Somewhere out there someone is packing for a trip to the Kentucky Derby. The Derby is, of course, a mint julep event. Locals craft their own mint julep recipes, handing them down over generations. Every restaurant has its own variation on the theme. Churchill Downs, the home of the Derby, is widely acknowledged to have the worst mint juleps in the world. Nonetheless, on Derby Day the track will pour a half-million juleps into a half-million souvenir glasses. Three-hundred-thousand of those glasses will be broken in the track parking lot, and the remainder will be sold in yard sales and flea markets within two months.
But on the assumption that some people coming to town are going to want a glass of wine, I’ll give Googlers a quick rundown on places where I like to drink.
A couple of things about the Louisville wine market. First off, this is Bourbon country, so it’s best not to expect too much. And second, when you find a decent list you’re going to like it. Since Louisville doesn’t have a big fine-wine constituency, restaurants with high-end bottles tend to be satisfied with prices just slightly over retail. Wander north of $100 and the prices will surprise you. I’ve bought bottles in restaurants cheaper than they can be had locally in retail stores, though a 25% mark-up seems about average. On the other hand, this is Derby, so there’s no telling what you’re going to be charged.
Here are my five favorite places for drinking wine:
The best list in town is at the Oak Room in the Seelbach Hilton. The Seelbach is an old-line, big city hotel. The lobby is grand and the lounge jumps with the kind of jazz F. Scott Fitzgerald had in mind when he made the hotel the site of Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s wedding. The Oak Room is up on the mezzanine level and is one of the best restaurants in town, though as a hotel restaurant it’s required to maintain a certain level of stuffiness. Also, the clientèle is largely people who’ve had standing Derby reservations since the place opened in 1908. That said, the restaurant is really, really good, and the list is even better. If you haven’t got a Derby reservation yet, you’re probably out of luck on the eating side. But for drinking you can snatch a table in the waiting area and order off the list.
A slightly hipper scene is out on the east side at Napa River Grill. It’s a California specialist, as you might have guessed. The list is good, the Reserve list is better, but you’d be wise to ask what they’ve got that’s not in print. They always keep a few surprises tucked away for people bold enough to inquire, and really load up for Derby. The surprises can be at entry level — I got a bottle of Storybook Mountain zin there for $28 once by asking — or at the top-end: a bottle of Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer To-Kalon for $20 over retail. A while back they had three vintages of Penfold’s Grange, and when a friend and I went in looking for something appropriate with which to toast the just-passed Robert Mondavi, they came out of the back room with a 20 year old Mondavi Reserve Cab. So, you know: ask.
Les Relais is a French bistro in the old, art deco Bowman Field airport terminal. It’s a place where I always expect to see Humphrey Bogart coming in out of the fog (there’s a DC-3 parked outside, just for effect) but the only celebrity I’ve actually seen there is William Shatner — which is not at all the same. The wine list is overwhelmingly French, as is Anthony, the owner. Anthony won’t sell his best wines to just anybody. My wife and I ordered a bottle of Beaucastel one night and Anthony came over to see if we were worthy. He explained, once we’d passed the test, that much of his clientèle really prefers unsubtle, New World fruit bombs — he says that with such exquisite Gallic scorn — and he likes to make sure his best French bottles go to people who won’t complain that a sleek, graceful wine is thin. His list is good, if not terribly long, and you could do worse than to deliver yourself over to Anthony’s judgment.
Just east of downtown in the charming (if not charmingly-named) Butchertown neighborhood, there is the L&N Wine Bar. They have a fair-to-middling list of about 150 selections, with perhaps 40 available by the glass. They list changes literally daily, because both the owners and the staff think of wine as an exploration. L&N sells tasting flights, and one of my favorite things to do is to plop down at the bar and ask them to set up something surprising. I’m never disappointed. The food is good, too. The grilled lamb chops are killer.
Finally, there’s my favorite place of all. North End Cafe is a little neighborhood cafe between Butchertown and Clifton. The food is good and the list is nice, but this particular place earns this note based on ambiance. On a warm summer evening, there’s simply no place I’d rather be than the deck at North End. Grab a table and seriously consider skipping dinner in favor of matching different wines with different hors d’oeuvres. Evenings like that are the key reason why I spend my summers drinking New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc; whatever the food may demand, the place is perfectly matched to the wine’s fruity simplicity.
There are other places, of course. Lots of them. Along the right side of this blog is a blogroll of restaurants that are listed because they’re all serious about food and drink. Louisville is a good and inventive restaurant town. Any one of them will set you up just fine.
And, as we say here in Louisville, have a good Derby.