In June, Wine Enthusiast released its annual list of America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants—places that, to quote the editors’ introduction, “incorporate wine in thoughtful and exciting ways” to ensure that “the selection, food, service, and atmosphere are all exceptional.”
The record number speaks volumes to Barolo Grill owner Ryan Fletter: “Fifty states, 100 restaurants, and we’ve got four of them—it says a lot for Colorado to have that high percentage.” For comparison, New York has 13, Illinois an equal four, Oregon only three. (And as a bonus, Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder and Element 47 at the Little Nell in Aspen are both Wine Enthusiast Hall of Fame awardees.)
Certainly the newfound attention serves as what Fletter calls “an interesting snapshot” of the evolving hospitality industry in a state still best known as a craft-beer hub. Two of the winning restaurants are decades old, and their immense wine cellars reflect their maturity. Take Deno’s, named for owner/wine buyer Nick Kutrumbos’s father, who bought the property in 1976. “Wine wasn’t very popular then,” Kutrumbos says, but while “building relationships with a lot of winemakers who were coming out here to ski,” his dad began buying wine at auction, acquiring “a lot of first-growths” (shorthand for the most historically prestigious Bordeaux estates).
Since taking over 10 years ago, Kutrumbos and his brother have aimed to “fill in the gaps, continuing to buy the Burgundies and Bordeaux, the Napa Cabs.” In fact, he adds, “We have one of the largest verticals of Opus One not only in the state but anywhere. My wife and I went to Opus a year and a half ago and showed them our list, and they were like, ‘This is ridiculous. Hardly anybody has access to these vintages except the [co-founding] Mondavi family.’” At 27 years old, Barolo Grill is similarly famed for its verticals, in its case of world-class Italian Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, and of course Barolo. (Verticals are collections of the same wine from multiple harvest years.)
By contrast, the other two winners, Tavernetta and Morin, don’t yet have three years in business between them, and their wine programs are both run by young women—Carlin Karr and Mary Allison Wright, respectively—whose aim at least in part is to shift the dominant perspective on what great wine is and can be, introducing guests to small producers working in emerging regions with varietals they’ve likely never heard of.
Wright, for one, asserts that “it would be easier to construct a list of the classics, but I’m going for the anti-establishment, breaking down the barriers” to enjoyment that are erected when “people think they have to know about wine to appreciate or have fun with it”—be it an oxidative white from the Jura region of France or a sparkling red Carignan from the North Coast AVA of Mendocino in California. When they instead peruse the list and say, “‘I’ve never seen any of these wines before, this is so exciting,’ instead of being put off or discouraged, that’s high praise to me,” she adds.
Either way, the national recognition serves as validation on a personal level. For the staff of an older, more established restaurant like Barolo Grill, it’s a reminder that longevity need not breed complacency, as Fletter points out: “Most of our guests come in and go, ‘Of course you got that [award]’—they just assume.” But beyond his regulars, “One of my big challenges is to keep reminding people what it means to continue pushing and being engaged when you’ve been around for a long time.”
In a newer restaurant whose reputation is still developing, Karr says, hand-selling lesser-known wines like Abruzzese Pecorino or Torrette from the Valle d’Aosta “takes a lot of diligence and dedication: How many times a night do people ask for a Napa Cab? It takes a lot of work to find the Italian equivalent of every wine that people ask for at every price point and making them feel great about it.”
But the accolades also serve as validation for Colorado itself. In Deno’s case, Kutrumbos says, “Winter Park is really not known for its wine and food scene; the boom that happened in Breckenridge and other resorts 20 years ago is just starting to happen here. We’re being noticed a little more, and it’s very exciting for our community.”
It’s no less exciting for Denver, which, let’s face it, hasn’t historically ranked as a great wine town. But the influx of transplants from cities that do stake that claim is having an impact on both the industry and the consumer front. “That’s something that [Frasca and Tavernetta owner] Bobby [Stuckey] and I talk about all the time,” Karr notes, recalling a recent trade tasting where “I didn’t even recognize so many of the buyers, and they were young.”
Wright, who with McLain Hedges also runs retail boutique The Proper Pour in The Source, agrees: “I felt the tide starting to turn a couple of years ago. People are more open and excited, and it’s so cool for them to read about local spots to check out, rather than reading about places in California and New York and then waiting until they go on vacation.”