If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much more precious must it be when that picture moves? And if it talks...then you've got something special. Then you've got a movie. Then you've got the Sideways Effect on the world of wine. It's not just the rise of Pinot. All that stuff the wine press has been nattering about for ages -- there's more to wine than Chard, Cab, and Merlot; Chardonnay need not always taste like butter; ripeness is not always all, there's also acid and food-pairing; what about Riesling? -- may actually be getting a hearing, now that it's been placed in the mouth of a depressive, middle-aged onscreen oenophile.
"For a while," says Region restaurant's manager/sommelier Scotty Johnson, "I had this incredible Pinot Noir selection. All these wines from Oregon." Now he's down to seven, all Californians. "I'm waiting on the next vintage, because everything's been bought up. I would sit on the Pinots; I would have to force it down people's throats. Then, all of a sudden, it became cool to drink Pinot Noir again."
But wait -- there's more. "It's broken the Cab-Merlot rut. People are willing to try Cote du Rhones; they're willing to try Spanish varietals. And it's actually broken people out of their Chardonnay ruts. I'm seeing people who drink Chardonnay all the time say, 'I'd like to try something that's still rich, but a little crisper, a little lighter.' I take them to this Virgilus, this Viognier out of Australia. Or this Villa Russiz Pinot Grigio out of this co-op in Northern Italy. It's got the voluptuous glycerin component, the weight that a lot of people attribute to Chardonnay, but it's got crisper, brighter nuances of pear and fig and apple, with a nice burst of acidity on the finish."
Johnson still carries Chardonnays, four of them. One of them is even big and oaky. "Some people, that's what they want. They're not going to budge." He recommends the Jarvis but notes that "It's still very elegant. It's expensive -- $59 -- but it's dynamite wine. I don't like cheap Chardonnays. I'd much rather drink a lower-end cool varietal like Greco di Tufo [$47]. To my palate, cheap Chards have a bitterness at the end of the flavor that is horrible with food." And if Johnson doesn't like it, Johnson doesn't buy it. He doesn't feel obliged to carry something he thinks is bad just because he suspects a customer may like it. "Every so often, I'll come across a great Chardonnay that I can sell at $40 and blow out." But those are the exceptions, and he takes flack for his lack. "I say, 'If it's any consolation, the Chateau Talbot is $75 downtown, and it's $50 here. The $65 Piero is $90 downtown.' I mark up 2.3 times on things I can reorder fast and 2.5 on things that are limited allocation. I want people to drink wines and enjoy them; I don't want you to look at the wines and marvel at my ability to build a 500-bottle list."
Johnson is suspicious of super-sized lists -- how can good things not get lost in the shuffle? -- though he does admit to checking Babbo restaurant's wine list online at least once a week. "It's just cool; he's got so many great varietals, all Italian." (Italy is where Johnson, now 29, got his start in wine, back at the tender age of 14. "My parents figured that either I'd start drinking wine and talking about it with them or I'd sneak off base. I remember some terrible wine, and I remember some really great wine.") His own list is a mere 44 bottles long, with prices ranging from $25 to $110, and most bottles under $70. "I think it's the perfect size for what we want to do with our restaurant, which is to get people to enjoy wine with food."
And not just any wine. "There are reps I won't work with, because all they have in their portfolio is big-production stuff. If a wine has 13,000 bottles produced, I'll say, 'Why did you even bother bringing this to me? Yeah, it's good, but what's the point? You've got this in Vons.' My favorite thing is when people come in and say, 'I don't know a single thing on this list. What should I drink?' I think that's phenomenal; it means I actually get to do my job, which is to take you into a new world. Like this Domaine Santa Barbara Syrah [$35]. It's a Brander project, only 100 cases produced. I kind of look at it as my job to turn people on to those things. There's a lot of study; I have a satchel just for my wine catalogs."
It's not that he's in love with being different; just now, Johnson has no fewer than eight Cab/Merlot/Meritage wines, including the less-than-esoteric Justin Isosceles. And it's not that he wants to take you where you don't want to go. He wants to take you where you do want to go; he just thinks you don't know you want to go there yet. "We call it 'diversion.' Everybody's palates are so sensitized to sugars and high citric acids and manipulated foodstuffs. If you keep giving them hedonistic Parkerphile Cabernets, they're never going to know what real Cabernet fruit tastes like. They're always going to think the vegetal component of a Cabernet is bad, but when it's in harmony with the rest of the wine, it's not bad. It's a beautiful thing, and it accentuates the food. If a person wants a big, bad wine, I'll say, 'Get the Justin.' But if you talk to people, and they become comfortable with your knowledge, and you give them the promise, 'If you don't like it, I'll take the bottle,'" then you've got a shot at diversion. "Nobody ever says, 'This is terrible. Take it back. '"
In June, he'll begin a program of "Quartinos" to aid him in his efforts: you pay one-third of the bottle price, and you get one-third of a bottle of wine. "It allows people to try things without investing in a full bottle" but without paying the by-the-glass markup. "If there's lamb on the menu, I'll have three different Cote du Rhones you can try throughout your dinner." Babbo provided the inspiration. "Chef went there to eat, and when he came back, he said, 'I'd like to have a Quartino list. '"
"Chef" is Michael Stebner -- Johnson followed him from La Jolla's 910 -- and Region is his fairly explicit nod to Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' now-legendary temple to pure flavors. Preparations are often simple, with the emphasis on showcasing tip-top ingredients, be they carrots or chickens. (Posters for Chez Panisse's 10th and 31st birthday celebrations, one of them signed by Waters, adorn the walls at Region.) A chalkboard announces the (usually local) source of various foodstuffs in that evening's menu. Region is working with Morris High School in Lemon Grove to establish an organic garden that will feed the restaurant. For his part, Johnson looks for wines that have similarly "clean, pure flavors that are varietally correct and not manipulated. My Pinots don't taste like Syrahs, and my Syrahs don't taste like Cabernets." And just as the menu changes daily to reflect the market, he keeps the list changing to reflect the menu. "I have a lot of people who come in and don't even look at the list anymore. They just say, 'Scotty, what are we drinking today?' That, to me, is awesome."