Diving into the wine cellar at Bistro Wagon Rouge
Sommelier Jesse Walters showcases his low-markup, all-natural approach in seven bottles
July 3, 2018
Catavela, a cult orange wine from central Italy, sells for $58 a bottle at Bistro Wagon Rouge. When you could find it in stores — which you really can’t anymore — it went for $33. Peruse the ever-changing wine list at Bistro Wagon Rouge and you’ll see a who’s who of blue-chip natural wines at reasonable markups available by the glass. In this city — outside of Juicebar — this doesn’t happen.
Jesse Walters has been running the list at Wagon Rouge for the past three months. He always seems to be sporting an earnest smile, and speaks with sincere, rapid-fire, excitement when he’s talking wine. Walters came to Bistro Wagon Rouge from Burdock & co. to pour what he calls “elevated wines” at an accessible price point. For him, this new position is all about connecting with his neighbourhood.
“Here, I get to serve a community and show them something I’m passionate about.” says Walters. “I’m excited, because in coming here I get to work in a room that I could afford to eat out in… I’m on a natural wine mission as well,” he adds.
Walters acknowledges that natural wine has become something of a difficult buzzword of late. “I define natural wine as something made with integrity,” he says, “I’m not dogmatic, but I want wines that are made well, where winemakers avoid the path of least resistance to produce something beautiful.”
The cult status of natural wine is making these bottles harder and harder to afford in Vancouver. Walters sticks to his low markups, rarely more than 200%, and takes a liberal approach to by the glass pours to make sure diners can afford a taste.
As for the sometimes off-putting flavours of these wines, Walters is unafraid. “We frame the experience, so guests know what they’re getting,” he says, “but if you’re excited and sincere about a wine, the guests will pick up on that, they’ll share that joy.”
Jesse picked seven bottles that show what he’s been doing at Wagon Rouge.
Movia Puro Chardonnay/Ribolla Gialla, Slovenia
“This is what I mean when I talk about elevated wine,” says Walters. The Puro sparkling wine from Movia, a producer that literally straddles the border between Italy and Slovenia, is shipped without disgorging — blowing out the wine’s residual yeast from fermentation. That means Jesse has to disgorge the wine tableside, a process that has to be done underwater so that the whole room isn’t covered in flecks of yeast. “It requires delicacy and skill to disgorge tableside,” he says, “but it’s so much fun to pop those bottles and tell the wine’s story. The wine is like magic.” – $90 bottle
2016 De Martino Viejas Tinajas Cinsault, Chile $17/$85btl
“It’s an amphora aged Chilean wine. The amphora are over 100 years old, and a lot of them were rescued by the winery. The owners drove across Chile and found them being used as ashtrays and garbage bins. They rescued and refurbished them and put them back to winemaking, bringing back one of the oldest traditions of Chilean wine.” – $17 glass/$85 bottle
2015 Bonhomme KO In Cot we Trust Malbec, Loire, France
“This is a beautiful wine that really hit its apogee in the heat of 2015 when all the other cooler-climate Loire grapes were suffering. It’s all blackberry kombucha and it goes so well with a burger in a bistro setting.” – $16 glass/$78 bottle
2005 La Stoppa Stoppa Cabernet Sauvignon, Emilia Romagna, Italy
“This was the last vintage from La Stoppa’s 100 year old vines before they dropped so much in productivity that they had to be pulled out. It’s a taste of history, and it’s made with no sulphur whatsoever, but it’s still so fresh and lively. It’s an argument for zero sulphur wine.” – $18 glass/$90 bottle
Jean Maupertuis La Plage Gamay D’Auvergne, Auvergne, France
“This was such a gem that I found in our cellar. The importer doesn’t even bring it in anymore. At first it was so bretty, it was way too much barnyard to drink. Now, after it got enough time to lay down, it’s drinking like silk.” – $15 glass/$75 bottle
2014 Jean Foillard Les Charmes, Gamay, Morgon, Beaujolais, France
“Jean Foillard is a classic. He’s one of the fathers of modern natural wines and it’s incredible that we can get a hold of his wines, especially vintages like 2014 before the heat really hit Beaujolais. In bigger markets like New York, this is all gone.” – $18 glass/$90 bottle
2014 Christophe Pacalet Fleurie Magnum, Gamay, Beaujoulais, France
This was another cellar find, a producer Jesse knows but a wine he had never tried before. Rather than try to describe it, he made use of his coravin — a space-age contraption that keeps wine fresh for weeks — and poured a taste. It was perfect Beaujolais. Fresh and playful but with depths you could mull over for hours, if you could resist the urge not to just quaff it back. $13 glass/$130 bottle (magnum)