Why Per Se's Wine List Sucks
Nathan Claiborn Per Se's Wine List Gets an F
I try to be positive here in the Vine Geeks blog. I like cheering for Arizona wines, geekin' on what I really like and generally celebrating all the greatness in the wine world. Every now and then, though, I run into something that really chaps my hide. And right now, that is the wine list at acclaimed New York restaurant Per Se.
See also: Etna Rosso: Stuff I'm Geekin' On
Thomas Keller is justifiably famous for both Per Se and his better-known restaurant in the Napa Valley, The French Laundry. Both have earned three stars from the Michelin Guide, rare air if there ever were any. Keller is a pantheon in the American dining renaissance.
Per Se's wine program is headed by Frenchman Michel Couvreaux, who earned his cred by working for two three-star Michelin restaurants in France (L'Arpege and Guy Savoy) as well as New York's Le Bernardin. I point out all these accolades because this is what those of us in the biz like to celebrate and aspire to. Indeed ,it's what the food media establishment celebrates with things like Wine Spectator's "Grand Award Winning Wine List," which Per Se earned last year.
The problem with the accolades and media attention is that the proof is not in the pudding. Reading through Per Se's wine list is like visiting the Louvre, there are a whole lot of museum-worthy wines at astronomical prices with deep verticals of Grand Cru Burgundies, First Growth Bordeaux's, and cult California wines, all of which simply serve as a masturbatory exercise for the wine director -- as in, "Look what I can get my hands on in the auction market." Great job, bro, and I'm proud of your checkbook. Four hundred percent markups are really what turn me on.
No, no, no, no! What turns me on are creative sommeliers who scour the Earth for interesting wines from out-of-the-way regions that provide great value and an interesting conversation. Look, I get it: Per Se is at the pinnacle of dining in America, and its wine program reflects that, but the pinnacle is a cold and windy place, as is evidenced by this stodgy and backward wine list.
Ten vintages of Domaine de la Romanee Conti Richebourg is impressive, as are the 12 DRC La Tache on Per Se's list, but what's missing is the sense of discovery that so many of us crave in regard to wine. It's not that hard -- any half-assed wine director could put together this list. Just find as many trophy wines as possible, buy them, list them, and charge outrageous amounts of money for them. Then collect your six-figure salary and go home, along with your bought-and-paid-for Wine Spectator Grand Award.
What is difficult is curating a realistic list of wines that are accessible, fun and off the beaten path but worth the journey. That's the job of the modern-day sommelier. Master sommelier Richard Betts says that "wine is a grocery, not a luxury." I agree. Take your 400 percent markups, 14-year verticals of Guigal La Landonne, and stick 'em you know where because I'll be here enjoying some $25 Frappato.