Two years ago I wrote an article listing my choices for the best wine programs in Vancouver. I was looking for the very best lists in the city. In that article I provided a set of criteria that formed the basis for my evaluation. Revisiting my evaluation today, I can’t say that the restaurant wine scene has changed that much at the top level in Vancouver since 2017, which has much to do with our real estate and cost of living situation. I may today knock off L’Abattoir and Vij’s from the list of the very best if I am to be extremely strict in my analysis, but I also cannot find any real replacements at the top end. As such, this year I decided to provide a list of what I believe are the best small wine programs in the city. I intentionally exclude restaurants with very large cellars and significant wine budgets. However, in this analysis I still apply the criteria from two years ago and have added some additional special factors, which I articulate below.
Listing Strength: A top small wine program simply cannot have a hyper-conservative wine on either the by the glass or by the bottle list. I appreciate the need to sell wines and the margin requirements of by the glass. However, to stand out a small wine program should feel confident enough to present only wines of merit that are consistent with the food program and the atmosphere of the restaurant. Staff should be trained to understand and sell these wines, sharing excitement with diners. As there are not many choices on a small list, each miss seriously takes away from the entire package. Do not waste space on the list with uninspired selections.
Balance and Variety: I wrote extensively about this in my 2017 rankings. These criteria apply to small programs as much as large programs. Balance and variety in a small program means that any diner, no matter their preferences, should find something to suit their palate. The real challenge is combining this with the previous criteria. What separates the mediocre small lists from the best is that the wines on offer both avoid over-conservativism but also appreciate the range of legitimate palate preferences of diners. I am not saying to cater to the soft drink crowd, but most diners are more sensible and willing to try new things so long as the staff listen to their preferences and relevant options are on the list. Balance and variety is also essential for seasoned wine-lovers as their preferences change based on mood, company, weather, food, etc. A list that leaves a diner feeling deflated after reading it for lack of an exciting option will never do well in this category.
Rotation: The best small lists rotate their selections. The death-knell of a small list is the conservative take-no-risks approach that sees the same wines over and over again. Even very good wines get boring if you have no other options. The relative size of the lists requires whoever is in charge of the wine program to think carefully about when to change the list and to what extent. Given the supply issues in this province, this is a real challenge for small restaurants, which also really distinguishes the best of them.
The Best Small Wine Programs in Vancouver
1. Kissa Tanto: Not only is the room great and the food on point and innovative, but the beverage list is fantastic, broad, balanced, always exciting, and for some reason regularly under-recognized by the traditional wine awards. A serious sake selection sits aside a list that understands the need to balance “tried and true” selections with “wild things” and a small smattering of top level bottles. I am always excited to dine at Kissa Tanto and the wine program is a big part of that. The staff also exude excitement about the wines they have on offer. This is easily my top small wine program in the city.
2. Savio Volpe: An obvious Italian focus does not exclude balance and variety, with many wines from outside the boring – see Lagrein from Trentino-Alto Adige or an Occhipinti Frappato, but also well-selected classics such as Castello di Volpaia and Pieropan Soave. The list jives well with the space and the food and the staff have a reasonable (though imperfect) knowledge of the program. Too many restaurants that have hit it big with the ‘hip’ crowd make me yawn when I pick up the wine list. That never happens at Savio Volpe.
3. Burdock and Co: Burdock’s wine list is controversial for focusing entirely on natural wines. I personally do not feel the restaurant satisfies my criteria to be among the best in the city. However, it is certainly among the best small programs in the city. The list is tight and interesting, it compliments the food, it is philosophically bold and well-aligned with millennial values and the staff seem to really care about what they are selling. My one knock on this list is that it lacks some balance. There have been times where I have not been able to find a wine that suits my preferences for the evening, even knowing what I am getting into when I dine at Burdock. If they could expand the list somewhat to include some bolder reds and whites I think that would help. I also find that there can be too many red wines with Brettanomyces on the list. That said, arguably Burdock as a whole is the boldest restaurant in the city and I do think we need a lot more of that. The conservative dining scene here has trouble taking the plunge and innovating and Burdock is one of the very few places that is not shy on this front.
4. Grapes and Soda: Yes this is a wine bar, but I think it serves enough interesting and delicious food to deserve a place on the list. First, I need to get my one criticism out of the way, which is that the room (much like Farmer’s Apprentice) is too hot and too filled with kitchen smells. The airflow issue is significant and I wish it could be remedied. However, with that out of the way, this is a tight, fun list always with good bubbles and a surprising variety of grapes and regions. You are just as likely to find Austrian Grauburgunder on the list as a funky Loire Chenin, a small-production Oregon Pinot Noir, or a couple carefully selected local producers. Being a wine bar, staff knowledge and passion is high for the product.
5. Royal Dinette: This is the best small list in the downtown core and shares a similar ethos to Grapes and Soda though with a careful emphasis on suitability and a tight by-the-glass list for lunchtime diners that is not boring but that also provides options for the wide variety of diners coming in from the downtown core. Royal Dinette proves that the lunchtime financial district crowd can enjoy innovative wines without fuss or proselytizing. I have regularly seen guests of mine express surprise and pleasure with a glass of Foillard Gamay or Bella sparkling. The wines also suit the menu and a reserve list keeps dinner interesting.