In-flight attendent: Mistral bartender Kelly Brown is part of a staff that guides wine lovers through themed by-the-glass “flights.”

A Flight of Fancy

Mistral serves up a wine lover’s dream

By Bob Johnson

WINE ENJOYMENT certainly is subjective, and the degree to which we love or loathe a particular bottling often has as much to do with the surroundings as the juice. We’re reminded of this truism virtually every time a friend returns from a trip to France or Italy and waxes poetic about an $8 bottle of vino consumed at a rural cafe or a hole-in-the-wall wine bar.

That same bottle, served back home in Sonoma or Sebastopol with dinner, would never stand up to the imbiber’s usual scrutiny. Indeed, we’ve heard sad tales of how wonderfully complex a wine tasted in the “old country,” yet how simple it seemed when uncorked here.

“I guess this is a wine that just doesn’t travel well” is the typical refrain.

Truth be told, those simple country wines of Europe travel perfectly well. What doesn’t is atmosphere. The right setting with the right person at the right time can make a nothing-to-write-home-about wine seem worthy of a hardcover book.

Is it possible to replicate such an experience in Sonoma County, arguably one of the finest wine-grape-growing regions of the world?

Sure . . . if you’re from Europe.

But seriously, a truly memorable wine-drinking outing is available in the cozy confines of Santa Rosa. While the masses jam both the northbound and the southbound lanes of 101 at quitting time, a fortunate in-the-know few head for Mistral and rest their weary bones at the acclaimed restaurant’s eight-seat wine bar.

You won’t find “charming country wines” at Mistral. The mechanization and modernization of the California wine industry has caused the hearty, individualistic wines of pioneering vintners to be largely overrun by sleek, sophisticated, sanitary, and safe bottlings that high-tech vinification renders.

However, what you will find at Mistral’s wine bar is a user-friendly list of wines–both local and global–offered by the bottle, by the glass, or in themed flights.

Any restaurant can assemble a decent bottle list, but it takes time and effort to develop and maintain an interesting by-the-glass or flight program.

Enter Mistral proprietor Michael Hirschberg, a restaurateur with a keen understanding of how wine complements food and vice versa. Just as important, Hirschberg realizes how daunting the wine selection process can be for a diner.

“The idea of our flight program is to introduce people to new wine experiences and to relieve the fear of ordering wine,” Hirschberg confides.

“You can have the greatest wine list in the world, but if it intimidates people, they’re going to order coffee or a Coke.

“Those are both worthy beverages, but they don’t go with food nearly as well as wine does.”

Because supplies dwindle and vintages change, Mistral’s flights are constantly being updated. During our recent visit, the 10 flights were categorized thusly: Apéritifs, Exciting White Wines, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, California/ Italian, Red Wine Sampler, Zinfandel, Syrah, A Taste of France, and A Taste of Spain.

MOST categories included at least one Sonoma County bottling, complemented by wines from other North Coast appellations, as well as Italy, New Zealand, and the aforementioned France and Italy.

We opted for the Syrah flight, since many industry insiders are touting syrah (a.k.a. shiraz) as “the next merlot.” It consisted of one bottling from Sonoma County (1997 Geyser Peak), one from Mendocino County (1997 McDowell Estate), and one from France (1997 Perrin Crozes-Hermitage), and offered a rare opportunity to compare and contrast wine flavors and winemaking styles.

The McDowell Estate was the most aromatic of the three, with fumes of black cherry and smoke wafting from the glass to the nostrils.

The always dependable Geyser Peak was typically fruit-forward, oozing blackberry and blueberry and finishing with a nice dollop of pepper as it opened up. And the French wine, from the northern Rhône Valley, was more “meaty,” with the flavors of the earth and oak barrels dominating the fruit nuances.

To help customers keep track of the wines–since most people are accustomed to having one glass in front of them, rather than three–Mistral utilizes wooden flight trays with three round indentations to fit the bases of the glasses.

A printed stand-up card attached to the tray identifies the wines by name from left to right.

Visitors still confused by all the choices will find helpful words of advice just an inquiry away.

Kelly Brown was tending bar on the day of our visit, and she deftly guided several customers to flights or glasses she thought they’d enjoy, based on their stated taste preferences.

Surprisingly, Brown was not a wine aficionado when she joined the Mistral staff some four years ago.

“It’s been on-the-job training,” she smiles. “Anytime we open a bottle, we not only smell it, but also taste it to make sure it’s not corked.

“When you have as many flights as we have, you get to taste a lot of wines, and tasting is the best way to learn.”

That goes just as much for casual diners as wine bar attendants.

From the June 1-7, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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