Liquid hermeneutics

Let’s take a look at the wine list, shall we? I mean actually look at the list, the thing itself. I sit down with Elaine Futhey, the wine buyer and sommelier for C&O, which has been voted Best Restaurant Wine List this year, to do just that, but instead she pulls out a list from a French restaurant, circa 1950, a present to her from a former employee. It is spiral bound, on soft, cream-colored paper, decorated with delicate Japanese paintings. Then she shows me a copy of the 1940 wine list from Antoine’s in New Orleans (the year that restaurant celebrated its centenary) and it’s filled with illustrations, hand drawn maps, and beautiful descriptions of the wines (a 1921 Riesling is said to be “in the mellow autumn of [its] life”).

Look before you drink: Since the mid-1980s, Elaine Futhey has been gracing the C&O wine list with her classic calligraphy.

It is only later that we look at the list from the C&O, after we’ve had coffee and talked about wine lists. Good wine lists, Futhey tells me, should “have some surprises” and “eclectic appeal.” “They should have a breadth. Sometimes that’s better than depth.” Futhey has been writing the C&O’s list since around 1986. Literally writing it, as it’s her classic calligraphy that graces the pages, along with scattered quotes, a few pictures, and a poem.

In my opinion a good wine list should, in actuality, be not a list at all. The C&O’s is an actual book, 24 pages, illustrated and hardcover. It is not computer printed or stuck on the back of the menu. It is quirky, even contains a few errors, but it has unmistakable personality. There is someone behind it, someone who cares about what this book says to you. I ask Futhey if it’s hard to put together a wine list that stands out, and she says that it is, but that she works by the adage that “you play to your tastes.”

My favorite page of the C&O wine list, page 2, does just that. At the top it says, “These wines will charm & intrigue you. If you are looking for something different, you’re on the right page.” In the current edition, it lists a wine made from the rarely seen varietal Petit Meunier and a white wine made from Merlot. Futhey began listing wines that surprised and delighted her on this page about five years ago, and it’s proved to be very popular. Moreover, it’s evidence that she is someone who loves wine as much for what she doesn’t know about it, as for what she does. Futhey’s answer, when I ask her how she would choose wine from a list, is that she would “immediately go for something I’ve never had before.”

The C&O does not offer the most expensive or highest-rated wines in town. I don’t think it has the most wines, either. But the wine list has personality and charm. Next time you go there, keep it with you at the table. It’s a good read.

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