The Bar Code: Why Aragona Failed

And what that says about Seattleites’ willingness to embrace ambitious wine service.

There’s a certain nobility in grand gestures, even ones that fail. We remember the Titanic not just because it was a great tragedy (or because of Leo), but because it was a grandiose attempt to push limits. Similarly, with Vespolina (née Aragona) shutting its doors recently, I’d like to take a moment to remember just how ambitious it was, and to examine what its failure says about our food and wine scene.

For those of you who never visited Aragona, the initial incarnation, it was clear from the outset that here was a restaurant trying to open new frontiers. Sure, RN74 had also boldly focused on wine when it opened a few years earlier, but French wine has always been an easier sell here. Aragona had two of the city’s top sommeliers on hand to curate and promote a wine list that revolved around Spain, a country with few recognizable grapes or regions, even if it’s home to some truly fantastic offerings.

The goal was to get guests to take a chance on unfamiliar wines—to trust in the wine team’s skill in a way that is still largely uncomfortable for many diners. Setting aside the more outlandish suggestions, like drinking sherry with entrées, a list that offered few familiar touchstones was always going to challenge the staff and diners alike. Yet I can’t help but appreciate the optimism of such a move, even if in the long run it seemed unlikely to succeed.

Indeed, as time passed and the restaurant struggled, the somm team that opened it departed. It was clear that the center could not hold. The transition from Spanish to Italian cuisine (from Aragona to Vespolina) meant giving up on that dream of broadening Seattle’s wine horizons—and for me and those like me, the hope that a vibrant Aragona would embolden other restaurateurs to consider ambitious and audacious wine programs. After all, other fantastic wine-producing countries, like Austria and Greece, have little more than a token presence in Seattle; yet if Spanish wine was a non-starter, it’s hard to imagine Seattleites flocking to zweigelt or agiorgitiko en masse.

One thing that’s become clear in the aftermath of all this is that Seattle is still a city that likes its experiments small and contained. I’ve no doubt that much of the Aragona concept could have succeeded on a much smaller scale in a smaller space, tucked into a trendy neighborhood like Capitol Hill or Ballard. Combining the size and cost of a Downtown landmark restaurant with the unusual fare and drinks was in retrospect a real bad idea. Yet even now, after it’s all come crashing down, I can’t help but appreciate the effort.

Innovation doesn’t come only from tiny little gems that most Seattleites will only read about and never visit. Sometimes the big, bold gestures are the ones that resonate, even if they fail. While a 300-seat shrine to the glory of Spanish wine might never be in the cards for Seattle, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few future restaurants are willing to explore what had been uncharted territory. Just as long as they watch out for icebergs.

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