On the Table: Wine lists are shrinking as restaurants offer more beer and cocktail choices

The restaurant experience is constantly in flux: Where white tablecloths, dress codes and European food were once the norm, today we're embracing (or adjusting to) the prevalence of bare tabletops, loud music and influences so varied that fusion doesn't begin to cover it.

Another apparent casualty of the shifting dining landscape? The wine list. In Pittsburgh and beyond, wine lists are shrinking and cocktails and beer seem to be eating up some of wine's traditional territory.

In the past year, almost every restaurant that has opened with a liquor license seems to tout its cocktail or beer offerings or both, from burger joints such as Winghart's, Burgatory and BRGR to more upscale spots such as Salt of the Earth, NOLA and Meat & Potatoes.

Guide to consumer-friendly wine program

• Encourage risk by offering smaller portions. At Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar in Shadyside, all wines (except sparkling) are offered as 2-ounce tasters, 4-ounce half-glasses, 8-ounce glasses and bottles. At notion in Oakmont, diners can select three small pours for $18 or five for $30, selected and presented by certified sommelier Alan Uschrinsko.

• Don't obfuscate, educate: At Spoon in East Liberty, the wine list includes vintage dates, notes varietals for every bottle and offers a descriptive tasting note.

• Be aware of value: Today, diners can look up the price of almost any wine on the PLCB website, noted Michelle LaValle-Denk, general manager of Elements Contemporary Cuisine, Downtown, so restaurants with reasonable mark-ups will likely sell more wine. She also suggests offering choices at every price point, so that no one feels forced into a particular bottle by their budget.

• Make it interactive: Servers should have an opportunity to taste every wine on the list, said Joseph Barsotti of Barsotti Wines. That way they can effectively describe (and sell) wine to diners. If the wine list isn't phone-book size, consider offering one to everyone at the table. At Dinette in East Liberty, the wine list is short, but changes frequently, and it appears on the menu, right next to the food.

Whether this change is good or bad, like all things in the world of restaurants, is a matter of personal taste and perspective.

Jesse Seager, co-owner of the Belgian-beer focused restaurants Point Brugge in Point Breeze and Park Bruges in Highland Park, isn't surprised by the growing interest, especially in light of the current economy. Beer is "more approachable and more affordable," he said. The highest-rated wines fetch hundreds, even thousands of dollars a bottle, but "Anybody can afford the best beer in the world."

Since Point Brugge opened in 2005 it has consistently been one of the busiest restaurants in town, proving that there is a substantial audience in Pittsburgh for good food paired with good beer.

And since 2005, that market has only grown. "When I talked to bars six years ago, I would get brushed off," said Scott Smith, owner of the East End Brewing Co. Now, he goes back to those same bars and they are not only selling craft beers (including his) but also seeking out information and training their staff to make recommendations and answer questions.

These changes aren't limited to bars or casual restaurants, either. At Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District, a recent special-event dinner included courses paired with East End Brewing Co.'s Big Hop Harvest, a Collins made with Bluecoat gin from Philadelphia and wines from Briar Valley Winery in Bedford, Pa.

These mix-and-match pairings are becoming ever more common. "That idea, 'I started with wine, I'm locked into wine for the evening,' that's out the window," Mr. Smith said.

Where beverage programs once focused on offering diners their usual drinks -- a vodka martini, say, or a glass of merlot -- today's are designed to complement the style of the restaurant. At Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina, set to open in Garfield next month, "We want the focus to be as specific as possible on the cuisine that we're going to be serving," said bartender Nathan Lutchansky. All the bottled beers will be Mexican and they'll have Negro Modelo on draft. The margarita list will be the core of the cocktail program, and they hope to have more than 150 tequilas on the shelf when they open.

"By the end of the year, we should have Pennsylvania's largest tequila selection," Mr. Lutchansky said. "We want that to be an educational experience for people who are interested in learning more about the spirits of Mexico."

Closer interactions between the bar and kitchen staff have also helped fuel the synergy between food and drink programs. At Yo Rita on the South Side, diners are as likely to choose beer or a cocktail as they are wine to complement one of the fusion tacos. Chef Adam Manculich and owner Jacqueline White collaborate on the cocktail menu, and Mr. Manculich, "an avid craft beer drinker," selects most of the beers. Many of the cocktail mixers and syrups are made in the kitchen.

High-end cocktails aren't exactly a bargain, but unlike wine, the labor of making the drink is typically visible and tangible to the drinker. Today's trendy cocktails typically include several liquors, as well as house-made mixers, infusions and garnishes. They're pretty and distinctive, not just another glass of red or white wine poured from a bottle.

All this begs this question, should wine lovers just BYOB or stay home? Not at all. Wine lists may be smaller, and they may be taking a temporary backseat to beer and liquor, but that doesn't mean that restaurants have abandoned wine.

In an August blog post on www.BonAppetit.com, wine writer and sommelier David Lynch examined the trend toward small wine lists and concluded that they were good for restaurants and consumers. A small list had to be "curated," he wrote, and so "the result reads like a menu rather than a list, which is the whole point."

That is the motivation behind short but interesting wine lists at restaurants such as Salt of the Earth, Dinette and Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar.

Even at Verde Mexican Kitchen, those hundreds of tequilas and bottles of beer will be augmented by eight wines -- four white and four red. "We want to keep it short, so we can train our people to really get into the wines that are on our list and make intelligent recommendations to people who come in," Mr. Lutchansky said.

For another fine example of this trend in wine lists, take Legume Bistro. Newly re-opened in Oakland after five years as a BYOB restaurant in Regent Square, Legume has more seats, a bigger kitchen and a liquor license. Its drink options include a dozen draft beers and a cocktail program, but the owners also hired a sommelier, a clear sign they take their wine program seriously.

Caroline Matys received a degree in environmental science from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, but after interning at a winery, she realized that she had other goals. Last December she received her sommelier certification from the French Culinary Institute.

She's designed Legume's list to be food-friendly, offer good value and balance new world and old world options. It's a clear and informative list, divided into light, medium and full-bodied wines with vintage dates and varietals clearly marked.

The list of bottles fits neatly onto a page, ensuring that selections can be made quickly and the evening will be spent drinking, eating and enjoying good company, rather than reading. I, for one, will drink to that.

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .


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