Award-Winning Seattle Sommelier Chris Horn Shares Secrets to Building a Successful, Seasonal Wine List

By L.M. Archer, Foodable Contributor

Contemplating how to shake up your winter bar menu, and put a new twist on old standards? For sommeliers, stirring up a wine bar menu poses a different challenge. It’s not simply a matter of taste, but of terroir. How do you offer a world of wines without losing your audience, or your focus?

Here, FoodableTV talks to 2015 Washington State ‘Sommelier of the Year’ Chris Horn, Wine Director for Purple Cafe and Wine Bar in Seattle and Bellevue, about his secrets to crafting a successful seasonal wine list.

Twist

Purple Cafe and Wine Bar boasts tasty meals paired with one of Seattle’s most prolific wine lists, a wine list with an unexpected twist: Purple waives the corkage fee on any 750 ml bottle of wine NOT featured on their menu.

When asked how the wine bar developed this novel approach to corkage fees, Chris Horn admits, “To be honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of the ‘no corkage’ policy when I joined Purple Cafe and Wine Bar nine-and-a-half years ago. But I am now.”

The ‘no corkage’ policy actually creates a ‘wine-wine’ situation, allowing guests to bring in non-proffered pours at Purple, while providing Horn and his team a peek at unfamiliar wines.

Though Horn strives for accessibility with wine makers via social media, phone and email, it’s a challenge to reach all nine hundred-plus wineries in the state of Washington, not to mention wine regions elsewhere. Those ‘off-menu’ wines often serve as keys for Horn to unlock online information about them. If Horn thinks a wine has merit, he may end up purchasing it, thereby ‘growing’ his list. He also jumps at any ‘wine tips’ passed along by guests.

 “A wine tip is like a stock tip to a sommelier, “ Horn contends, “Priceless.”

“Why have a corkage fee, anyway?” Horn questions. “What does it serve? To prevent people from bringing in wines they like? To make a ridiculous profit on providing stemware? Restaurants should be in the business of making friends first, not money.”

Tool Box

How do you go about building your wine list around competing needs: complementing the menu, while offering diversity?

“I think of the wine list as my tool box,” Horn explains. “Glass pours provide the core of that tool box. My job is to keep that tool box organized and well-stocked. And also to constantly ask, “Do we have that tool? Do we need that tool?”

In addition, Horn and his staff pair food and wine daily with Chef Mills, a former culinary school instructor. Chef Mills draws his inspiration from wine-producing regions like Piedmont and Portugal.

This shared enthusiasm for pairing actually spurred Horn and Chef Mills to collaborate on a forthcoming book offering practical advice to Millennials and other newcomers about the topic, advice Horn wishes someone had offered him as he began his food and wine career.

Horn breaks down his wine list ‘must haves’ as follows:

1-Culinary Wines

”For starters,” Horn begins, “I always have a few sparkling wines on the menu: one with more green apple or citrus characteristics, another with more sugar, and a good rosé. For the whites, I like to have a Sauvignon Blanc, one with high citrus notes, another with stone-fruit flavors. And a Chardonnay to pair with cream-based foods. As for reds, I always include at least one light, slightly more acidic red wine like a Gamay or Pinot Noir, as well as a super-tannic option like Cabernet Sauvignon for red meats.”

2-Social Pours

Horn defines these as ‘cocktail’ wines that guests consider super-accessible and delicious by themselves, like Malbec.

3-Geek Wines

 “It’s easy to find weird wine,” Horn confesses. “Sometimes you can find something you love, buy it, and just stare at it. The goal is to find something strange that pairs well with others. Wines from Macedonia, for example, pair really well with our gorgonzola-stuffed dates. Guests really enjoy that combination.”

4-Classic Wines

Classic wine offerings like Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, and Barolo cater to diners hankering for an Old World pour, or to staff heading out the door to a tasting group, wines that help them learn about the world of wine while studying for their designations.

5-Comfort Wines

Not all guests want a challenge. Horn believes his primary obligation includes making his customers feel comfortable, not alienated.

“If one of my guests doesn’t like what they’re drinking, they probably don’t like what they’re eating, either, ” Horn concedes. These same consumers relax when they see a familiar name on the list, like Duckhorn, Figgins, or Leonetti.

Horn’s wine lists change seasonally, with the food menu. In winter, for example, he adds a juicy Washington Merlot and a beefy Bordeaux, both designed to go with braised food from kitchen. What about beer, cider and cocktails? Purple’s beer director handles the beer and cider list. But Horn ensures that cocktails all have wine in them. 

“We’re a wine bar. Cocktails should be wine-based.” he notes. “I ask my staff, “How would you build a classic cocktail using wine?” When you have good people you can let them run with it.” 

Horn continues, “We use lots of madeiras and sherries. Our Manhattan features Pedro Ximenez. My bar manager in Bellevue is barrel-aging a sherry cocktail right now. And we always have a few pages of grappas and brandies. They don’t sell well, but it’s important to have them. Sometimes what you don’t sell the most of says the most about what you’re all about.”

Team

Another essential component to creating a successful wine list centers around staff. Horn credits his team of sommeliers for the success of his wine programs.

“I use to hire based on a person’s resume,” Horn acknowledges. “Until I learned that you can’t teach, or train, people to care about other people.”

“Plus, Seattle is a really competitive market,” he maintains. “It’s important for the team to have fun. To learn to take the wines seriously, but not ourselves.”

Horn also travels, often with staff on their own dime, to diverse wine regions, most recently Piedmont, Italy.

“I’ve studied the wines of Piedmont, and thought I understood the part that elevation plays in their terroir. But it wasn’t until I viewed the area first-hand that I finally understood the importance of the hills in creating their wine.”

Horn concludes, “The more you travel to other wine regions, the more you understand that wine is bigger than just grapes - wine is history, culture, people.”

Ultimately, Horn tries to share this passion with his guests and staff, one carefully crafted wine menu at a time.