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Wednesday Warblings
Great Wines Lists in Unexpected Places

By Stephen Eliot

I can still remember a time when finding a restaurant with an even passably interesting wine list was no easy task, much like the hunt for a place with genuine espresso machine. Happily, it now seems that the latter is easily found on three street corners out of four, and friendly, functional wine lists are the norm rather than being the exception. Some, of course, are better than others, and, while, I freely confess to seeking out those of extraordinary breadth, I admit to special delight when finding a very good glass in the least likely of places.

I was on the road to Los Angeles last week to participate in this year’s Los Angeles International Wine Competition and encountered more than a few memorable menus backed up by smart, well-chosen lists. Of particular note were the appellation-centric list of Paso Roble’s first-rate Artisan Restaurant and that of Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, each of which eateries come, by the way, with an enthusiastic “must try” recommendation, but the one I will remember with the biggest smile of them all was found on the wall at Philippe The Original just across from Union Station in downtown LA.

For those of you who may not yet know, Philippe’s is the creator and home of the French Dip Beef Sandwich. Except for plenty of bright neon lighting, little inside of the place seems to have changed in the 100-plus years of its existence. There is sawdust on the floor, high-backed wooden booths from decades long passed and large jars of pickled eggs on counters where long lines of hungry, French-dip devotees patiently wait for a one-of-a kind treat. The place is loud, and it is busy in the way that reminds of the trading floor at a major stock exchange. It is also very good, and it is a regular lunch stop on my infrequent visits to Southern California.

Last Sunday, we pulled in for a quick bite before heading up north on I-5, and as I placed my order for a roasted beef sandwich au jus, I looked up and found to my great surprise a large board listing the day’s selection of wines by the glass. Now, my criteria for real wine-list success is value, quality and a selection sufficiently broad to offer both adventure and comfort, and, if Philippe’s listing of fifteen wines was not comprehensive, it more than made up in the first two for what it may have lacked in the last. Frankly, I had just been hoping that maybe I might be able to have a beer with my lunch, but faced with such choices as Pine Ridge Carneros Chardonnay for $6.00 a glass, Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc and Frog’s Leap Merlot for $7.00, Merry Edwards’s delicious Russian River Valley Pinot Noir for $9.00 and the Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for $12.00, something vinous became the obvious choice.

Surprise and discovery keeps what we do still exciting after all these years. It may come by way of a great old bottle tucked away in the cellar or by a significant new talent, and sometimes it comes, as it did last Sunday afternoon, in finding just the right thing in just the right place when you least expected it.


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