Why Per Se's Wine List Sucks

Categories: Vine Geeks

NathanClaiborn26.jpg
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.

When I'm not writing this column, or reading vintage charts to my daughter, you can find me pouring wine at FnB.

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15 comments
chefhart
chefhart

I'm guessing Nathan Claiborn doesn't leave Phoenix very often ? nor do you understand want the clientele of super high end restaurants wish for. Its clear you have knowledge of wine on the cheaper end and no doubt you could create a creative lower end wine list full of many wines no ones heard of. 



fine3wine
fine3wine

It is also very evident you have never been to this restaurant...

fine3wine
fine3wine

Rubbish.  What a shame to see Phoenix New Times publish such ignorant content, and a what a disgrace this article is.  It saddens me to see this type of trash presented and ignorance given a soapbox.  This is not edgy-this is just pathetic.  It is often in this world people are afraid of what they do not understand, but it is disgusting to witness those who pretend.  Maybe even worse, are those who support them and host a blog to feed such filth to the public. 

Minus points

Many steps back






Brazil66
Brazil66

Hey Blogger 'Bro' - can you please answer a few of these questions in regards to pricing & costs of running a program like that at Per Se?  These should be easy for you to answer since there is no way any responsible writer would make such a claim without a little research, right? 

1) Average Cost of Each Stem at Per Se? 

2) Cost of maintaining each stem? ie is there a separate dishwasher &  dedicated staff members polishing your stems at your $25/bottle frappato local?

2) Ratio of Full-time Sommeliers & Sommelier Assistants at Per Se to Number of Guest?

3) Is that a hand made bronze floor you just walked across on the way to your table?

4) Average Cost per SQFT of rent in such a location in NYC?


I could go on and on but I think you get the point, everyone on this post enjoys a great easy going country wine, but there is a time & place for each type of wine and Per Se is the place where legendary wines must have a place along with other world class wines, not all being $$$$. 


joel




CPinSF
CPinSF

"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. ".

Actually, this is the least true statement. The ability to put together a list like this is what we are all working towards in one way or another: it is an education in history, an exercise in balancing classics with new classics, years of maintaining relationships with investors, suppliers, collectors, and winemakers so those wines can be yours. It's about editing and relentless pursuit. Its about elevating the restaurant as a whole, delighting and surprising guests, knowing product and educating your sommeliers. It's years of practice to be able to run that side of the business profitably while having huge overhead. It's not about cutting corners. Building a wine list like that takes years, not just anyone can do it.

Per Se isn't that restaurant that is going to have junior sommeliers who want to play with $10 oxidized Muscats from Greece. This is the World Series of Wine. And that's what the Guests expect.

Have you mentioned the pairing wines? No. That is where sommeliers get to play- they aren't opening 89 La Tache to pour against courses. The wine pairings are where discovery is made, and due to the fact that pairings can change on a nightly basis, they probably aren't all printed the wine list.

Have you eaten there and enjoyed the wines? Or did you simply print out the online list and judge from afar? You've made no mention of experience with the sommeliers. I thought you said you are in the business?

A wine list of this caliber has so many selections so that it can hold the museum pieces on the top, and support them with the sales of other wines. DRC isn't what is making the house money on the daily, it's probably more like Kistler, Schloss Gobelsburg, and M&S Ogier. It's probably the somms selling the hell out of exciting pairings and recommending killer midpriced to high priced wines to curious guests, and keeping the luxury wines for the guests who have no problem throwing down hard cash.

So next time, go to the restaurant and talk to the sommeliers and learn how they use their list. Of perhaps, stage somewhere of this caliber. Know what is self-mastubatory and what is the result of years of dedication and education to the craft of wine list curation and guest experience. That might make you a little more informed.

Syrahead
Syrahead

You're just flat out wrong...in this instance.  Per Se is a terrible example and it undermines the entire argument.  In a perfect world every wine list would be all-encompassing but buyers are limited in certain resources. The factors that weigh heaviest on my list are: time, space, budget and opportunity cost.


Ultimately, math dictates.

spillsbury
spillsbury

Hah. Right on Nathan. And regarding other comments, of course you can't do a 'Sand Reckoner' or any other AZ wine on the same level as these, but that's just because of perception, not quality. For all of you out these who want to pay through the nose because one wine critic who likes overblown wines gave them high scores, go right ahead. It's your money.

Some high-end places are into quality instead of just reputation. Some Somms taste wine, not just read reviews. Any fool can do that. We had one of our wines in Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. That guy was into wine, not just fashion.

asualb
asualb

Wow. Your lame attempt to, I guess, make a name for yourself?, has only cemented your reputation for the rest of your life as "the guy who thought Per Se should serve $25 Frappato"

kdle2
kdle2

Per Se is a destination restaurant and people travel there for special occasions. Their wine list has hard to find world class wines in addition to more wallet-friendly selections. Not everyone wants cafeteria-quality food and cheap AZ swill wines like you serve at FnB.

Prophx
Prophx

@sosgoodjhu1 Your argument is weakened by the fact that you don't even know how to spell "Romanée-Conti."  That's pretty sad from someone as worldly as you.  Ha!

sosgoodjhu1
sosgoodjhu1

Nathan I think you are right where you belong...pouring QPR "discovery" wines at a restaurant that would shutter in 10 days if it were in NYC. Per Se is one of the finest restaurants in the world catering to affluent diners who prefer to drink wines with pedigree that pair with the high quality of dishes that Keller's team serves.

sosgoodjhu1
sosgoodjhu1

@Prophx  Thanks for the correction.  It is so sad...please cry for me.  I drained a bottle of the 1990 DRC RC at Alinea, Chicago so at least it has hit my palate before.  And you?

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