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Papa Joe wine room
The main wine room at Papa Joe's offers a good selection; take them home or drink them there.
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Papa Joe wine bar
Buy wine by the glass from a wine bar at Papa Joe's.
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Papa Joe's best cabs
Papa Joe's fine wines are in a temperature controlled room.
I'm pretty sure that just about everyone who goes out to eat at a restaurant these days is exposed to the chance to buy at least a glass of wine, if not a whole bottle. I suppose the experience can be intimidating to some, although statistics show that more and more Americans drink wine with meals at least some of the time. Social scientists say that's because more of us grew up in homes with parents who drank at least a little bit, something that might have been less acceptable in the '30s and '40s as the nation emerged from Prohibition.
I prefer to think it's because we have learned to enjoy wine!
Whatever the reasons, anyone with a brain probably knows there are three ways you can buy wine in a restaurant today. First, you can wait for the waiter to bring by the big old carafe of house wine, and offer to pour you a glass. Not MY favorite, but it certainly takes the guesswork out of the transaction. And, to be fair, a lot of house wines are well-made, well-chosen, and pretty good values. When I first started being interested in wines, one of the first things I learned about American wine is that our vin ordinaire, the large batch jug wine stuff made to be consumed every day, was (at that time) way better than the daily drinkers made in France, Germany and Italy. Our big producers used better grapes and had better methods of production, so our house wines were better.
Over time, many international wine producers have caught up with American mass production methods, so today, a house wine from France or Italy will probably be just fine. The really special values are the wines from Argentina, Chile, Spain, South Africa and Australia. Many of these are estate grown vintage wines that come with box wine prices. I think when these are offered as house wines, it's hard to go wrong if you want one or two glasses with a meal.
As we have become more knowledgeable about wines, the second way of buying, off the wine list, has become easier for many of us as well. And restaurants have responded by improving the overall quality of their wine lists. I've got to offer my personal opinion that this is never more evident than in a region like Northeast Ohio. There was a time, and it really wasn't that long ago, when a good wine list in this area featured only a few bottles from some of the bigger estate producers in California. If you wanted only a glass, you ordered something from a jug. I could count on the fingers of both hands the restaurants in Akron that had 50+ bottle wine lists with some offerings from France, Germany, and smaller California estate producers like Mondavi and Beaulieu Vineyards. You sure weren't going to find a Heitz Cabernet nor a Ridge Zinfandel. We've come a long way, baby! (There are 4 pages to this entry.)
Today, the last two are practically the big volume producers, and you find them on lots of local wines lists. But, not only can you find their bottles...you can often buy top wines from smaller, boutique producers, by the glass. And without counting, I'm willing to wager there are 50+ restaurants with quality wine lists in the Akron area, another 25 in Canton, and hundreds if you want to expand your dining territory to all of this corner of Ohio. The distribution services have expanded dramatically. Some restaurant owners or beverage managers make their own buying trips to California. There are a few restaurants here where wine is actually given top billing, equal to or above the food.
So, buying wine off the wine list in a restaurant now offers some of the same challenges as buying in a well-chosen store. You need to either know a little bit about which wines are good, which are excellent values; or you need to be able to trust the advice you get from the service staff. The first is up to you. To know in advance which wines and vintages are worth a try and which you might want to avoid, you've simply got to do some reading. And you need to go beyond “red with meat, white with fish” because that's just no longer true. When you can now get widely available creamy well-oaked Chardonnays that not only go with herb roasted chicken but with Beef Stroganoff; when it is normal to serve an Oregon Pinot Noir with salmon; then you really should do some reading on which wines match up well with various foods. That means you should keep returning over and over again to this blog, where I will try to offer up such advice from time to time.
Or, you can ask the wait staff. Now here, I've got to warn you about waiters and waitresses. Depending on the place, many of them just take orders, try to keep track of who is sitting where so the food gets to the correct person, and then make their deliveries. If you want good advice, you want to look at restaurants that have professional wait staffing, who offer tasting meals to the staff on a regular basis (the best have the staff eat an early dinner with the kitchen staff before the restaurant opens for lunch or dinner), and especially for those who have some sort of beverage manager. If you don't look for those features, be prepared for advice that is designed to sell you the most profitable wines, or the ones being pushed by the distributors.
In my opinion, the first step in buying wine in a restaurant is to make sure you know what you will be eating, then try to pick a wine that will compliment that food. Both food and drink taste better when taken in the proper combination, but both great food or a great wine experience can be foiled by a bad match. If you've really got to order a wine before deciding on the entree, I advise a crisp white like a Chenen Blanc or an unoaked Chardonnay. Or, as we will see later, buy a bottle in a retail store, take it into the restaurant, and plan you meal around what you brought.
Once you know what food you and your companions are choosing, you can decide between buying by the glass or buying by the bottle. I think it's silly to buy a $50 red when half the table is eating lobster or filet of sole. It's also a waste of money to buy a light white wine if some of the diners are eating steak or prime rib. If the table is having mixed types of entrees, let each person order a glass or two to best compliment their meals; it's cheaper in the long run.
It is also cheaper to buy by the glass “most of the time” if there are only two of you. The average 750ml bottle of wine will usually serve between 5 and 8 glasses, depending of course on the size of the glass. So if you and your dining companion are only going to want one or two servings, it really is cheaper to buy by the glass. This also offers you the opportunity to try a couple of different wines...perhaps a white with the appetizer and a red with the lamb chops.
If it's worth your while to buy a bottle, I suggest you aim for the middle price range of the list. On most wine lists in our area, this means you are probably looking for bottles in the $35 to $70 price range, depending on the variety and region of origin. Wines in that range are likely to come from many of California's better estate vineyards. Above that price range, you are probably looking at very small boutique winerys, the better French imports, and the best vintages. The really special vintages and collector bottles are almost always going to be above $100 a bottle these days, sometimes even way more than that for things like Opus One from California or First Growth French Chateaus. But I am amazed that you actually can find bottles like that on our local wine lists today! If you are spending OPM, (Other People's Money) I hope you take advantage of these offerings.
I would like to cover buying bottles at retail to take home, or consume in the restaurant, because that's a growing trend in our area. The best example of this is Papa Joe's in the Valley, which has an attached wine shop. You can go there to buy a case to take home, and I'll tell you right now that you will find wines in their temperature controlled fine wine room that you will not find in any other retail store in this area. It is really the ONLY place I would recommend if you are hunting for JUST ONE great bottle. Ask for Pahtrick, and you won't be steered wrong, but make sure there is money in your debit card account...it costs money to carry inventory like this.
A nice feature of Papa Joe's is that you can pick out a bottle in the store, then take it into the restaurant where they will serve it to you without charging “corkage”. Corkage is the extra fee a restaurant adds when you bring your own bottle, and expect them to open it for you and wash your glass for you after dinner. It usually runs around $10. I am pretty sure the other restaurants I know of with similar (if not exactly the same) features also waive corkage if you buy the wine from their retail stock. I believe Downtown 140 in Hudson and the Galaxy in Wadsworth will both sell you a bottle at retail, but you need to check about other conditions because licensing is the big issue...not every restaurant is licensed to allow carry out after the meal.
Buying in this way from the restaurant, and then matching your meal to the purchase, can actually be one of the best ways to enjoy a bottle. It is my own personal favorite, running just slightly ahead of those restaurants that offer extensive choices by the glass (partly because a restaurant needs to offer at least 20 or 25 wines by the glass to be in the running, in my opinion). However, I can certainly suggest Fleming's (for chains) or the Ken Stewart locations (locally owned) for starters.