Serving Wine Well

The Mission Grill in Sister Bay, one of Door County’s best wine destinations, maintains a wine list with 500 selections. Nicole Schutte pours a glass of Mazzocco Zinfandel. Photo by Len Villano.

I walked into a high-end restaurant in Sturgeon Bay and asked the bartender what wine he would recommend.

“I don’t know. I don’t drink wine.”

At a restaurant’s bar in Ellison Bay recently the wine had turned to vinegar, but the bartender didn’t seem to have a clue and put it back on the shelf after giving us a taste. Gin and tonic, anyone?

“Wine drinkers will choose to not drink bad wine,” said John Verbeten, a salesman for the Madison-based distributor, Left Bank. “They will get nothing, or get a cocktail.”

Wine-savvy restaurants in Door County have experienced a leap in wine interest starting about 10 years ago. It’s taken off since, and it comes as no surprise that the top restaurants in the county, such as Mission Grille and the Inn at Kristofer’s in Sister Bay, have good wine lists.

The interest has completely bypassed some establishments whose wine inventory consists of a few single-serving bottles of Sutter Home wines. In between are a host of restaurants that have interesting, high-quality wines at affordable prices.

The Bluefront Cafe in Sturgeon Bay is an unpretentious storefront restaurant with several wines by the glass at $4, $5 and $7 and by the bottle for $33 to $65. Patrick Barberchek, who owns the restaurant with his wife Susan Guthrie, said the tiered pricing by the glass was Verbeten’s idea.

The Bluefront Café in Sturgeon Bay offers glasses of wine ranging from $4 to $7 and bottles from $33 to $65.

“We don’t mark up our wines a lot, and even less for the higher end bottles,” Barbercheck said. “We are in a market where we figure we can’t get $12 a glass, so we take a little hit. But we have people come back for specific wines they have had here. People are impressed with the list.”

A couple of blocks away Kitty O’Reilly’s, an Irish pub restaurant, is also doing a great wine business, somewhat to the surprise of Buster Crook, who opened the place with his wife, Amy, in what had been The Stein.

“John said he had been successful with other pubs like ours, including St. Brendan’s in Green Bay,” said Crook. He suggested a white list with Riesling, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, but no White Zinfandel, a sweet blush wine that wine lovers rank with Kool-Aid. “We wanted to go with imports because we have an Irish pub,” he continued. The wines are priced at $4 to $6 a glass and sell every bit as well as beer, according to Crook, who had just placed an order for six more cases. With meal prices at $8 to $16, he and Verbeten developed a wine list that tops out around $24 bottle. Wine is half-price on Thursdays and the pub’s wine sales are up 45 percent since Memorial Day.

“The mid-20s is where wine starts getting good,” said Verbeten. “There are intangibles to wine that a lot of places which serve food don’t think about,” he added. Stunningly knowledgeable about wine, he has advised restaurants up and down the county, not to mention around the region, on their wine lists and can explain what a good list means for business.

“There’s not necessarily more money to be made by pouring a little better wine on the wine itself. But when a number of people are deciding where to go for dinner, you will often find someone rejecting a particular restaurant because it doesn’t have any decent wine. By offering quality wine, you can sway that group to come your way.”

Karl Bradley, general manager of Mission Grille in Sister Bay, said food television programs have made it easier to sell wine because customers know more about it.

Frequently mentioned as one of the top wine destination restaurants in Door County, Mission Grille trains its staff yearly in understanding vintages, how to open a bottle at the table, and how to pour a glass. With 500 bottles on the wine list, Mission Grille doesn’t expect 19 or 20-year-old newcomers to know all the vintages.

“We have a good training program,” said Bradley. “We find the more servers understand and the more confident they are, the more money they will make.”

When The Cookery rebuilt in Fish Creek after a devastating fire, it tucked a wine bar into a corner of the second floor restaurant. It serves several wines by the glass along with a simple bar menu.

Courtney Holdmann Skare, who manages wine at the restaurant, trains her staff early in the season on wine service.

“We walk through our wine list, do some tastings, and show them how to open a bottle” – a process that is nerve-wracking for many new servers who have to undertake it tableside – she said.

The Cookery also offers flights – three two-ounce pours – which let customers sample wines and see what they would like to order by the glass or bottle.

Customers are growing braver when it comes to ordering wine, said Verbeten, and they are willing to try wineries they haven’t heard of.

“If you don’t have Kendall Jackson they will order another Chardonnay,” he said.

Pete D’Amico’s Ellison Bay restaurant, Pasta Vino, includes a tasting room where patrons can sample the 30 wines the restaurant offers by the glass. Photo by Len Villano.

Pasta Vino in Ellison Bay, which has 115 wines in its wine tasting room, offers tastes of the 30 wines it pours by the glass.

“People, especially when they are waiting for a table, can try some of the house pours and local wines like Stone’s Throw,” said Pete D’Amico, the owner. “Customers have become a lot more knowledgeable about wine and take more time choosing, which is why the tasting room has worked for us.”

Part of serving wine in a restaurant is ceremony, and The Inn at Kristofer’s in Sister Bay pours wine into crystal carafes and from there into Riedel glasses.

“We only serve beer and wine,” said Terri Milligan, co-owner of the nationally top-rated restaurant. “So it’s important you do it right.”

Do you have a favorite wine restaurant? Share it in the comments below!