Ginger Wine

Sometimes the unlikeliest tips lead to the most interesting stories. Just last week, the press agent for Rick Yoder's Wild Ginger restaurant sent out the breathless news that Wild Ginger had been placed on Wine Enthusiast magazine's roster of great American wine lists. Ho-hum, I thought, and set the release aside. A few days later, I mentioned the accolade to a friend in the wine business. "Too bad nobody pays much attention to Wine Enthusiast," he said. "Because I think Wild Ginger has one of the best wine lists I know of, maybe in the world." Say what?! An Asian-fusion restaurant specializing in the foods of one of the few areas in the world that doesn't make wine? But so it is, according to my friend, although for reasons that go way beyond just offering an extensive wine selection. "The list is geared very much to the menu: lots of Alsatian whites, rieslings, pinot gris, Austrian grüner veltliners—all the new-style whites that go particularly well with Asian sweet-sour and spicy foods. (Another place that mines this vein is Eric Bahn's Monsoon, where the French-accented Vietnamese cuisine sings beautiful duets with a select range of European wines.) "But for me, there's a lot more to a great wine list than selection," says my source. "Like, there's price. Over the years, wine markups have risen and risen until now I see some bottles at high-end restaurants selling for four times wholesale. The idea seems to be that you've already got the customer sitting at the table, so you might as well charge as much as you can. Wild Ginger's wine director, Ole Thompson, came from running the wine program at Ballard Market, and I think he brought along more of a retailer's attitude about wine, recognizing you can make just as much or more money by charging less per bottle but moving more wine, not to mention encouraging people to order another bottle next time they come back. I see an awful lot of people in the wine business having lunch at Wild Ginger, and it's not just the selection, it's because they know what a good deal they're getting." Extraordinary selection is tough to maintain in a state like Washington, where the law forbids any retailer having an exclusive on any alcoholic beverage. But retailers can still get the next best thing to exclusivity by buying good wine that will improve with age and putting it away until those bottom-line-oriented types who prefer to keep their inventory lean have sold out of it. This takes foresight, commitment, and investment, and few restaurants (particularly chains, where the bean counters rule budgeting) are willing to do it. But since the state dropped its annual tax on wine inventory, it's at least feasible, and it gives restaurants like Wild Ginger that are willing to do it a competitive edge as well as something to set them apart from the herd. And it doesn't hurt when award time rolls round, either.

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