie’s Lumière on West Broadway, and then at the helm of his own place, Gastown’s popular Boneta, until he opted to close in late 2013.
He is a brilliant, charismatic wine guy who has been a major influence on Vancouver’s wine scene—in that he’s one of the key veterans who helped shape contemporary wine service in our city—and it comes more from a place of enthusiasm and cheer rather than being too precious or highfalutin. He practically has a sixth sense for introducing you to a wine that will become your new favourite. I honestly can’t recall a time I’ve ordered a specific glass of wine from the guy.
Tell him your mood and he’ll ensure a pour that hits the spot, often a unique Italian wine from a quirky, tucked-away region and made from indigenous grape varieties about which he’ll be more than happy to wax poetic.
The Arbor, 3941 Main Street
As you tuck into one of their contemporary comfort-food dishes—like chef Rob Clarke’s southern-fried artichoke sandwich with eggplant, bacon, and avocado mousse—have McCloskey pour you something from his brief yet dynamic list featuring gems out of small producers from France to Australia.
In fact, my recommendation of Alpha Box & Dice Grenache 2015 from McLaren Vale, Australia, in this column just last week was inspired by my last visit. It’s destined to change often, so it’s a great excuse to become a regular at this new neighbourhood spot!