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June was a heck of a month for the 26-year-old Barolo Grill. A couple of weeks ago, Wine Enthusiast Magazine named it one of America’s Best Wine Restaurants 2018. And a couple of days ago, it received a Grand Award from Wine Spectator—an honor shared by only 88 other properties in the world (including just two others from Colorado, Flagstaff House and the Little Nell).
The fact that owner/wine director Ryan Fletter called me from Italy to discuss the breaking news illustrates just why he and his team (and the restaurant’s extraordinary cellar) deserve all the kudos they get: Following an annual tradition begun by founder Blair Taylor, the team is on an immersion trip to further their education in and passion for Italy’s wine regions. In short, they’re ensuring that July—and every month after that—is a heady time for them too.
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5280: How does the Grand Award speak to your philosophy as a buyer, seller, and server of wine?
RF: Our wine list is magnificently large, and it can be intimidating. But my whole thing is about rolling my sleeves up, pulling a cork on a bottle casually, and poking at the complexity. Having a list that competes with the greatest restaurants in world, from Eleven Madison Park to the French Laundry to places in France and Austria that seem like they’re on another planet? I’m thrilled to be the person to show that Denver is also a world-class city, to carry that baton across the finish line. But this was not the ultimate goal. My goal is to offer more—more diversity, more fun. I want people to drink their Prosecco and be comfortable. And in the past three years, our wine sales have been higher than ever. So this award sends the message that people have been enjoying Barolo Grill. Being a restaurateur, I’ll continue to be self-critical all the time. But it’s a nice way to authenticate what we’ve been doing.
Wine Spectator singles you out for “uncommonly well-chosen” wines by the glass. What does that mean to you?
The moment anyone opens our wine list to a page of 14 rare, expensive vintages, my toes curl—please don’t think you need to drink those. It’s like a roomful of Picassos: The idea is not that you’ll purchase them. They’re perfect for some people, but I immediately feel as though I have to protect anyone who might think they don’t belong [at Barolo].
I take the quote as a compliment that our by-the-glass selection is not complacent—it’s not just a random selection of big brands that get the job done. I have 25 distributors and importers, and I have 25 glass offerings, so each one of them has something, maybe. It’s a collection of great wines from great locations that are affordable but aren’t easily procured. And they’re changing all the time. They’re chosen from about 15 criteria: region, varietal, vintage, price, story—each one of them has its own story. There’s nothing easy about putting a list like this together. The way I do it is obsessive, but I can’t do it any other way.
How can diners who get unnerved around sommeliers help you to help them choose a wine?
I have no problem discussing price immediately. Keep me in line monetarily—you want to spend $40 or $80 or $300? Please tell me now—that determines everything we talk about from here on out. I’m not trying to oversell you if you’re on a budget or undermine you if you’re looking for something special.
Also, use generic terms. White or red? Lighter or heavier—Pinot Noir style or Cabernet style? These are points a customer can get to quickly. If they’re talking about Tuscany versus Piedmont, we’re already at the next level.
If it sounds like you like a little bit of everything—if you say, “I drink Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet”—let’s start with what you’re having for dinner. And if it sounds like you’re not comfortable discussing preferences at all, I just hit the middle spot. I think of the words “damn delicious”; it’s not too light, it’s not too heavy, it’s not too tannic or sour, it’s not average but it’s not too weird either. This is something you could actually go out and buy a case of, that you’re going to love and give to your friends.
Let’s say you walked into the restaurant one day and learned you had to leave that night, never to return. You only have time to open and drink one wine. What it would be and why?
Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco, the Red Label Riserva. When I first started working at Barolo Grill two decades ago, that was my “aha” moment—I remember tasting it and thinking, “I did not know wine could taste this way.” I have a very rare bottle of 1996 from the grand cru of Asili, and that’s the bottle I’m drinking before the ship goes down—the one that made me realize I could dedicate myself to procuring, selling, and serving wines. It changed my life.
We’re visiting Giacosa next week for the first time in 15 years. I don’t think anyone else on staff has been there. A whole lifetime has gone by in 15 years.
You’re on your annual staff trip right now. What are you most looking forward to?
I’ve been going on these trips for longer than some restaurants have existed. Every time, I ask myself, What have we done? What have we not done? What do we need to do again?
This year, I thought, We haven’t gone to Emilia-Romagna. It’s been 23 years since I’ve been there. The most fun thing for me is that it’s not about wine. It’s flanked [on the itinerary] by Montepulciano and Barbaresco, where we’ll see all the old estates and old vineyards. So let’s make a food chapter. Let’s visit a Parmesan property and a prosciutto property and a balsamic property—these are probably the three greatest food products for Italy, if not the world. We’ll basically be burping Lambrusco the whole way.