'I spent a lot of years working in corporate restaurant America," says Jim Barrasso, owner of Firefly, a new grill and wine bar in Encinitas. "I had the opportunity to do a lot of work with wine lists." Part of his duties with Morton's steakhouse involved being "in charge of all the corporate wine and beverage programs. A lot of my experience came from that — I was fortunate enough to do a lot of wine trips. I got wined and dined a lot, and it's been kind of a hobby ever since."
After Morton's and a couple of other steakhouse chains, he arrived in San Diego in time to "spend a little bit of time with the guys from Fleming's," a steakhouse that has staked at least part of its reputation on a broad and accessible wine list with lots of by-the-glass offerings. "When they were developing their core wine list, I drove that program. We brought everybody up to Napa, did one of those tastings that was like 150 bottles in two days — purple teeth, that kind of thing." That's when he met Tim Hanni of WineQuest; that's when he discovered the concept of the Progressive Wine List. On the list (and here I'm quoting from a particular incarnation), wines "are grouped into flavor categories. Wines with similar flavors are listed in a simple sequence, starting with those that are sweeter and very mild in taste, progressing to the wines that are drier and stronger in taste." Sweet Sparkling gives way to Dry Sparkling, Sweet White to Dry Light/Medium-Intensity White, then on to Dry Medium/Full-Intensity White, and so on.
Says Barrasso, "I fell in love with the idea." Consider some examples from the list for Firefly: "It helps people who might not know what a David Bruce Chardonnay tastes like. If you put it in a sequence, then they might see something they recognize," and gauge the Bruce accordingly. (It's preceded by the Stag's Leap Viognier and followed by a Rutherford Ranch Chardonnay.) "Maybe it'll help them choose. Maybe it'll help them step out a little bit." If they know about a Willamette Valley Pinot Gris, maybe they'll move one down in the Dry Light to Medium-Intensity White/Rosé Wines category to an Alsatian Pinot Blanc. And who knows — maybe from there to a Spanish Rosé. "It's a tough sell, but it's one of those that a couple of staff members have fallen in love with." (Other staff-supported surprises include a Rosenblum Zinfandel and an Australian Pinot Noir, which are both outselling any Chardonnay on the list.)
Between Fleming's and Firefly, there was Steakhouse 66, a casual place that never quite worked for Barrasso. After two and a half years, he started rethinking the place. Besides expanding the menu from steakhouse to grill fare, he decided he wanted to focus on wine. He's quick to acknowledge that there are already wine bars in Encinitas — good ones. Further, "All these wine stores have tasting rooms now. You can always get a really good glass of wine, but you can't get food -- maybe a cheese plate, maybe some pâte, maybe some olives. The thought was that there was definitely a need for a place where you could actually experience wine and food together."
His clearest competition on that front is the recently opened Tastes, but even there, he thinks he's a bit different. "My vision was for two or three of us at a table here in the bar. You've got a glass of wine. I've built my own flight — every wine on the by-the-glass list is available in a two-ounce taster. We've got glasses of wine on the table and about four or five little plates of food. We're all checking it out, saying, 'Hey, what's cool?' Or, we go into the dining room and have dinner." Where Tastes goes in for a portion size somewhere between appetizer and entrée, Firefly keeps closer to the traditional division between the two. "That's what I thought was missing."
He shut down, remodeled, and reopened 32 days later with the new concept in place and an advisor for the wine list. Along the way, he tested the Progressive concept on his girlfriend. She scanned down to the Kunde Cabernet in the Dry Full-Intensity Red Wines and said, "'I can get a full-bodied Cab for 30 bucks? Right on!' She got pretty excited about it, and it started to make sense to me." Customer response has been positive as well. Some people still head straight for the Cabernet, but others have branched out. "Everything's selling, so that means something's being done right."
Especially when "everything" includes a sparkler from Alsace, the aforementioned Spanish Rosé, and an Argentinean Malbec that just keeps getting poured. "The idea was that we wanted to choose some lesser-known producers and lesser-known varietals. My goal is to get to be almost exclusively small-production, boutique-type wineries. To become known as the place where you can go to try things that are really cool, that nobody else has. The instruction to the distributors was to bring us any kind of hidden gem they could find, and we would try to make it work." Even when dealing with a standby like Cabernet, he wants to make it new: "If you have a Cab and the customer has no idea where it's from, who makes it, whatever — but it's five bucks..." The hope is that they won't be able to resist.
Pricing on the list is on the inexpensive side for a by-the-glass list: $4.25 to $9. "I was sitting there, saying, 'Five bucks a glass? I would read that on a list and think it couldn't be any good.' But I gave the list to my girlfriend, and her sister, and some other people, and they said, 'Ooh, cool — I can get a glass of wine for five bucks!' " In the future, hopes Barrasso, "It may be that there will be room for a $12 to $15 glass of wine — where we can start reaching out to those really discerning folks. But even if you're the biggest wine geek in the world, you'll find something you want to drink here." And if you can't find anything on the by-the-glass list, then there's always the bottle list to consider. "I've got Whispering Dove Cabernet for $60, and I've gone through about ten bottles in three weeks, which means that somebody who knows what's going on is saying, 'That's a pretty good deal.' They found the sleeper."