Checking Lists: A Critical Look at Restaurant Wine by Alan Goldfarb (Absinthe)

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Alan Goldfarb was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star, where it is said that assignment must be akin to covering Catholicism in Vatican City. He was also the senior editor for AppellationAmerica.com. His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter. He’s the contributor of the chapter “Chewing on Chile” in the Travelers’ Tales book Adventures in Wine. He was also the technical editor for California Wine for Dummies.

He’s a restaurant wine consultant and advises wineries on public relations projects. (For his “Checking Lists” column, he will not promote his clients.) You can listen to his latest appearance on iWine Radio. Have a question or a comment? You can email Alan. He’d love to hear from you.

Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder and the Wine Longer

It’s rare indeed for a brasserie to have a wine list with way too many entries to count and a stunning breadth, especially when the entrées top out at $37. But I suppose that’s a leftover from the days when ~ABSINTHE BRASSERIE & BAR~ was more centered around French cuisine. By now, Absinthe could be described as “French lite”—and that’s certainly not meant as a barb. In fact, it’s a right joyous thing for a wine geek to have 725 (!) Burgundies, 125 Meursaults, and 75 Chablis from which to choose. But such food offerings as a soft garlic pretzel appetizer or a pastrami sandwich (albeit one gilded with mozzarella, green garlic aioli, and pickled jalapeños) doesn’t exactly go together with a wine list of this scope.

That said, I’ve always liked Absinthe. But I liked it for its gay French feel and its brass—for the metal accoutrements as well as the attitude. Now, in its latest incarnation, I think it’s attempting to tamp down some of the old Francophilia and propel itself into the hipster (how I hate that word) vibe that has overtaken the neighborhood. But like Hayes Street Grill up the street, Absinthe, by dint of its long existence, has been nearly forgotten or, at the very least, taken for granted.

And it should not be. The food is still good, even if it’s veering away from Frenchiness. Take, for instance, the ceviche, with its perfectly balanced citrus and chiles; it was divine with the 2012 Schloss Gobelsburg grüner veltliner ($13.50 glass/$42 bottle) and was likewise citrusy and delicious. The list read that it was a 2006, which is why I jumped on it, because one doesn’t get the opportunity to taste much aged grüner. It certainly didn’t appear to be an eight-year-old white, and when wine director Ian Becker seemed startled by my observation, he quickly returned to announce that, indeed, it was a ‘12. And he quickly set about to correct the mistake.

Becker has a lot on his plate, what with tending to the wine shop ~ARLEQUIN WINE MERCHANT~ next door and two other restaurants in the Absinthe Group, which will swell to three with another restaurant on Brannan slated to open this fall. But, I must say, the wine director knows his stuff. Arlequin carries an eclectic amalgam of offerings, and Becker has a firm grasp on each one; despite the fact that the place has no signage with which to guide the consumer. That’s left in the adroit hands and mind of Becker himself, who will take you on a tour—both real and imagined—of his shop’s myriad wine locales.

Back at Absinthe, you’ll need a boatload of help if you’re to circumnavigate the depths of the list. If one heads to the Cru Beaujolais section, there are relative bargains to be discovered. There are no bargains in the 70 (that’s right) half bottles, but the fact that there are so many in this category shows that the folks at Absinthe genuinely want their clientele to enjoy their wines.

The list, of course, is laden with French offerings, but there are nearly 40 Napa cabernets included amongst some balanced bottlings from Corison, Togni, and Kathryn Kennedy. It’s another indication that the Absinthe curators are serious wine thinkers.

They may be egalitarian too. If you buy a bottle from Arlequin and have it opened there, they’ll charge you only $5 for the privilege. Bring it next door to Absinthe, and it’s $12.50, just half the usual $25 corkage.

And in attempt to appease or satisfy those that remember Absinthe from its earlier incarnation, there’s a daily lunch offering of the classics, i.e., cassoulet, confit, and soupe de poisson.


TO LOOK FOR: 2010 La Courançonne, Côtes du Rhône, France ($9.50 glass/$38 bottle)

This blend of mostly grenache, syrah, and mourvedre is full-bodied, balanced, and delicious with good ripe blackberry fruit and undertones of licorice and smoke. Only 13.5 percent alcohol.

Please feel free to email Alan with your comments and your experiences with restaurant wine. He’d love to hear from you.