SEATTLE – Some restaurants in the United States talk the talk, but Wild Ginger in Seattle woks the walk better than maybe any other when it comes to its support of Riesling.
Company wine director Cortney Lease said her latest count for the list at Wild Ginger Asian Restaurant & Satay Bar was 250 different Rieslings available, which might be among the largest restaurant collections in the country.
“It’s so hard to tell. There are a handful of restaurants that have dedicated themselves to Riesling, this grape, as completely as we have,” Lease said. “I don’t know who has the biggest list, but I’d like to think we’re in the competition.”
That list also represents virtually every corner of the world.
“We try,” Lease said with a smile. “If they are producing Riesling, I’m usually pretty interested in seeing what that’s about.”
Lease recently helped Wild Ginger receive its fifth consecutive Grand Award from Wine Spectator, one of only two restaurants in the Pacific Northwest in that class. Riesling is not the only reason for the award, but there’s only one reason why it’s on the list at Wild Ginger, The Triple Door next door and Wild Ginger The Bravern in Bellevue.
“It just goes with our food so well. I can’t think of many dishes on our menu that wouldn’t be improved with Riesling whether it be Riesling dry, off-dry, sweet, dessert,” Lease said. “The grape is perfect for our food, so we embraced it and have been embracing it for many years, so we gave into our impulses and started bragging.”
Rick and Ann Yoder founded Wild Ginger in 1989 around Pan Asian cuisine after touring Southeast Asia as college students. “They fell in love with the cuisine and the culture and ended up getting a head chef who is from Cambodia as well,”
Among the examples of the traditional nature of the food at Wild Ginger are found in the kitchen staff. Culinary director Nathan Uy cooked for Cambodian dictator Pol Pot until escaping through Thailand into Vietnam in 1979. Executive chef Jacky Lo hails from Hong Kong, and Seattle chef Ming Tan is a native of Kai Pan, China.
“We do individual traditional dishes with a modern twist of course, from Cambodia, Malaysian, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Burmese,” Lease said. “We have a huge selection of these dishes.”
Summertime is when downtown Seattle is bustling with tourists visiting nearby Pike Place Market, and which correlates with Lease’s pet project each year – the now-worldwide Summer of Riesling program launched by New York restaurateur Paul Greico. He debuted the promotion in 2008 at his Manhattan wine bar Terroir, and recruited other New York restaurants to join him in Summer of Riesling two years later.
“He found great success in that by embracing this grape we love, and we got on board as Wild Ginger, The Triple Door and Wild Ginger the Bravern in 2011,” Lease said. “The idea is for the three summer months you embrace Riesling. You have it by the glass. You do promotions and events around it. You celebrate Riesling for what it is, a delicious summer wine. Well, in my opinion you can drink it all year around.”
Five other Seattle restaurants participated in Summer of Riesling: Bastille Cafe & Bar, RN74, Stoneburner, Ten Mercer and Von Trapp’s. Oregon enlisted six – Ambonnay Champagne Bar, Le Pigeon, Levant, Nostrana and Raven & Rose in Portland, along with Brooks Winery & Tasting Room in Amity.
Summer of Riesling also allows Lease to brag about the variety and the collection she’s built for the Yoders and their guests.
“We have an interactive Summer of Riesling menu that combines all the Rieslings that we have off our reserve list and off our table list,” Lease said. “We promote it through glass pours and high-end Enomatic selections. We’re doing Riesling cocktails as well. And then there’s our Riesling Sorbretto, which we commissioned from Procopio, which is a local gelataria in Seattle.”
In recent years, Chateau Ste. Michelle became the world’s largest producer of Riesling, and wine consumers in Washington state are beginning to embrace the variety in all of its forms, Lease said.
“I think general interest is rising, and there are a lot of big promotions, such as Riesling Rendezvous that Chateau Ste. Michelle and Summer of Riesling,” Lease said. “I think there’s a growing understanding, first of all, that Riesling doesn’t have to be sweet.
“That’s the initial concern (from consumers),” Lease continued. ” ‘I don’t want sweet wine and Riesling is sweet.’ I’ll tell them, ‘Well, not necessarily, in fact most Rieslings are quite dry.”
“It’s such a diverse grape,” Lease said. “If someone enjoys white wine, they will find a Riesling that will suit them.”
Lease, who received a chemistry degree from the University of Washington, began her education in wine during college as a server at Wild Ginger. Upon graduation, she moved to England, worked for a large wine retailer and completed two levels of Wine & Spirit Education Trust program. She returned to Wild Ginger in 2007 as cellarmaster, took over the company program within four years and has become one of the Northwest’s most respected sommeliers.
This summer, she served on a Riesling Rendezvous panel member with master sommelier Emily Wines during the session called “The Electric Riesling Acid Test.” The exercise featured the Lomer 2011 Langenlois Terrassen Riesling Kamptal DAC Reserve from Austria, Trisaetum 2012 Estates Reserve Riesling from Oregon and Leitz 2012 Dragonstone Riesling from Rheingau.
“We were comparing Riesling with food and also breaking down how Riesling pairs with food in a very visceral, step-by-step way,” Lease said. “We would pair Riesling with lemons to see how it would react with the acid in the wine. We were trying it pineapple and cheese. So it was less about a dish pairing of wine as a whole, but more of looking at the ingredients in dishes we’ll find and how they interact with Riesling in particular. It was a lot of fun. A learning experience.”
There’s more fun with Riesling in store for Lease this summer. The former dance student is raising the curtain again at The Triple Door on Burlesco DiVino, a production by Lily Verlaine and Jasper McCann that runs nightly Aug. 21-24
“It’s called Wine in Rome, but it’s centered around Riesling,” Lease said. “It’s a burlesque show dedicated to the vinification of grapes and all our happy consumptions around it. It’s a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it last year, and I’m curious to see what’s going to happen this year.”