Flemings takes on Connecticut Wines

New England Wine Gazette - Fall 2008


A Prestigious Restaurant Chain Takes on Connecticut Wines

Wine’s Glass Ceiling

I have a bee in my bonnet about our local restaurants and their wine lists. When I dine at a restaurant in Connecticut, I ask if they have a Connecticut wine, or even a wine from the northeast, on their list.  But it’s rare to be offered a wine east of the Rockies.

There are several reasons, or excuses, for not carrying local wines. Availability is the most common rationale. And that’s quite true for many small producers, but most of the larger and best New England producers now produce adequate quantities of wines.

Quality is another supposed explanation for not including local wines. What exasperates and surprises me is when a restaurant owner or sommelier turns their noses up at the thought of using local wines on their list, when in fact many have either never tasted regional wines, or they vaguely remember tasting a local wine perhaps 10 years ago. They fail to understand the leap in quality that has happened to our wines in the last decade.

Flemings Restaurant - A Breath of Fresh Air

It was refreshing for me to attend a staff training session at the Flemings restaurant that opened recently in West Hartford, Connecticut. Staff at Flemings are exposed to an innovative approach to how to present wine in a restaurant. Direct of Wine for the Flemings restaurant chain, Marian Jansen op de Haar is an expert wine instructor and has developed a comprehensive educational program for her staff. They continuously taste new wines, and are trained to advise and help clients match their food selection to the wine. “We have no need for showy sommeliers,” she says. “And by offering our guests a large number of accessible choices, we keep the wine selection process flexible and fun.

Located in 57 locations throughout the States, Fleming’s was launched in Newport Beach, California in 1998 by successful restaurant industry veterans Paul Fleming and Bill Allen. They offer steakhouse style dining. As well as serving prime meats they offer fresh fish and poultry. At West Hartford’s Flemings there’s a warm and inviting ambience. The kitchen is open and there’s a sense of casual elegance. Flemings is of course a fixture on the Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence list.

One Hundred of the Best

Flemings claim to fame is that they offer an astonishing 100 wines by the glass.  Jansen calls this their “honor roll of excellence from around the world.” The list offers popular as well as more small production boutique offerings. The list changes each year. Over 70% of the new wines featured on this year’s Fleming’s 100 come from wineries that practice sustainable farming, or organic and biodynamic farming including one of my favorites Mendocino’s Bonterra. Seventy of the 100 selections are chosen by Marion and are available in every Flemings and 30 are chosen on a local basis responding to regional demands. Prices range from $6.50 to $25 a glass. They are meticulous on how they keep their wines using state-of-the-art temperature controlled storage areas, presenting the wines in ample 24 ounce tulip-shaped glasses.

As well as offering these wines by the glass, flights of 2-ounce tastes are on hand introducing diners to alternate and interesting wines. So instead of having one 6 ounce glass of your regular and favorite New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, why not experiment and try the Argentine Torrentes, and Spanish Albariño alongside your favorite.

The Flemings Wine Manager – An Interview

I asked Erik Bush, the wine manager at the West Hartford Flemings for an overview on Flemings approach to wine.

“Flemings philosophy revolves around the marriage of wine and food. We want to be the epicenter of wine wherever we are. Offering 100 wines by the glass is un-paralleled so it does set us apart from other restaurants. We have a very balanced wine list. We carry many Californian wines because we are an Amerikan steakhouse. But we don’t clog ourselves with a million Napa Cabernets or Sonoma Chardonnays. We balance those with about 30% wines from around the world. Wines are listed in intensity as opposed to price so you can choose a style of wine, and then choose the price point.

Although we offer wines that people know and want, we try to obtain boutique small production wines that other places do not have. We have wines that have been made specifically for us. For example we have an organically produced Pinot Noir by Paul Dolan made especially for Flemings. Marion also consulted with George Duboeuf in France to create a special Pouilly Fuisse cuvee, and last year she created a Bordeaux blend with Flora Springs in Napa. There are more sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines now than there were 4-5 years ago. A lot of wineries are going green and more diners are asking for them.

We are very particular about training our staff. Many of the staff already might know a fair bit about brands but not necessarily about wine. We train them about wine from the vine to the bottle, and the processes in between. For example, in a recent class we tasted and compared oaked to un-oaked Chardonnay flavor profiles. We examine how the winemaker gets the buttery taste in Chardonnay. There are tasting notes on all the wines, which the staff can refer to any day of the week.

We see how wines match up with certain food. We also try foods that make the wines taste bad! We try to build their experience so they can help diners. It’s all about education.

Because we offer the 100 glasses of wine, we can offer endless combinations of flights. We have specific features each night including a Reserve flight. That way you can try 3 fantastic reserve wines that you would normally only be able to buy by the bottle. People love that concept and we’ve done very well with it. It enabled us to introduce small production and boutique wines.”

Regional Makes Sense

I asked Erik about including local wines on the list. He said, “we are always interested and plan to include them. Sometimes there is a problem in that you often have to approach the individual wineries as opposed to a distributor which being a large business can be difficult. But small production is not a problem, in fact we like the fact we have small production wines on our list.”

So it was with this directive in mind that a few months later in the Flemings dining room I presented a couple of dozen Connecticut wines from 5 wineries to wine director Erik Bush, Private Dining Coordinator Liz Hadley, operating partner Ed Ferreira, Gary Crump of Priam Vineyards and wine broker Fred Mahr.

The white wines shone, and 8 were chosen. One red was selected. Flemings will be putting them on 3 at a time by the glass, then switch to another 3. The two dessert wines will be included separately.

The List of Connecticut Wines selected

Priam Vineyards Dry Riesling

Hopkins Vineyards Duet - a Chardonnay Vidal blend

Hopkins Vineyard Reserve – a white blend

Stonington Vineyards Vidal Blanc

Hopkins Vineyards Chardonnay

Sharpe Hill Vineyard Chardonnay

Sharpe Hill Vineyard St. Croix

Hopkins Vineyards Vidal Blanc Ice Wine

Priam Vineyards Late Harvest Riesling

A Wine Dinner

Early next spring a Connecticut Wine Dinner will be offered at Flemings. They will use local ingredients for each dish and a Connecticut winemaker will be there to represent each wine.  There will be 5 courses with 5 different wineries represented.

This is excellent news for Connecticut wines. To have a successful national restaurant chain choose so many local wines is a breakthrough. I’ll be reporting on the wine dinner event in a future NEWG.

Check Flemings out at www.flemingssteakhouse.com