The Wine of Oak: Sound as a Barrel

Editor’s Note: this is the first in a series of reviews of local wine lists by EDB’s new wine writer, Beau Hoffman.

The use of oak in wine is no doubt a polarizing subject in the world in wine.  On one hand, the subtle tannins can augment the wine and create interesting flavors (smokiness, subtle vanilla).  When the use of oak is taken to the extreme, including through the use of oak chips, the characteristics from the grapes themselves disappear and are overshadowed by chemical compounds (lactones, vanillin).  Delicate, floral Viognier mutates into alcoholic Capri Sun crossed with butterscotch, and citrusy Chardonnay becomes best suited for dipping lobster.

Better suited as mulch?

I fall into the camp that vehemently dislikes these type of wines.  In fact, I am so adverse to buying an oaky wine, that I am unlikely to buy certain New World white wines unless I have tasted it previously. Likewise, when I go to a restaurant, the odds of me buying a California Chardonnay or a South African Chinon Blanc are basically zero.  I have a fearless forecast that I am not alone in this sentiment.

It therefore seems fitting that Oak at Fourteenth may have found a solution to this plight.  Rather than organizing their wine list primarily by region or grape varietal, they have broken their white wine list into three categories:

“No/Neutral Oak”
“Some Oak”
“Get Oaked”

While I don’t agree with a few of the designations (most white Burgundy would fall into the neutral oak category for me), it is a clever way to guide the diner and mitigate their risk.  The hierarchy of oakiness is less applicable for the red wines, but makes sense given the restaurant’s name.

Regardless of whether or not your palette likes or despises oak, there are plenty of options on the wine list, both by the bottle and glass.  In general, their wine list is fairly old-world centric, with many French, Italian, and Spanish selections.  Their by-the-bottle list features several Burgundies, Rhone blends, and Italian varietals, and the usual suspects are there too; California Cab & Zin, Oregon Pinots, and Malbecs.  Regardless, of the grape or region, there were a spectrum of price points ($30-$125+) for each type, which is nice to see.

The list of wines-by-the-glass features 8 whites and 8 reds featuring a mix of typical varietals (Pinot Noir, Cab. Sauv, Pinot Gris), and some more exotic selections.  On a recent visit, I tried the Brunn Gruner Veltliner and the Eugenio Bocchino Vino Rosso del Popolo, a Nebbiolo/Barbera/Dolcetto blend, and both were excellent expressions of those wine types. They also offer wines by the half glass AND half price (although they do not advertise it), for those who do want to try several pours.  On first inspection, the wines by the glass appear expensive (most are $10-$14), but relative to their retail prices, can command these prices given restaurant markup standards.

If you are feeling brave, and are at Oak during happy hour, they offer a $20 bottle of red or white, except that they will not tell you what it is.  I’m confident that it is a significant step-up from a generic house wine, but the risk of obtaining an oaky chardonnay was too high for me to take the plunge.  Perhaps next time, I’ll give it a go.

Verdict: Oak’s wine list is a good size- not too large to be paralyzing, yet big enough to offer something for any preferences.  There are many options in the under $50/bottle range, and plenty of choices by the glass.  And if wine isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other potent potables to choose from whether it is beer or a cocktail that you fancy.  One way or another, if you cannot find something to imbibe, you probably aren’t thirsty.

2 thoughts on “The Wine of Oak: Sound as a Barrel

  1. Informative article; didn’t know oakiness generated such strong feelings, pre or con, but I”m impressed that you avoided any puns with the name of the restaurant.

    Also, thanks for the unadvertised 1/2 price tip!

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