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July 7, 2014updated 02 Nov 2022 12:14pm

World’s Best Wine Lists: Dennis Kelly, The French Laundry, Napa Valley

By Thierry Dessauve

Congratulations on The French Laundry wine list being given the three-star rating by The World of Fine Wine. How does it feel to be recognized by such well-established authorities on wine?

We certainly appreciate the recognition, but for us it’s about providing our guests with wines that complement Chef Keller’s cuisine and elevate the guests’ dining experience. Our level of success is based on our guests’ level of satisfaction.

How are references selected for the wine list? How closely do you work with the chef?

There are a number of producers that are particularly important to Chef Keller, and it is important for us to showcase them on our wine list. Beyond that, my team and I make the purchasing decisions for the restaurant.

How does the wine list at The French Laundry tie in with the food?

We make nearly all of our purchasing decisions based on the character and quality of the wines, and how they will support the cuisine. The result is that we favor wines of balance and complexity, with the appropriate structure to pair well with food.

How does The French Laundry represent its California location?

The focus for us is not the design of the restaurant or the feel of the dining room – it’s the cuisine. However, the fact that we are located in the Napa Valley likely encourages us to ensure that California wines are well represented.

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How has the list evolved since the restaurant opened in 2001? How often is it updated? What has been added or taken away from the list?

The French Laundry wine list initially represented domestic wines nearly exclusively. When Per Se opened in New York City in 2004, it was decided that their wine list should represent a more global selection than The French Laundry did at that time. At that point, Chef Keller decided that The French Laundry should also offer a comprehensive selection of international wines, since the restaurants would share many of the same clients.

What is the best-selling wine on the list?

Schramsberg, “Cuvée French Laundry,” Extra Brut, Blanc de Blancs 2010 is the best-selling wine on our list right now. The wine is a collaboration between the winery and our wine team. With the 2011 vintage the label will be replaced by Chef Keller’s personal wine label, Modicum, although Schramsberg will continue to bottle the wine.

How do you view the relationship between food and wine on a general level?

I believe that wine should support the food, and create a symbiotic relationship that makes both the food and wine better. It is extremely important that the wine does not overpower the food, but instead plays a supportive role in the relationship.

What’s the most important aspect to consider when compiling a wine list, in your opinion? (e.g. having a diverse selection of references, price range, covering all the main wine- producing regions…?)

It’s very important for us to offer a wide range of wine styles and price-points, so that each of our guests finds the wine they are looking for.

Is there a process between the chefs and wine team with regards to tasting and pairing the wines?

Our menu is written daily and we receive it about one-hour before service. At that point the Sommelier’s offer their recommendations to the staff at the pre-service meeting. If we have any questions in regard to the structure of a dish, we ask the Chef for clarification before making any decisions.

What wines have worked well in the past with food? Can you pick out a couple of wines that have worked well with specific dishes?

With Chef Keller’s famous White Truffle-infused Hen Egg Custard with the Black Truffle Ragout, I like to serve the D’Oliveira, Verdelho, “Reserva,” Madeira 1973. With “Beets & Leeks” I recommend the Karthäuserhof, Riesling, “Eitelsbacher Karthäuserhofberg,” Spatlese, Mosel 1996.

The dishes can be quite complex, is it ever a struggle to find a great recommendation to suit a dish?

It’s important to keep the structure of the dish in mind when selecting wines. Don’t overthink the multitude of flavors in the dish, but instead focus on structural aspects such as the weight, acidity, sweetness of the dish. Think about what the dish needs the wine to accomplish. The dish may need acidity or tannin to cut through the richness or it may need acidity to match up with the acidity in a tomato or vinegar component. Just like I tell people when we are “blind tasting” wines, the answer is in the structure.

What is your personal favorite wine on the list and why?

The E. Guigal, “La Mouline,” Côte-Rôtie1985 was the bottle that initially hooked me on wine years ago, although I am really excited about the Dervieux-Gentaz, “Côte Brune,”Côte-Rôtie 1990 right now.

What is your favorite food and wine pairing at The French Laundry?

“Oysters & Pearls” with Grand Cru, Blanc de Blancs Champagne can’t be beat!

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