Five years ago, I needed a drink just to read a restaurant wine list in this city. Most offered Kraft Dinner wines at Pétrus prices served in golf ball glasses with layers of detergent aromas. I’d like to say, “All that’s changed now.” But I can’t. Of the 1400 licensed restaurants in the region, there are about twenty-four superb wine lists or 2%. That leaves room for improvement.

But rather than be a grape grump, I’ll focus on those who are doing it right — and save this magazine some legal fees in slander suits. Ottawa oenophiles are driving recent progress: we’ve evolved from just asking for the house red or white, to specifying chardonnay or cabernet, and now to requesting a specific region, winery and vintage. And, in turn, we wine lovers have benefited from local courses such as those at Algonquin College, the National Capital Sommelier Guild and LCBO stores. More disposable income from the high tech sector, government hiring, construction and spin-off services mean we’re spending more to drink better stuff, and are searching for it on lists.

Great wine lists aren’t simply long inventories of expensive wines. Rather, they should reflect a restaurant’s identity, complement its cuisine and offer wines at all prices. One of the best examples is Vittoria Trattoria’s list of 530 labels, including 40 by the glass. Co-owner Cesare Santaguida started with sixteen wines four years ago, and wine sales have grown 25% every year since.

Vineyards Wine Bar Bistro has also soared on this trajectory. Twenty-one years ago, Bill Gordon and his partner rolled into town from Toronto driving an eighteen-wheeler filled with wine. “We were going to show the nation’s capital what wine was all about,” he says laughing. “But we quickly found out that success meant listening to what our customers requested. That’s how we select the wines for our list now.”

Since Gordon opened Vineyards, Wine Spectator magazine has recognized the list with awards of excellence for twelve years now, the Epicurean Awards have also given it top honours and this year, it received the Ottawa City magazine Best Wine List award based the greatest number of reader votes in the wine list category.

The most memorable bottle Gordon ever sold wasn’t even for sale. A friend had given him a rare, expensive bottle of Château Lafite Rothschild, which he brought to the restaurant to show the staff. Later that day, he returned to find that one of the evening-shift waiters had sold the bottle to an appreciative couple. (Gordon groans at the memory, saying he’s blocked out what percentage of the price the customers paid for this liquid treasure).

He doesn’t usually offer premium Bordeaux wines (at least not intentionally), since most people aren’t interested in them. “It’s nice to sell Rolls Royces and Jags, ” he remarks, “but it’s the Chevy wines that sell well here.”

Australian shiraz and Chilean cabernet — luscious, full of fruit and accessible — are both hot. California reds are still popular, but less now than five years ago because of big price hikes and our weak dollar. The new shining star, and biggest change on local wine lists, is Canadian wine, which has climbed out of the vinous dumping ground of house wines and up into the premium sections of wine lists. Some outstanding vintages in the 1990s, international recognition and great prices have boasted their popularity. Domus Café, Wilfrid’s and Le Café, among others, offer strong selections of Canadian wines.

Baco Restaurant and Wine Bar offers the widest range of Canadian wines. Co-owner Jeff Hundertmark initially listed wines from other countries, but discovered that customers requested mostly Canadian wines, so he decided to offer them exclusively. He has been rewarded for his efforts not only with increased patronage, but also with the Cuvée Award for the best overall wine experience. Hundertmark travels to Niagara monthly, searching for new wineries to add to his sixty-label list. Two hot new picks are Pennisula Ridge Estates and Malivoire, both of which are available for the first time in this area at Baco.

Hundertmark recalls securing his impressive vertical range of Niagara’s premium producer of baco noir wine, Henry of Pelham. While walking through the cellars of competing Niagara wineries, he noticed a skid of Henry of Pelham Baco Noir. No one knew how the wine got there or where it was headed, so he called the winery to ask. It turned out that staff had forgotten it was stored there. They thanked Hundertmark for finding it, and then sold it to him, creating the caché of wine that is the restaurant’s namesake.

Several other lists also specialize in one region: Giovanni’s and Trattoria Italia both have an outstanding range of Italian wines, and El Meson claims to have more Spanish and Portugese wines than the LCBO. Henry Berger (winner of this year’s OCM’s award of distinction for its wine list), La Tartuffe, L’orée du Bois and Laurier sur Montcalm have impressive French wine offerings.

When Michael Sobcov, co-owner of Juniper, first offered a list of New World wines, some customers had problems with it. They wanted to know where the good wine was — you know, the stuff from France. But over time, Juniper has developed one of the finest New World lists (be sure to ask for both the reserve and regular lists) and a following as cultish as the California cabs it lists: Staglin Family, Joseph Phelps Insignia, Caymus Vineyards, and the 1999 Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year, 1996 Château St. Jean Cinq Cépages.

Several restaurants have distinguished their lists not only with good selection, but also with tasting notes, food pairing suggestions and numbering the wines to avoid the tongue-tripping task of ordering wines with hard-to-pronounce names. Echo Café (winner of OCM’s award of merit for its wine list), Les Fougères and Bistro 1908 do a splendid job of this.

Wines by the glass is the other strength of several of these restaurants. This enables wine lovers to try new wines, and match them to each dish and diner without having to consume a whole bottle. Bistro 115 and Hy’s Steakhouse enable you to start the meal with a half bottle champagne from one of several top tier selections — perfect for two — and then move on to a bottle with the meal. Black Cat Wine Bar offers its entire selection by the glass. Merlot, the new restaurant at the Ottawa Marriott Hotel, offers an impressive range by both the bottle and the glass, as do Medithéo Restaurant and Wine Bar and the Sonoma Café Bar and Atri (formerly Opus Bistro). Most oenophiles would like to see more by the glass and selections by the half litre, as well as the opportunity to taste a few ounces of several wines in flights.

If, however, you can look at a 1982 Château Margaux without blinking, then Le Baccara is the place for you. Casino de Hull’s third-floor fine dining restaurant offers a vast array of premium French wines. The gamblers in the pit below may be subsidizing the nectar of the gods with their grocery money, but you can’t deny that lofty Baccara stands alone in this region. The restaurant’s consummate sommelier, Danielle Dupont, serves wines from the private collection of a Belgium Estate that the restaurant purchased last year. Among the thousand bottles was a 1893 Château d’Yquem, unpriced as yet– and if you have to ask, order the shiraz instead. Dupont lists 300 labels, and another 16,000 bottles age in the cellar.

It’s not the high rollers who splurge on the expensive bottles at Baccara, though. In fact, the gamblers and the diners are mostly two different groups. The average bottle sells for $60, but the most expensive wine sold so far was a 1979 Château Mouton-Rothschild, bought by a high tech couple for $1,300.

Le Baccara’s estate purchase is unique. Most restauranteurs buy their wines from the LCBO or SAQ just as do their customers do — which nettles some of them. “I have to freeze my butt with everyone else on a February morning of a Vintages release,” says Vittoria’s Santaguida.

The consignment program enables restaurants to stock wines not usually sold in the liquor stores. Agents representing small wineries or those with limited allocations in this area sell wine to the restaurant. (The LCBO still takes its cut, of course.) Since quantities aren’t large enough to stock the liquor stores, this enables the wineries to get onto wine lists, and restaurants can offer customers a new taste experience. The flip side of consignment, though, is that it can be used to mask exorbitant mark-ups since customers don’t often know the wines, or their wholesale cost.

For those who aren’t high tech millionaires, price is the most difficult thing to swallow on most wine lists. The average mark-up is 100% of the retail cost, but some charge as high as 200% to 300%. Owners point to their overhead costs: cellar storage, staff wages, wine wastage, glass breakage and escalating wine replacement cost (the same wine can be more expensive when it comes time to replenish stock). Plus, restaurants operate on thin margins, and often the profit is in the alcohol sales: customers will eat you poor and drink you rich.

Still, even a 100% mark-up makes mid-range wine expensive. A $30 bottle at retail is $80 after mark-up, 17% alcohol tax and 15% tip. The Wolf Blass Index – the vinous equivalent of the Dow Jones — reveals the pricing disparity among restaurants. One of the most popular wines locally, Wolf Blass Yellow Label cabernet sauvignon from Australia is $16.05 in stores. Local restaurants charge anywhere between $27.75 and $42.

To be fair, some restaurants invest a lot in staff training, wine selection, cellar space, wines by the glass and good stemware — which alone can average $5,000 annually to replace. While most restaurants generate 85% of their revenues on food and 15% on alcohol, the reverse is true for Vineyards, where keeping more than sixty bottles open to offer them by the glass is a significant cost to a restaurant. For customers, it’s a trade-off between selection and price.

At the high end of the list, most restaurants use lower mark-ups to avoid sticker shock. One innovator in Hull, Oncle Tom, charges a flat $10 mark-up on premium wines. The four adult children of the late André Poirier want to carry on their father’s desire to encourage customers to try better wines, and two bottles instead of one.

Most wines are priced according to demand, so you can find the values among less-lauded regions and producers because few people ask for them. Identifying these wines requires lots of homework or a good sommelier.

Just as a Stradivarius violin sounds divine with an accomplished violinist, so too, a great wine list comes to life in the hands of an adroit server. Too many wine experiences are ruined with covert decanting behind the bar, a heavy pour to the brim and a trail of red dots marking the waiter’s route around the table. While most wine lovers don’t expect servers to be wine experts, they do want them to know their own wine list — to have tasted the wines, to be able to describe them and to recommend food matches.

But often, it seems, customers are more knowledgeable than the servers are. Ottawa wine lover Roberto Gualtieri recalls, “Recently, when I was ordering a wine, I asked the waiter what the vintage was. I saw he didn’t understand the question, so trying to be helpful I asked: ’1986? 1989? 1990?’ To which he replied, ‘That’s right, something like that!’”

Again, to be fair, wine waiters are used to serving clientele who are scarcely better informed. Some customers have been known to order a red chardonnay or a Californian Barolo, neither of which exist. Vineyards’ Gordon recalls an elderly woman who, overwhelmed with the selection, asked for a chateaubriand. He told her he couldn’t fit a steak into a glass, but would be happy to offer her wine from another fine château.

But while Algonquin’s classes are filled with wine-loving consumers and LCBO staff, there aren’t many restaurant staff, according to Astrid Neuland, a former instructor with the program. Unfortunately, given thin margins and tight employment, many employers are reluctant to pay for their staff to attend classes, and many servers aren’t willing to go without being paid. Notable exceptions are: Kathleen McConnell (Laurier Sur Montcalm), Sylvia Taylor (Domus Café), Ashok Dhawan (NAC’s Le Café), Claudine Tarte (L’orée du Bois) and Véronique Rivest (Les Fougères). At Vittoria Trattoria, ten wait staff have either completed or are taking the course.

To help fill this gap, Phil Nicholson, founder of the National Capital Sommelier Guild offers a condensed, afternoon wine sales and service course. It doesn’t conflict with the evening work times of wait staff and it appeals to their profit motive. Says Nicholson: “Often the wine is two to three times the price of the dish, and therefore a big part of the tip. Yet waiters often know much more about the food than the wine. I teach them have to be effective wine salespeople.”

A great list doesn’t have to be a tome of Wine & Peace that brings us to our knees, nor should it be populated with only expense-account specials. It should express the restaurant’s passion for wine and leave us feeling that it was worth drinking there instead of buying the bottle at the liquor store. When we review lists next year, let’s hope there’ll be more than twenty-four places where what you drink matters as much as what you eat.