House wines, crafted to a restaurateur’s order, aren’t common on U.S. menus; in Europe one sees them everywhere, particularly in smaller restaurants specializing in the regional cuisine of the nearby countryside. So it’s not surprising that two European-trained chefs with a passion for fresh local products have pioneered the practice here in Washington.
For Markus Donier, wine manager at Kaspar’s restaurant on lower Queen Anne, it started with the sight of plum trees beside the road to his brother Kaspar’s summer cabin near the Canadian border. “We thought, ‘How nice if we could make some plum jam for the restaurant.’ We went to the farmer and offered to pay for some, but he told us to take all we wanted.”
The farmer, as it happened, was Randy Finley, founder of the Seven Gables Theatre chain and, after his retirement from the film business, the proprietor of Mount Baker Vineyards in Deming, Wash. And Finley also happened to grow chasselas grapes, one of the basic varieties of the Doniers’ native Switzerland that are rarely grown elsewhere.
Finley, always ready for something new, let the Doniers taste his wines right out of the barrel and come up with a blend that appealed to them. Six years ago Kaspar’s White, a blend of chasselas, chardonnay, and pinot gris, appeared on the menu; Kaspar’s Red joined the team a year later. Together the two wines are the biggest movers on the list, accounting for around 250 cases in sales annually.
No dog in the manger, Kaspar recommended Finley to his colleague and competitor Ludger Szmania when Szmania was looking for a house wine of his own. “Ludger was a tough one,” says Finley. “It seems like we drove down with samples half a dozen times before he was satisfied.” (“Twice, as I recall,” says Szmania.) But satisfied he was, and today the two Szmania’s restaurants in Magnolia and Kirkland sell 150 cases a year of Szmania’s Chardonnay and Szmania’s Cabernet.
For a small winery like Finley’s, a dependable sale of 400 cases annually is “a nice little cushion.” For his customers, it’s a chance to put as personal a mark on the wine list as on the menu. “It’s something different they can’t find in the store,” Szmania says. Markus agrees: “Our customers love it. We give them good value, a good story, and a connection to the region.” And a good glass of wine.
March is Washington Wine Month! For more information, call 667-9463 or go to www.washingtonwine.org. Cheers!