I have been involved in some debates about the ‘best’ wine program (not wine list) in Vancouver. These judgments necessarily have some subjective element to them, but in my view we should ground such analysis in objective criteria. For me, the baseline for evaluation of any wine program is the customer experience – the focal point of dining out. Moreover, it is not really possible to compare wine programs with small, medium and large wine lists on the same scale. I see too many ‘best’ lists that fail to make this distinction. Though that is likely due to Vancouver’s paucity of restaurants in the large list category and thus as a necessity a ‘best of’ list should be attentive to the differences in the categories while also recognizing there just aren’t that many big programs in Vancouver comparatively. Thus I don’t make the separation on my below list (though as the City grows and more programs excel I likely will). I view all the following objective criteria through the lens of the above comments.
No bad wine: Fairly obviously the #1 category. This includes flawed wines as well as commercial wines or mediocre examples of varieties, etc.
Food pairing: Needless to say the wine list should be built around pairing with the restaurant food. This means both more typical ‘no fail’ pairings and more adventurous pairings. This also requires the wine director and sommeliers to stay on top of changing menus and have sufficient flexibility in their lists to accommodate.
A Consistent Sensibility: This is a wine program’s sense of purpose. Programs can’t simply flail about looking for meaning with a mish mash of unconnected wines. There needs to be a story. Seasonality can play a role. This applies to small lists most easily, but in my view is relevant for all list sizes.
An understanding of but not slavish adherence to trends: A great wine program stands the test of time. It understands the latest trends in wine but doesn’t slavishly adhere to them. It also doesn’t become irrelevant by falling out of date and out of step as tastes change, advances are made, and new regions ‘discovered’.
Diversity: A great wine program has a diversity of selections that offer a range of styles, flavours and experiences. The key is melding that diversity together with a sense of purpose. It is essential not to imprison people into drinking only the wine director’s or sommelier’s favourite wines or wines that suit their personal tastes. Diversity does not require endless off-the-wall wines of the moment.
Balance: A great wine program is balanced. That means it doesn’t offer only a single type of experience for a guest. This links to the diversity category. Wines can’t all be of the same type. For example, in my view an ‘all naturalist’ list is not balanced and has insufficient diversity. It also will likely fail in the value and excitement category for some diners. It is an example of how philosophy can overwhelm guest experiences. It also is a limited way of engaging customers in key issues about agriculture. For example, there are many non ‘naturalist’ wines that are farmed sustainably and where the proprietors care about soil and ecosystem health – but they are made in a more stable manner, less afraid of sulphuring the wine. A balanced list would have these wines alongside some ‘naturalist’ wines.
Value: Great wine lists should not include ‘bad value’ wines that cost more than is deserved for the quality they deliver. Moreover, there should be an option for very good value on the list for all drinkers, whether they are by the bottle or by the glass buyers. A wine director should have the experience to put something incredible on the list that is particularly good value. Not everyone will order it – it may be a hand sell – but it delivers some of the best value on the list.
Excitement and Fun: No one wants to be bored reading a wine list or engaging with the wine program. Wine lists should change and evolve and always provide excitement to the guest who is choosing the wine. Excitement will be delivered differently for wine geeks vs. less informed wine lovers vs. newbies. Each category of guest should be thought of when building a list for excitement. If a guest can’t access a list, that’s likely at least a partial failing of the restaurant, but it can be remedied by thoughtful and professional wine staff.
Accuracy – Attention to detail: No misspellings, wrong vintages, etc., cross out wines that are no longer available, etc. Include prices on the list.
Design and Accessibility: The wine list itself should be easy to read and contain more information than simply the basics. Flavour descriptions I find mostly useless – it is better to use the more objective descriptors relating to weight, acidity, richness, etc. Descriptions of wines that no one can relate to or understand or use of wine geek terms and jargon should be frowned upon.
Framing: Wine programs do well when they frame wine for customers in a manner that is more interesting than by country, variety and price. For example, the body of a wine, or “wines grown in volcanic soils” or something equally creative. A little blurb on the list can add a lot of personality and contribute greatly to the wine program’s sense of purpose and personality.
Breadth and Depth: This is where it becomes impossible to compare small, medium and large lists. However, there is relative truth to this category. Even a small list requires sufficient breadth and depth within its context.
Wine Service – Technical: One cannot properly assess a wine program without an in-depth look at service. This and the next category are extremely hard to do well. Restaurants can hire consultants to build their wine lists (though this often results in boring cookie-cutter lists unless the consultant is particularly talented) but the service on the floor can’t be contracted out and makes or breaks a wine program. The technical category includes using proper glassware, serving temperature, decanting, tasting bottles for flaws before serving, ensuring the customer approves the producer and vintage, customer taste, etc.
Wine Service – Presentation: This is the hardest category to perfect in my view because it takes tremendous experience, repetition and training to do this well. Great wine programs have staff who can read customers and their context. This is even more true of repeat customers. For example, is it a business related event or personal? Is it a spendy evening or not? Is it a special event? Are the diners adventurous or conventional? Also awkward ‘fancy’ service really hurts here. Sommeliers should be extremely personable and professional. Non-wine service staff should be trained when to bring over the sommelier and not to bullshit their knowledge of a wine. The best wine programs have all service staff trained well on all the by the glass pours and some basic bottles and then bring the sommelier over for more complicated questions. Do not let glasses go dry – there is nothing more annoying than whisking a bottle away from the table for decanting and then diners running out of wine waiting for their glasses to be filled up due to over-busy or inattentive service.
The Best Wine Programs in Vancouver
Here is my list, based on multiple times dining and evaluating using the above criteria. I have not capped this list at any particular number and will change it over time. Right now, in my opinion these are the restaurants in Vancouver that deserve attention and special recognition for their wine programs. As more young sommeliers get trained in the city and restaurant owners start putting more resources into their beverage programs, I suspect this list will expand over the years. This list excludes many restaurants with good wine programs and aspiring wine programs. This is not intended to put down any such restaurant. Everyone in any profession can aspire to reach the upper echelons of their profession while also feeling pride in their accomplishments. There are many young wine directors and sommeliers who have grown so fast in such a short time that I expect they and their restaurants will be on my list soon enough. In fairness as well, many sommeliers are constrained by the whims and resource allocations of their managers and business owners. A great wine program needs buy-in at all levels.
1. Hawksworth: In my view this is by far the best wine program in Vancouver. No restaurant yet comes close to what Bryant Mao is delivering at Hawksworth. It scores extremely well on all the above categories and has the best balanced wine list in the city coupled with the city’s most sophisticated wine service. I have never dined at Hawksworth and had a wine miss. Bryant is a master of reading context and delivering a level of sophistication and class to dining that normally you would have to leave the country to obtain. The wine list is extremely comprehensive and deep without being overwhelming. But the best part of dining here is that you don’t even need to look at the list. Bryant and his staff can curate a perfect experience for you simply by reading cues.
2. Cincin: Recently, Cincin’s wine program has been vastly upgraded and improved under the guidance of Sommelier Shane Taylor (who just won the Vancouver’s Best Sommelier competition). The list has a strong sense of purpose with Italian wine but is up on the much more sophisticated breadth and excitement of Italian wine in the 21st century compared to the typical and more boring selections on 20th century North American lists. This is done without losing sight of the classics like Chianti, offering bottles of the best of the new (orange wine from Paolo Bea for example), and a fun coravin by the glass program with some seriously exciting wines. Wine service has been consistently improving over the years. The list has serious depth with back vintages and breadth and in my view beats Cioppino’s hands down for the complete package experience and fairer markups. The one weaker spot on the list is the non-Italian selections. There are some good examples, but I think the list could do with a little more non-Italian excitement that still goes along with the theme (e.g. there are some great Italian variety wines being made in California these days).
3. Chambar: Jason Yamasaki revamped Chambar’s wine program and significantly moved it up the rankings during his tenure (he has since left, though still consults). His legacy remains strong, including his list and the staff he trained, now headed by Kaela Augustine. The wine list now offers one of the most complete surveys of what I might call the ‘new wave’ of balanced, fresh wine in Vancouver. This is the restaurant to go to if you want to sample the best of wine trends while ensuring quality, pairability and fun is always put before fashion. The wine list organization is excellent and accessible (e.g. by style and body – “dry riesling” or “minerally whites”), with fun writeups that most can understand and the passion of the wine staff is infectious. I think this restaurant can climb higher as the new staff make the program theirs.
4. Vij’s: Pairing wine with Indian food has been a challenge for many, but sommelier Sean Nelson has taken this wine program to the next level. The most talked about value is Krug by the glass at 17% markup – quite awesome given that Krug is often the most marked up wine in a restaurant, generally at 300-600%. But for me Vij’s wine program has vaulted upward due to the inimitable passion of Sean making the program work with the now-iconic food of Vikram Vij. For instance, I attended a Bollinger dinner at Vij’s where each curry perfectly married to the nuances of each of Bollinger’s cuvees – from special cuvee up to RD. One of the pairings was so good that Bollinger’s reps wanted the recipe for their website. The list continues to expand and now always has exciting gems.
5. L’Abattoir: This restaurant has had its ups and downs with its wine program. During the tenure of Jake Skakun, L’Abattoir had the most progressive list in the city and was perhaps the first restaurant to start pouring ‘natural’ wines and masterpieces like Lapierre Beaujolais while never losing sight of the importance of breadth and diversity. A lull in the wine program has ended with the arrival of Lisa Haley, who has brought the list back to form and done wonders at improving the wine service. It is a list without arrogance but with the passion of a true wine nerd.