A couple of months ago, we published a story debating whether Denver has what it takes to become a top-tier food town. Our conclusion? Almost. But among the minor obstacles on the road to culinary fame, there’s a biggie we didn’t discuss: wine.
With a few exceptions, a truly first-rate food town must be a first-rate beverage town; you can’t have one without the other. Fortunately, Denver has beer and spirits covered, thanks to a world-class brewing industry, a surge in craft distilleries and some of America’s most celebrated cocktail bars. Our coffee scene’s attracting national attention too. In all these areas, we drink as well as anybody in the country, and our palates are as educated and adventurous as they come.
But the same can’t quite be said for wine. And though “cocktails and beer can absolutely pair with food,” Hop Alley wine director Matt Mulligan (pictured below) points out, “wine is special in the way that it belongs on the table.” So long as “Denver is still getting its tablescape set,” many wine programs remain pedestrian at best, reflecting a collective discomfort that’s contrary to Denverites’ generally fearless spirit.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: Thanks to entrepreneurs acting in that very spirit, the infrastructure is finally in place for us to finish setting our tablescape, complete with wine. Enter neighborhood culture.
Courtesy Hop Alley
The rise of the corner bistro
It’s not that we haven’t long had the opportunity to experience great wine. The groundwork for our current restaurant boom was laid by high-end destinations with fabulous cellars like (to name a few) Kevin Taylor, Barolo Grill, Mizuna and 1515 as well as Frasca Food and Wine and Flagstaff House in Boulder — which, for a hot second there, boasted more master somms per capita than Manhattan. But Denver simply isn’t, at its core, a town to paint red; true to our rugged Wild West roots, we cherish our down-to-earth lifestyle.
No wonder, then, that our dining scene didn’t really start coming into its own until a few years back in the post-recession economy, as chefs with fine-dining backgrounds began to gravitate toward neighborhood places — casual establishments whose small scale (and correspondingly lower overhead) lessened the pressure to meet the expectations of the connoisseur class. Instead, they could focus on cooking as they wished and pouring what they liked in an intimate yet easygoing setting that encouraged their guests to experiment without breaking the bank.
Suddenly, we were eating the likes of rabbit rillettes and lamb crépinette at the original Argyll, huitlacoche agnolotti at The Populist and duck-gizzard confit at the plimoth — not for special occasions in temples of gastronomy but at everyday meals in our own backyards. If we could disconnect great food from the expense, pomp and circumstance of gourmetdom, why not great wine?
It takes a village (or at least a neighborhood)
Perhaps we finally can. In the context of a thriving and close-knit neighborhood, where the brewery next door is tapping firkins of chestnut rauchbier and the bar down the street stocks 30 brands of mezcal, stopping by a restaurant for a glass of wine you’ve never tried doesn’t seem so daunting. Bittersweet owner Olav Peterson credits the rise of neighborhood liquor shops like Mondo Vino and Proof with helping to “change the mentality of wine drinkers in Denver.” Watching Dave Moore of Platt Park’s Divino Wine and Spirits “dedicate himself to working with small companies” and hand-selling their “weird and funky” wines — “‘check this out, check that out’” — Peterson decided, “I want to do something cool too. Let’s get into odd varietals. Pinotage. Mencía. Schiava. Zibibbo. If someone comes in looking for Pinot Noir, what can we give them instead? We’ve turned a lot of people onto new things by breaking the mold” of the one-size-fits-all wine list.
Elliot Strathmann — who runs modern LoHi trattoria Spuntino with wife-chef Cindhura Reddy (pictured above) — agrees. “We have a running joke that we’ve never had a Malbec by the glass so that our customers actually have to talk to us,” rather than just going with what they know, he says. And as an owner who’s on the floor “most nights a week,” he has the “luxury” to engage them at length, building trust as he demonstrates how “Italy’s home to thousands and thousands of wines that are delicious and not expensive.” In other words, he argues, “Our style of restaurant broadens the spectrum of who can have great and interesting wine,” one diner at a time.
Which brings us back to Hop Alley, where Mulligan relishes the special challenge of convincing diners to try wine with Chinese food: “We’re a different fun, funky place where different, fun, funky wine works” against tricky-to-pair ingredients like chiles, pickles and soy sauce — so long as you'll let the staff nudge you “off your keel.” Take one of his favorite bottles, Rondeau Bugey Cerdon. “It’s a sparkling, off-dry Gamay. People used to say they don’t want pink wine; now they say they don’t want sweet wine. Well, this is both,” he laughs. “So we’ll put it in shot glasses, chill it down right and wait until someone is really struggling with la ji zi [fried chicken with Thai chiles and Sichuan pepper]. We can tell you sweet goes with spicy, but when we give you a sip of the Bugey — which is like strawberry lemonade in the best sense — and it actually cools your palate and brings out the best in the dish, that’s when tasting is believing.” And as “we spread the word to five people, they spread it to the next five people.”
Ready to join them? Read on for 10 terrific neighborhood places to expand your wine horizons in comfort.
Courtesy Black Eye Coffee
Why: Because Peterson is a wine distributor as well as a restaurateur, he can acquire bottles rarely seen outside of special-occasion spots, such as aged Riesling, which he calls “one of the most beautiful things on the planet.”
Try: Caiarossa Pergolaia 2006, a Supertuscan “like a warm blanket on a cool fall day,” with beef
500 E. Alameda Ave.; 303-942-0320
Why: This Golden Triangle bistro just opened, but the list of 150 bottles, filled with geeky finds like red Sancerre and Corsican Niellucco, will soon balloon to 500 — almost all for under $80.
Try: Domaine Rimbert Bu End 2014, a blend of Cinsault and Muscat that co-owner Christopher Fehlinger says “smells like watermelon Jolly Ranchers and fresh lavender,” with blue cheese
112 8th Ave.; 646-275-9967
Why: Like Paul Reilly’s menu, JP Taylor’s wine list is focused entirely on the lesser-known regions of central and southern Italy — which makes for a fascinating lesson in the adage that “if it grows together, it goes together.”
Try: Abruzzo-style lamb with Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, for instance
400 E. 20th Ave.; 720-749-4666
Why: Where else can you pair true champagne with pig’s ears?
Try: Letting Mulligan introduce you to orange wine — “white wines that see skin contact” — with grilled octopus and sausage
3500 Larimer St.; 720-379-8340
Why: OK, this European-style wine bar in Boulder isn’t cheap. But we doubt you’ll find a more serious list in a more laid-back setting.
Try: Coming in with friends to share a bottle or two (food optional); for owner-sommelier Emily Gold, that’s the best way to learn about wine
2018 10th St., Boulder; 303-786-8585
Why: Strathmann goes “digging and digging and digging” to uncover the “obscure” yet affordable Italian gems that fill his list, and his passion for them is infectious.
Try: Punta Crena Cruvin 2014, a rare Ligurian red, with goat pappardelle
2639 West 32nd Ave.; 303-433-0949
Why: This is Denver's original neighborhood place; Aaron Forman was pouring killer wines in casual digs (pictured top) before just about anyone.
Try: Whatever the “Wacky, Delicious Wine of the Night” is
609 Corona St.; 303-831-8800
The Way Back
Why: Though known for bartending, partner Chad Michael George says, "I'm a self-taught wino." To push you down that path, he's put together a bottle list that's "pretty aggressive on the pricing" — most are under $50.
Try: A California wine from a rising star producer or emerging region
4132 W. 38th Ave.; 720-728-8156
Why: If the (almost) all-pink wine list at this Cap Hill haunt (pictured above) seems audacious, think again. As co-owner Steven Waters points out, because it “falls in the middle” between white and red, rosé actually “pairs more easily with multiple dishes.”
Try: Waters is "a sucker" for Gigondas rosé paired with both salmon crudo and fall vegetable dishes
800 Sherman St.; 303-955-1205