Top Pairs: Pairing from the Fringe in D.C.

top pairing
by Emily Bell with Chris Struck with photos by Antoinette Bruno
Vol. 40
December 2014   

They may look the same (well, not all of them), but wine lists are changing, and kind of radically. Old school wine lists tended to focus on exactly that—the old school, an Old World-dominated geography of great estates with an emphasis on breadth and prestige, all lit by the glow of a sommelier’s stiff savvy. “I know what’s important, and here it is, on my list.” Bows taken, Bordeaux consumed, everyone leaving with a sense of having done things right.

Except “right” isn’t a buzz word, it’s a bad word, in modern gastronomy. Today’s diners drink by discovery. The next generation of sommeliers isn’t trying to prove they know what’s “important.” They’re trying to unveil what most guests didn’t know was important. Somms are trading the rare and expensive for the quirky and esoteric, putting themselves, their histories, their very somm DNA onto pages that used to be dominated by impersonal propriety. And while no one’s abandoning the standards, or Burgundy, anytime soon, wine lists, and the somms that build them, are increasingly, playfully idiosyncratic. Witness three recent pairings in D.C., pitting lesser-known wines from the Basque Country, Sicily, and the Republic of Georgia. 

Restaurant
  • Ripple
  • 3417 Connecticut Avenue Northwest
  • Washington, D.C. 20008
  • (202) 244-7995
  • www.rippledc.com
Who
Wine Director Danny Fisher | @fallofrhone

In an age when passion meets quirk in the wine glass, there’s no better poster boy than Somm Danny Fisher. A graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in Economics, Fisher spent years as a commercial fisherman off the coast of Washington and Alaska. But working at a family-owned Italian restaurant during college, and later taking work with a French wine importer and wine bar in Seattle, Fisher found himself faced with a calling. He may have gotten his introduction to wine through more traditional regions, but Fisher fell especially hard for the funkier, more assertive wines of the old school. So when he opened Ripple as General Manager in 2010, he built a carefully curated wine list, dominated more by small producers than the ususal heavy hitters, with 50-plus wines by the glass and a few hundred by the bottle. No surprise, he’s already garnered national attention, earning Ripple the “Best Wine Program 2014” title from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washingtonian, and placing it on Wine Enthusiast's “100 Best Wine Restaurants” for 2013 and 2014. 

Wine
2013 Ameztoi Rubentis Rosado (Hondarrabi Zuri and Hondarrabi Beltza), Getariako Txakolina, Spain
Dish
Spanish Mackerel Escabeche, Compressed Watermelon, and Pickled Rind
Pairing Note

“It’s like a light bulb goes off,” Fisher says of creating pairings with Chef Marjorie Meek-Bradley. In this escabeche—a summer favorite for the chef, enriched with sweet Cippolini onion, Fresno pepper, white wine, saffron, and rice wine—classic acidity sings against the moderately rich fish, while pickled rind lends crunch and compressed watermelon “causes the dish to really pop,” says the chef.

The watermelon also pointed Fisher in the direction of the Ameztoi Rubentis Rosado. “When she said watermelon, I knew this would be it,” he says. Made with indigenous red (Beltza) and white (Zuri) grapes at a winery just five minutes from culinary mecca San Sebastian in the Basque region of Spain, “the Ameztoi Txakoli is a terrific example of a fresh, fruity, slightly bubbly wine that pairs great with a lot of different foods,” says Fisher. “The dish itself has components of sweetness, earthiness, and salinity that play very well with the fruitiness, acidity, and light effervescence of the wine.” Not only does Fisher focus on small producers, he looks for wineries with sustainable, organic, and/or biodynamic practices—with plenty of exemplars from lesser-known “fringe regions.” Nor are they inaccessible (the way an old school “rare” selection might be). Fisher makes sure to offer quirky picks by the glass in three- and six-ounce pours, keeping more than 75 wines under $50 on his list at all times.

Restaurant
Who
Sommelier Sebastian Zutant | @Zutant

Sebastian Zutant’s introduction to the restaurant industry was casual, and classic, making pizzas and pastas at an Italian restaurant in his old neighborhood. After college, Zutant joined the team at Chef Geoff's before continuing on to Nectar, Komi, and then Rasika, serving as sommelier at the latter two. Inspired to learn viticulture and oenology, Zutant took a three month sabbatical to California, working at Deloach Vineyards before joining the opening team at D.C.’s Proof as wine director in spring 2007. During his five year tenure, Proof was listed as having one of the “Best New Wine Lists of 2008” by Food & Wine. Zutant continues making wine waves at Red Hen, where his carefully researched 100-bottle selection especially celebrates Italy, but also showcases regions like Slovenia, Croatia, and the Republic of Georgia.

Wine
2011 Vinoterra (Kisi), Kakheti, Georgia
Dish
Grilled Chicken Fra Diavolo, Kale, Fingerling Potato, and Preserved Lemon
Pairing Note

If pairing is a kind of science, at Red Hen it’s a science fueled by deeply personal taste. “We enjoy the same wine styles, so the food that I create definitely has a natural lean toward the wine list,” says 2014 Rising Star Chef Mike Friedman. Like Zutant, the chef’s youth plays an important role in his choices. This updated Chicken Fra Diavolo, marinated for 24 hours in fresh Fresno chiles, bell pepper, garlic, and orange juice and zest, is plucked right out of Friedman’s New Jersey childhood.

Given those earthy, fruity flavors, an orange wine—still gaining footing on wine lists—was already a good choice. But the 100 percent Virginian oak and wood-burning hearth used to cook the bird also impart a flavor “reminiscent of a campfire.” Zutant finds that orange wines generally have more of a savory component than red or white, capable of standing up to any imparted smoke while also coaxing out those supple fruit and heat flavors of the preparation. The 2011 Vinoterra Kisi isn’t just precious for balancing a floral, rosewater component and a perceived salinity in the dry finish. It’s a fleeting option: “Kisi is pretty much an extinct grape in the Caucasus [Mountains],” says Zutant. “Only four producers still make it.” 

Restaurant
Who
Wine Director Brent Kroll | @BTKroll

Sommelier Brent Kroll is proof that age is just a number. A relative youngster in the industry, he’s already overseeing lists for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s nine restaurants, as well as its wine shop. Prior to settling in D.C., Kroll worked with the Michael Mina Restaurant Group at Saltwater at the MGM Grand in Detroit; Bourbon Steak at the Fairmont Turnberry Country Club in Miami; and Casa Tua in South Beach, Miami. In 2008, the Michigan native settled in D.C., landing a position with renowned restaurateur Ashok Bajaj. Kroll oversaw the wine program at Ardeo+Bardeo and later at the Oval Room, where soon-to-be mentor Madeline Triffon instilled in him a deep-rooted sense of hospitality. It’s a lesson he brought with him to his next roles as Wine Director at The St. Regis Hotel and, finally, the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, where he oversees an eclectic assortment of evolving, modern wine programs. 

Wine
2011 Tasca d'Almerita Tascante “Ghiaia Nera” (Nerello Mascalese), Sicily, Italy
Dish
Berkshire Cotechino, Grilled Foraged Mushrooms, Sherry Vinegar, and Dippy Egg
Pairing Note

The Etna region of Sicily is increasingly on the radar (Fisher also paired a Calabretta Etna Rosso with a potato gnocchi) and for good reason. Not only does the volcanic soil yield bold, fruity, earthy reds (and, increasingly, whites), but the soil’s natural immunity to Phylloxera make the surviving vines among Europe’s oldest. Threatened with a fairly realistic possibility of eruption, the choice wasn’t about some implicit sexiness in volcano-grown grapes for Kroll. It was all about Chef Anthony Chittum’s Cotechino.

“The fat and richness of the savory pork softens the tannins of the wine,” says Kroll, who uses his Iron Gate wine list to freely explore Greek and other lesser-known Mediterranean wines. “The volcanic earth pairing off the mushrooms and the soft texture with the egg is an added bonus.” Taken on its own, the wine itself is something of a precious commodity, fruit-forward, completely changing with exposure to air, evolving in the glass to reveal bold notes of spice—a point of discovery for somms and diners alike.  

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