Ryan Fletter worked in Denver’s Barolo Grill as a server and server captain when it first opened in 1990. Then it was off to other restaurants, including Michael Mina’s Aqua in San Francisco, where he focused on wine in the company of several Master Sommeliers. When he and his wife moved back to Colorado in 2003, he ended up re-joining the Barolo Grill as GM and Wine Director. Luke Sykora spoke with him about Italian wines and what works at Barolo Grill from outside Italy’s borders.
What areas of your list have grown the most in the last few years?
In earlier days we sold only Italian wines, but we live in area that serves lots of different ethnicities, and people with other interests in wine and food. Customers genuinely want other areas. We find ourselves serving Sancerre and grüner veltliner by the glass, or classic Rioja. When somebody wants cabernet in its greatest form, you don’t always think of Italy, even though it does occur there. I see customers looking for a great pinot noir from the Russian River first, and then a Super Tuscan or Barolo later. I don’t always just try to find an Italian pinot noir.
When you talk about Italy, some people are really curious and want to try everything: Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, wines from the Marche or Lazio. And now you’re also seeing more interest going back to the blue chip stocks: Super Tuscans have been dominating. People seem to be returning to Tuscany for really epic wines.
Speaking of Super Tuscans, a number did well for you, from Tenuta San Guido’s Guidalberto to Gaja’s Ca’Marcanda Promis. What’s happening with that category?
I think it’s a bit of a delayed reaction. People are just now arriving at a category that’s existed for a while, but are now finding themselves fixated. Even though it’s not clearly defined. I find myself explaining that not all “Super Tuscans” are built alike, for different reasons. Sometimes you’re talking about Tuscan cabernet or merlot, or Napa Valley gone Tuscany. And there are guests who have particular wines that they focus on: Bring me a Sassicaia; I may not know the grapes, or its neighbors, or what wines to compare it to. Others might say: I’m looking for a Super Tuscan, aren’t those really big wines? And I have to say, Well, some are, but some may not be. Some folks who want syrah go to that category, some who want cab go to that category, and some just know the property.
What about Barolo, does that sell itself at the Barolo Grill?
I’m interested in how many people are now willing to head down the road of Barolo and nebbiolo, because you really need to make an investment to understand it. In the last few years I’ve had more people coming in saying: I want a Barolo; you choose.
Your top by-the-glass pour and one of the best-selling bottles for you was the Rodano Chianti Classico. Is Chianti still sort of the quintessential Italian wine for people?
I really do think it encapsulates the quintessential idea [of Italian wine]. Chianti, you sometimes think about it as a brand more than a location. Chianti Classico is the apogee of the appellation and there’s something really different about that—especially a producer like Rodano, who isn’t using international grapes and sticks with a more traditional model. Young people who didn’t have bad experiences with those old, thin Chianti are finding it to be a really positive thing. If you have a wine where you can open it for people and 999 out of 1,000 like it—cab drinkers, pinot drinkers—that’s an amazing thing. And that bottling does that well. After you’ve opened a few thousand of them, and have has zero sent back to the kitchen? It’s not controversial. It’s sangiovese. It’s not what you’d expect to be a crowd pleaser, but it is.
I will say, when people are flipping through the wine list, they don’t often stop at the Chianti section. They settle on Brunello and things like that, looking to spend their money there. But if you blind people on it, it does really well.
So a chardonnay from Alto Adige did really well for you, from Viticoltori Caldaro. Tell me about that.
I pour a chardonnay by the glass from Napa but I don’t put it on the wine list. It’s there in the tool belt for someone who asks for California, but it’s an easy lay-up. I want to make it a bit more appealing to investigate non-typical areas for chardonnay, and this is quite non-typical—not aged in new wood; it takes a more neutral path. It’s from Caldaro—it’s like the Sound of Music up there, it’s beautiful—from an appellation famous for white grapes, and it has good acidity. It’s another one of those wines you can pour for almost anyone and they say: I love it! I have 50 percent going there and 50 percent not. I’ve found that a lot of people have moved away both from both rich and oaky chardonnay and the lean, green chardonnay and are finding the middle ground: round, ripe fruit but without much oak. And this wine does that.
Gagliardo Piedmont Favorita—how did you sell that?
I am very lucky because it’s a grape from Piemonte and we’re the Barolo Grill. I’ve been selling that wine for ten years and having a lot of hills and valleys with it. I pour that for people and watch the reactions. I don’t talk a lot about it until I see people react. Again, if you pour something 1000 times and 998 times it is successful, you have to think it’s crowd-pleasing. Favorita is an autochthonous varietal from the Piemonte. First of all the name is so cool, because it sounds like “favorite.” It’s not very expensive. It’s easy to experiment with. People will come and say: “Do you have that hang-tag wine?” because it’s the one wine that has a tag hanging off it.
Pinot grigio is so popular and so successful—and I’m using this grape as an alternative. Also, it has a sort of saline tanginess to it, and it seems that people are interested in seeing those kinds of flavors lately.
Okay, the Dr. H. Thanisch Mosel Riesling Bernkasteler Badstube—how do you get folks to drink riesling at an establishment called Barolo Grill?
We never sold a drop of German wine here a decade ago, until I started to personally find them enjoyable and interesting and I had customers asking for an off-dry white. I love dry riesling, don’t get me wrong, but I pour this off-dry style. People are open to off-dry wines now, they’re more open to them than in the past. I told the staff: here you have a good classic version of an off-dry riesling from the Mosel. And we don’t put it on the list. They have that in their back pocket, and now people are saying: Do you have something that’s a little sweet? I have been selling a lot of that for the last year or two, more than I ever expected. I’m ordering a case every other week. Although, when you talk about Bernkasteler Badstube, folks have no idea what you’re talking about. So that’s one reason I don’t list it, as well.
Since you taste a lot of Italian wine: Are there certain wines that have surprised you with how well they’ve held up with bottle age?
I am fortunate that we have wines in a lot of categories and I stumble on things years later all the time. The other night I opened a refosco from 2003, a highly regarded one, a Friulian wine, actually pignolo and refosco blended, and I was shocked at how amazing the wine was at 11 years old now. I found a couple of bottles in my inventory and was psyched: something that drinks almost like Bordeaux, but from Italy. It was the La Roncaia Il Fusco, up in the Colli Orientali.
When you look at the south I had a Taurasi from Terredora, a 2001, the other day, and I thought: This is really good. You don’t get to taste a lot of aged Taurasi or aglianico unless you’re at a tasting or somebody has collected a vertical. It makes sense why they call it the nebbiolo of the south; it has the tannin and the acid and the structure. Also, nerello mascalese in the south can be really interesting with age on it.