If you were to find yourself in the wine cellar of Bern's Steak House, the classic Tampa Bay restaurant that won the 2016 James Beard Award for Best Wine Program, you'd be in the midst of a 100,000 bottles of wine. It's one of the largest and most extensive wine collections in the world and includes a nearby storage building with another 500,000 or so. The exact number is impossible to nail down, but needless to say, this classic steakhouse won the prestigious wine award for a reason.
In contrast, consider the wine cellar at FIG, which won the 2018 James Beard award for best wine program. "We literally have six half fridges from Home Depot for our wine cellar," says co-owner Adam Nemirow. "I'm not kidding. Some don't work well enough so it keeps them at the perfect temperature."
Yet FIG was honored with the same award as Bern's. How does a 150-bottle list compete with a vast program like Bern's?
Justin Coleman of the Monarch Wine Merchants, who worked for Nemirow as general manager of The Ordinary and helped with the FIG wine list before Morgan Calcote took over five years ago, says it's interesting to look at the Beard Awards for wine program over the past few years. While they've recognized expansive lists like those at Bern's in Tampa and Canlis in Seattle, they've also rewarded the small Italian-only wine program at A16 in San Francisco and the Friuli-heavy list of Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey at Frasca in Denver.
FIG's wine list as of May 10. It changes frequently, like the menu, reflecting the seasons and the preferences of Morgan Calcote, the general …
"What FIG or A16 are doing with their wine lists," says Coleman, "is that they are telling a story and conveying a message."
The message at FIG, according to Calcote, who took over the program after working her way up through the ranks from server assistant to general manager, is the same message that's coming from chefs Mike Lata and Jason Stanhope. "We take to heart the philosophies of the kitchen," she says, meaning they champion small farmers and producers and prefer wines that are not heavily manipulated or created in factories. "It's about knowing who makes the wine and grows the grapes."
Just as Lata was instrumental in helping grow the market for local farmers, the wine program has encouraged wine distributors and importers to bring more interesting wines to town. And when FIG does something, others tend to follow.
The list is not so much trendy as trendsetting. "I tell all my employees, try to stay ahead of trends and not play catch up," says Nemirow. "Whether you believe it or not, people are listening to you so don't have to wait to say you like it. It's that creative freedom not just for the wine list but for the kitchen, service, reservations."
Calcote says she has done nothing drastic to the wine program since she took it over. "I'd say it's evolved," she says. "We keep our eyes open and ears out for the things changing in the wine world."
She only chooses wines that make sense for the food menu. "(The list is) a thoughtful selection of wines from Europe and beyond," she explains. There's a robust selection of French wines; there's a grouping of new California labels from winemakers who often show up in Charleston for events, like Matt Licklider of Lioco and Steve Mathiasson of Mathiasson. You'll find lots of grower Champagne, which is grown and bottled from a single village or farm unlike those made by big Champagne houses, which source grapes from the entire region. Orange and oxidative wines also make an appearance.
Look closely at the wine list and you'll see some wines marked with a circle around a small "i", an indication that these wines are "worthy of inquiry before ordered." Calcote calls these the i-wines.
The i-wines might be the key to understanding what's so special about FIG's wine program and how the restaurant staff approaches the list. "Adam and I added the i's a couple of years ago," says Calcote. "We were looking at wines that needed a conversation before we sent it to the table. It serves to spark conversation without communication barriers."
Instead of a customer ordering something they're unfamiliar with and risking an unhappy diner or an awkward interaction with the waiter, Calcote says the i's allow them to guide the table through the selection process, without being condescending and having to ask, "Are you familiar with that wine?"
Adam Nemirow is a quiet guy; fiercely smart and quite funny. He's aloof, professional and passionate about wine.
Nemirow says some of the staff at FIG have sommelier certifications, but it's not something they tout. For him, tasting and developing a palate are the most important things a server can do. They build wine training into the cost of doing business and usually taste through wines with the staff once a week or so.
Before Coleman even worked for Nemirow and Lata, he was impressed with the wine list. He remembers first arriving in town from New York and sitting at FIG's bar and enjoying a glass of Trousseau with his meal. "I thought that was pretty cool and thought this guy was really putting himself out there," he says. "Adam's thing has always been pushing the envelope. It takes guts and it takes a lot of work. Staff knowledge is the only way to sell those wines." Without staff training, a wine list like FIG's could be a bust because it's stocked with unfamiliar grapes, like that aforementioned Trousseau, a red grape from the Jura region of France that's being grown in California by renegade winemakers including Arnot-Roberts.
There's nary a Pinot Grigio to be had.
For Calcote, if someone starts by asking if she has a Pinot Grigio, she falls into the "no, but" conversation. "We don't have some of those classics. But when people come in with specifics, I work to have something in the same price point that's stylistically similar. Excluding these wines is not trying to alienate but it's sticking to our philosophy and opening conversations."
Nemirow says that approach is Calcote's biggest strength. "She can connect to the table and make them feel comfortable with their purchase," he says. "It's an investment they're making in the experience. You have to trust someone, and she has good connectivity with guests."
Ultimately, wine is subjective and the wine list at FIG is organic. It changes, shifts, expands, contracts. "It's a constant game or puzzle," says Calcote. "To make it balanced and inclusive of a variety of flavor profiles."
The key to enjoying it as a wine drinker is to start by telling them what you like and going from there. You can be sure you'll stumble across a gem that speaks to your palate. Calcote, Nemirow and the rest of the staff practically guarantee it.