Liquids: A Wine Less Ordinary

Intrepid local importers are bucking the trend of big generic reds to bring exotic bottles to a table near you.

Come on, admit it: It feels pretty cool when you pick up a wine list in front of a group of friends and recognize all of the producers as quickly as your ABCs—Antinori, Beaulieu, Caymus. I confess that for a long time I took seeing familiar names as validation that a wine list was well grounded, that the sommelier knew the winemakers that those in the know should know. I also appreciated not getting lost on the list since, as a guy, there was no way I was going to ask for directions.

Lately, though, I’ve been losing my way a lot and loving it. Wine lists around town are getting much more esoteric, thanks to a handful of local, small importers that are making end runs around the large distribution networks. Instead of well-established wines from bigtime estates, we’re seeing delicious vintages from small-scale producers and lesser-known appellations.

It’s the equivalent of union busting: In this case, the unions are the fraternity of importers and distributors keeping a stranglehold on what we drink and how much we pay for it; the scabs are the underdog artisanal importers who want to break out and handpick the European wines in their portfolios and then hand-deliver them. Cat Silirie, wine director for No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, and the Butcher Shop, says some of the most interesting vintages on her list come courtesy of a trio of small importer-distributors—Vineyard Research, Adonna Imports, and Violette Imports—all of which are locally owned and operated by wine lovers with very good taste.

These boutique wines have simple packaging, no marketing hype, and little-known pedigrees outside their far-off hometowns. Moreover, because the importers bring in the wine and distribute it, too, they’re able to remove the layer of markup that we would otherwise pay at retail shops and restaurants like Craigie Street Bistrot, Rendezvous, and Eastern Standard. And that means many are a steal. “What allows a little company like us to succeed is this: When you evaluate our wines quality for quality and price for price, we look a lot better than the big guys,” says David Raines, founder of Lunenburg-based Vineyard Research.

Raines has been in the wine business for nearly a quarter of a century, selling at Gordon’s Fine Wines for most of those years. But as the industry began to consolidate—in the past decade, Martignetti swallowed Massachusetts-based Silenus Imports, Classic Wine Imports, and United Liquors—the smaller brands began to disappear. And so, on a trip to France three years ago, Raines began to seek out off-the-beaten-path producers. “The more wines I discovered, the more I realized that these wines needed to be imported. That’s when I decided to strike out on my own,” he says.

At 54, Raines may have a tad too many vintages under his belt to truly be called a bad boy. But he still cuts a feisty figure as a rebel with a cause—to shame the big wine buyers in town for embracing mediocrity and homogeneity. “I’m not impressed with 14.5 percent alcohol, and I’m suspicious of black color,” he says, referring to the popular “international” style of winemaking that calls for intensely colorful and flavorful blends. What irks Raines and his like-minded cohorts is that these wines are generic and, because they lack acidity and finesse, not the least bit food-friendly. They don’t complement a meal; they bulldoze it.

And as Coach Belichick would say, that’s not what we’re looking for. What we want—and what Raines delivers to his 40 or so restaurant and retail clients in Massachusetts—are wines that don’t fit a particular mold. All chardonnays shouldn’t taste like those 15-buck California fruit bombs. Some should be crisp and refreshing, like the 2004 J. M. Lorain white Burgundy from Raines’s stable, a mere $15.99. Wines like this demonstrate how different winemakers from different areas can transform the same grape into utterly distinctive wines.

All of which makes for interesting reading when you look at local wine lists. Take two bottles I tasted at Rendezvous recently: a 2004 Domaine de Côteaux des Travers Cuvée Rouge from Rasteau, a luscious blend of grenache, syrah, and mourvédre; and a 2003 Domaine Vieux Moulin from Fitou, an earthier, heartier mix of carignan, grenache, and syrah. Both are from producers I’ve never heard of, and in the parlance of wine geeks they are most certainly food wines, balanced beautifully with acidity that enhances what’s on the plate. Five years ago, both would have been hard to find, let alone serve. And of course, both are wines that Raines sold easily to Rendezvous chef-owner Steve Johnson. “I love working with Vineyard because they don’t offer typical marketplace showcase wines,” Johnson says, “but rather wines that carry a specific message of the grapes, a certain style, or a particular region.”

If you listen to Raines, there’s a whole world of these unsung heroes just waiting to be imported. “We deliver flavors that you won’t taste in any other wines, and you don’t have to spend a fortune,” he says. “We offer an individual wine experience. That’s our Holy Grail.”