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Wine claims a place at the table in D.C. restaurants

Tuesday - 7/29/2014, 1:29pm  ET

Doi Moi is one of six District restaurants recognized for its wine program by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. As D.C.'s restaurant scene continues to grow, so do the city's varying wine programs. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON - In recent years, diners and industry professionals have lavished praise on D.C. restaurants for their artisan charcuterie plates, locally-raise meats, farm-to-table produce programs and bowls of spicy ramen.

Now the District's burgeoning dining scene is being recognized for what's in the glass as well.

Wine Enthusiast Magazine recently released its annual list of 100 best wine restaurants in the U.S., and six restaurants from D.C. made the cut. They include doi moi, Estadio, Fiola, minibar by Jose Andres, Ripple and The Red Hen.

Max Kuller, wine director at Estadio and doi moi, says restaurant-goers have always been interested in drinking wine, but as D.C.'s restaurant concepts evolve, so do the city's wine programs.

More than 60 new restaurants opened in the District in 2013. Themes range from international street food, to Thai-inspired shared plates, handmade pastas and nose-to-tail butcheries. And the new wine programs are just as adventurous and diverse.

Kuller says more beverage directors and sommeliers are ditching the conventional wine menu -- a uniform list that contains a certain number of chardonnays, cabernets and pinots -- and instead, are experimenting with more unique varieties.

"I think, at a point, there was maybe more this fear of, ‘If I put a bunch of stuff out there that people don't know, they're going to shy away from wine,'" Kuller says.

That, however, is no longer the case.

"I think the door really started opening up for more off-the-beaten-path kind of wines to be exposed," Kuller says. "And now the concepts of wine programs are getting more thoughtful."

Kuller gives America's craft beer movement some credit for diners' growing interest in wine and in trying new labels.

"We went from a country where we were used to having lots of beers available, although they were pretty much all the same style, to a place where you can think of anything under the sun and people are making it," he says.

"It's almost this culture where very quickly people started [being interested in] what was hip, what was new -- especially in the millennial sense -- and I think that's feeding a lot of it too. Especially in a town like D.C., it's the millennials who are driving new interest in concepts."

Brent Kroll, wine director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group, a collection of 14 D.C.-area restaurants and bars, agrees that younger diners have a lot to do with D.C.'s wine revolution.

Kroll says when he first started studying wine, he learned Chianti had a reputation for being a "jug wine" for World War II soldiers, and that a craze of Lambrusco in the ‘70s tainted that wine for many.

"You're just seeing that with the younger generations, they don't have these preconceived notions and they don't know what these misconceptions are because they're getting dated," says Kroll, who has been with Neighborhood Restaurant Group for a year and a half. "You're starting to see people come in and they don't think that some of these underappreciated wines are junk."

Similar to Kuller, Kroll says he no longer feels the pressure to have "certain boxes checked" when it comes to building his wine programs.

"At Iron Gate, we don't have a chardonnay, we don't have a pinot grigio. We don't have Prosecco; we don't have malbec. We do indigenous grapes from Southern Italy and Greece, and I'm just really happy that we're able to do that," he says. "I'm going to try to represent as many styles as possible; I'm going to try to push creativity."

There is also a growing interest in education: More diners want to learn about what they're drinking. Although, Kroll says, this has to be approached with caution, for fear of sounding pretentious or for taking a diner's time away from those at the table.

Kuller says he's seen more diners who are less hesitant to call over a sommelier for a recommendation. While some diners think the sommelier will try to push something expensive, he says, the job of the sommelier is to play the role of "tour guide" with the guests -- to expose them to different options based on their budget, their preferences and their meal.

"I think that the other thing people are looking for on restaurant lists are great values -- things that have a lot of character, things that are underpriced, based on where they're coming from," Kuller says.

Kroll also attributes D.C.'s "lenient laws" to the city's growing list of wine offerings. He explains D.C. restaurants, with a separate license, can directly import wine from producers; they aren't required to go through a distributor. This eliminates an unnecessary markup of prices and allows restaurants to source more rare wines.

"When you cut out the middle man, when you cut out that tier, you can get stuff for significantly cheaper than other areas," he says.

"The sommeliers in town who really go deeper and try to meet with importers, try to see the small wineries in California, try to get the special products here -- playing the lenient laws in D.C. -- that's what's really, really going to be where we can separate ourselves eventually," Kroll says.

How They Landed on the List

WTOP talked with Alexis Korman, contributing food editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine, to find out how six D.C. restaurants landed on Wine Enthusiast's list of top 100 wine restaurants.

"We considered everything -- from a strong wine program to cutting-edge décor; maybe they had a cool sommelier that has a great personality. All of these things factor in," Korman says. "Regionally, we did see that D.C. had a really strong showing this year."

doi moi: "We really loved some of the experimental pairings that are happening there. Max Kuller is doing really neat things with meads from the area," Korman says. "I also thought it was a really great spot if you're dining on a budget. About 95 percent of that wine list is under $100 a bottle."

Estadio: "They really nail it in terms of ambiance and authenticity," Korman says.

Fiola: "Essentially, it allows diners to try different bites and sips that they might ordinarily skip," Korman says of the menu, which is strong in Italian wines.

minibar by Jose Andres: "The cool thing about [minibar] is they say they are able to order virtually any wine from anywhere in the world if diners give them three-weeks-notice. That's crazy."

Ripple: "They are really into the small production wines; they have 400 choices by the bottle," Korman says.

The Red Hen: Korman says she liked this Bloomingdale restaurant for its concise wine list. "You don't have to have 700 bottles of wine to get your point across in a wine- focused restaurant this day and age," she says.

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