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Designing A Wine List For Different Restaurant Scenes

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It might be easy to imagine away, with the pull of a cork or two, all the work it takes to be Wine Director for the Toscana Group's restaurants Toscana and Bar Toscana in Brentwood, and SY Kitchen in Santa Ynez. But first you have to account for the years of study. For Emily Johnston, the person who is that Wine Director, that meant studying French and Italian in college, then wine at ALMA Scuola Internazionale di Cucina's Wine Academy in Parma, Italy. As she puts it, "There's a lot of work that goes behind putting together and maintaining a wine list, from spread sheets to inventory. It's not just sitting around under the sun drinking wine."

Johnston was discussing what it's like to develop a restaurant's wine list, something she did from scratch at SY Kitchen, where she was sommelier before being promoted to run the wine programs at all three establishments owned by Mike and Kathie Gordon. "I think the most important thing is for the wine list to have a theme," she says. "You don't want to just pull wines you like."

Obviously matching the restaurant's theme helps, as she says, "We have a wine country right here at an Italian restaurant with a little bit of fusion of California cuisine. Based on my training and my preference and to stand out a bit, I picked wines that fly under the radar, up-and-coming vintners from Santa Ynez and Italy -- winemakers not as well known as larger producers." That means you'll find wines like Joshua Klapper's La Fenetre A Cote Pinot Noir or a Liquid Farm Golden Slope Chardonnay. But Johnston adds, "It's not exclusively small producers, it's not an esoteric list. We have some Antinori from Italy. But we are trying to get people to try something they haven't tried before."

Part of the trick for that is keeping the by-the-glass portion of the list fresh and moving. Given SY Kitchen also features a terrific cocktail program, I wondered if Johnston had to respond to that in any way. "Recently I've tried to feature an extra wine by the glass that I change up a couple of times a week at least," she says. "It gives a guest the sense there's something of the moment in a way you might not feel when you open a printed wine list."

Johnston is enlightened to some of the differences between managing programs in Santa Barbara wine country and Los Angeles. "People in Santa Ynez are very open to trying things they've heard of but haven't had yet," she says. "In Los Angeles people seem much more drawn to what they know in both vintages and producers, and often seem to make choices to impress their friends."

So while, of course, in Santa Barbara County the two biggest varietal sellers are pinot noir and chardonnay (although Johnston wishes her fine list of syrahs sold a bit better), she has success broadening palates. "We took on the Dragonette sauvignon blanc that's not as classic a style -- it's got some oak on it and is a little bit creamier than most," she says, "but people love it and it sells."

As for pricing, she insists, "I want to make sure there's something for everybody. I have some wines I think are great that hit that higher price point, but we have other wines too." And, if you've ever heard the old bit that restaurants hide a crummy wine at the second cheapest price on a list, knowing most people will pick that instead of the least expensive bottle to avoid looking like a tightwad, that's a myth (at least at Toscana Group). "There's not a lot of rhyme or reason on the pricing," Johnston says. "It's just based on the cost."

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