As my oenophile companion Michael walked into the new wine bar Vinotecca on a Saturday night, an acquaintance assured him, “You’ll have fun.” Since that acquaintance happened to be the sommelier at Holiday Market, we took him seriously.
And that’s Vinotecca’s premise: to take wine seriously and have a blast doing it. Well aware of the intimidation factor in wine appreciation, owner Kristin Jonna, of the Merchant’s Fine Wine Jonna family, says, “Vinotecca’s main goal was not to be a stuffy wine venue. My father and I are recognized in the community as educators who are very casual, approachable and friendly. We can bring wine to anybody.
“We believe that educating is the key. You can take somebody who’s inexperienced and who’s intimidated by wine, and in a one-hour seminar convert them to someone who understands their own palate. What do you like? There’s a wine for everyone.”
So patrons can learn from the knowledgeable waiters, who were quizzed on their wine knowledge before being hired, and who are subjected to daily tastings at the store. And they can relax as much as their party’s designated-driver policy will allow. Wine aficionados often seem to ignore the fact that distinguishing an Old World finish from a New World finish isn’t the only reason people drink wine; the alcohol content rates right up there too.
Indeed, by the end of the evening, I was scribbling notes like “Zinfandel — Zing!” and Barbara was saying, “Is this the Shiraz? Because now it’s great!”
We had gone the experimental route, ordering 2 1/2-oz. “taste” servings for half the price of a glass, so our table was soon littered with reds that looked identical in the low light. Disagreeing most of the time, we found the truth in “to each his own.” Take recommendations with a grain of salt. Or with a loaf of bread and thou.
Jonna’s wine list is eclectic, well balanced among vineyards around the globe. Most of the bottles are less than $40, and many are priced between $20 and $30. Mainstream standbys sell less well, she says, than those the menu calls “intriguing” whites and red blends; these include wines from South Africa, Australia and Argentina.
We all liked a white called Xarel.lo from Catalonia, made from the same grapes used for Spanish cava — that country’s high-value sparkling wines. It somehow felt like dessert, without being at all sweet; it reminded me of vanilla, while my friend called it “light, dry and fruity.” (The top-selling white at Vinotecca is Crios Torrontes from Argentina. It’s amusing to go online and read the different reviewers’ descriptions, which range from honeysuckle through pippin apple to caramelized lime.)
As for reds, I enjoyed the South African Goat Roti — a robust blend the staff is recommending — and a Frei Brothers Pinot Noir (California). Guenoc Petite Sirah, from north of Napa, had a big, fruity flavor. And Catena Malbec (Argentina) was either overwhelming or just what you were looking for.
If you care to match wits with the staff, ask for a blind taste “flight” of two whites and two reds. If you can identify the varietal, you get 10 percent off for each right answer. If you fail, sign up for classes that begin this summer. Write to [email protected]
And if you’ve ever been frustrated by Michigan’s laws prohibiting tastings in a wine store, Vinotecca is your answer. A retail component downstairs, which should be open by the time you read this, will let customers buy the wines they’ve sampled above, and more, with volume discounts.
Wine’s character changes immensely when it’s drunk with food, of course, so Vinotecca has a good list of cheeses and 22 small plates — larger than tapas, smaller than most entrées. Three for two people or four for three may be plenty, depending how long you linger. Jonna is selling more cheese than anything else, and deservedly so. Order a $9 sampler platter and make sure it includes Mobay, a tangy half sheep-half goat combination from Wisconsin. As is fitting, exceptionally good grapes are served with the cheeses, which come from the United States, Spain, Italy, France and the Netherlands.
We found a non-cheese pizza disappointing — not nearly enough clams nor pancetta. A white pizza with truffled mozzarella was better — one taste despite the three cheeses, but a good one, and tart arugula worked well with the bland cheese. Calamari were appropriately crisp and light, with a crust that seemed sometimes salty, sometimes lemony.
A trio of cold rillettes — salmon, duck and wild mushrooms — is a great idea, but lacked something in the execution. Rillettes are meat (usually), cooked in seasoned fat and pounded into a paste, sort of like a paté but not as exciting. Of the three, only the mushrooms improved on their less-processed flavor. Warm mushrooms were also excellent folded into puff pastry to make a Napoleon.
Chef Cassaundra Portalski is also offering a selection of olives; salads; a slider trio of beef, lamb and tuna on brioche with housemade ketchup; prosciutto panini with pears, Gorgonzola and honey; a Gruyère sandwich with sage butter; and a burger.
Be aware that Vinotecca was definitely the place to be seen in its first weeks, making for a high decibel level. Sitting downstairs away from the crowd is a less frenetic approach. The restaurant opens at 4 p.m. every day, and the retail store at noon.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].