If you skip the social aspects, there are two reasons why I go out to a restaurant. To eat and to drink. And, to me, the second is almost as important as the first. For, on most occasions, as the 19th Century French gastronome Brillat-Savarin said, a meal without wine is like a day without sunshine.
So, in San Miguel de Allende, what do I look for in a restaurant wine list? First I look at price. Very hard. For I am far from a wealthy person. And, as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson said, “I drinks a bit”. Often, if it’s a multi-course dinner, one bottle won’t be quite enough for Don Day’s Wife and I.
It wasn’t that long ago in this town that I could easily find a decent bottle of wine in a mid to high-end restaurant for $500. These days, that’s almost impossible. At those restaurants I’m most familiar with, the most economical red is now $650 for a Beaulieu Vineyards California Cab at Trazo. At other upscale San Miguel restaurants, there isn’t a single red for less than four figures.
There’s a saying in the hospitality business: The expenses are served on a plate. The profits are served in a glass. There are not a lot of costs associated with wines…inventory, storage, glass breakage…so, sometimes, alcohol can be responsible for almost 100% of a restaurant’s net.
So why the big hike in prices locally? The Mexican peso certainly has been weak versus the currencies that wine are most often traded in, the US dollar and the Euro. And I believe, these days, there are a lot more wealthy people in this town willing to spend a lot more pesos on wine. But I also believe restaurants are marking up wines much more than they used to.
Fifty years ago, not long after I discovered the fermented fruit, wines were only marked up around 100% over retail. That number slowly crept up until, this century, it wasn’t unusual to see a 200% lift over the price in a shop. These days, though, we’re seeing numbers much higher than that.
At Bovine, one of those restaurants with nothing under four figures, their cheapest red is a Primitivo from Puglia that I can buy retail for $140. They charge $1200. Quite a bit higher than 200% wouldn’t you say? Even that least expensive of all reds at mid to high end restaurants, the one I mentioned earlier at Trazo 1810, the BV Coastal Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, I can buy for $120 and they charge $750.
So you can imagine how excited I was when I recently discovered a San Miguel restaurant with, not only very reasonable mark-ups, but a small but very well-selected list.
What originally caught my eye on the drinks menu was their house red. It’s a Finca Villacreces Pruno, a Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon from Ribera del Duero. Now this just happens to be one of my favorite Spanish wines and one of the very best bargains to ever come out of the country. I’m used to paying $400 at the quite economical Costco for this gem. This relatively-new restaurant, Casa Nostra, charges just $690. An extraordinary value!
There are other great values on the list, a couple of them still under that old-fashioned $500 mark.
Gabbiano is a Chianti that I’ve probably drunk at least a hundred bottles of over the years. A bottle costs me $253 at La Comer, the San Miguel supermarket. It is only $470 at Casa Nostra.
I was looking forward to perhaps those and perhaps other good bottles with mini-mark-ups when we met old friends for dinner at Casa Nostra this week.
Casa Nostra opened in mid-January. It shines like a solitaire in an already gleaming band at night. There are four different levels. The third floor is the most elegant and where the compact dining room is located.
Executive chef/owner Marco Franco Massarotti is almost ever-present in the room, sometimes in the guise of sommelier, sometimes as head waiter, always forthcoming with advice as to what to eat and drink.
“Our philosophy is to offer good wines at fair prices so that many people will try new wines and might join the passion I have for wine”, said the very-engaging Marco. “Our vision is that people who like good wines will come to Casa Nostra as they know we have something for everybody at reasonable prices, even for the very expensive wines we have.”
Even with that “reasonable prices” comment, I felt a little like Ebenezer You Know Who when I told Marco Massarotti our budget restrictions but I thought it best that he know up front and didn’t waste his time trying to sell us any four figure bottles. He gave us a suggestion of two different whites from his Italian homeland to go with the amuse bouche that had now arrived: a Pinot Grigio or an Orvieto. I never have a problem with Pinot Grigio; it’s become the everyman’s white of choice. But an Orvieto; that is a little special. It was a white of my youth and, just hearing the word, was like hearing a love song from the seventies that I hadn’t heard…well…since the seventies.
“And how much?” I asked Marco.
“$460”, said Marco.
“Open it please”, I requested.
Orvieto is a small village almost smack-dab in the middle of Italy. The wine is almost always lip-smacking good; particularly considering the price.
Borgo Cipressi, the Orvieto stocked by Casa Nostra, has the aroma of peaches with a hint of citrus. It’s fresh and crispy on the tongue with chalky nuances from the flintstone soil the vines are grown in. I thought I could recognize almonds on the finish.
We had chosen a selection of tapas for the four of us to share: salmon mousse in puff pastry, Serrano ham croquettes, and calamari stuffed with figs, nuts and a touch of blue cheese. The Orvieto partnered well with all of them.
We placed our mains orders; the guys unable to resist the classic spaghetti bolognese, one of the ladies choosing a risotto with porcini mushrooms, red wine, mascarpone cheese and saffron, the other choosing a veal involtini saltimbocca served with homemade pasta.
Meanwhile, the star of the evening was being slowly poured by the server into one of those over-the-top decanter designs that you shrug your shoulders at but secretly would love to have at home.
Finca Villacreces Pruno Ribera del Duero rose to fame with its 2013 edition when Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, the most influential wine publication in the world, gave it a 93; a score usually reserved for far more expensive wines.
The publication wrote (and I apologize for there being even more winespeak than even I babble): “…a blend of 90% Tempranillo and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon aged 12 months in French oak, is stunning, simply over-delivering in so many different ways. This wine, which offers up copious quantities of blueberry, black raspberry and black currant fruit, licorice, graphite and meaty notes, offers fabulous aromatics, medium to full-bodied mouthfeel, beautiful, pure texture and a long, heady finish with subtle oak.”
The 2013s are long gone but Marco Massarotti was “…able to get a couple of cases of the 2015 at an affordable price and I love sharing my good fortune with Casa Nostra’s customers.”
“I think the 2015 Pruno ranks very close to the 2013, particularly after a few minutes in the decanter.”
Now, personally, I’ve never seen much value in decanting unless the bottle has sediment which the Finca Villacreces Pruno doesn’t. But I do love the ritual, the showbiz, and the look of envy from the diners at other tables that your wine must be better than theirs.
I loved the tulip glass the Pruno was served in as well. What a wonderful homage to a 690 peso wine I thought.
“There are only a few bottles left” said Marco, and, if I can get more, I know next time my cost is going be quite a bit higher so the restaurant’s price will have to be as well.”
While those supplies last, you can also get a taste of Pruno by the glass. It’s a nice thing to have in your hand on Casa Nostra’s fourth floor terrace.
Marco wears the Italian flag on one sleeve, the Swiss flag on the other. We knew chocolate had to be on the postres list. It was the all-hands-up choice for dessert. As with the starters, we chose to share, selecting a white chocolate mousse, a dark chocolate mousse and, perhaps in a desperate attempt at appearing the tiniest bit healthy, a basil semifreddo.
By the time it came to choosing the third wine, we decided to put ourselves totally in Marco’s hands; this time my friend Ben and I using our Scottish heritage as the reason for our proviso.
“Under $500?”, I sheepishly asked.
“Well under $500”, Marco replied. “Can I make it a surprise?”
He told us it was a Cabernet Franc with some Ruby Cabernet; good news to Ben and I, who had holidayed together in Chinon, the original French home of the Cab Franc grape. But that was about all Marco would tell me.
A glass was poured and I held it up to the light and swirled, just like those professional sommeliers do at those tastings I don’t get invited to enough…or is it ever.
“How old do you think it is?”, asked Marco.
“Five maybe six years”, said I, checking out the color I called reddish-brown and those sommeliers might call chestnut or tan or mahogany.
“Seven with eighteen months in the barrel”, said Marco as he turned the bottle and revealed the label.
I knew the wine well. I had seen it often but I had never bought it, never tasted it. It would be sitting there on the shelf when I was picking up the local burrata at Remo’s, the cheese shop just outside San Miguel de Allende on the road to Queretaro. Why hadn’t I tried the wine? Well local wine isn’t exactly cheap and, at the price Remo’s was charging, I thought this couldn’t be good.
It was. Not great. Not even very good. But good. Especially when Marco revealed that Casa Nostra was charging $385 a bottle.
The taste reminded me of wine made using the Ripasso method where the grapes are dried after harvesting. And no, I’m not comparing Remo’s Vino Tinto to the quality of an Amarone, but it does have a similar full-bodied, boozy, raisiny taste. And it did go well with the chocolate mousse and the truffles that followed.
Casa Nostra has just added Remo’s Vino Tinto to their list, a list that Marco told me will change frequently.
“I am always trying to find new good wines at the best possible price,” he said, “and, whenever I am lucky enough to hit a bullseye, I will share the benefits of it with our guests. Therefore, the offering might change from time to time.”
“Keep those cheapies coming and I’ll keep coming,” I said to Marco Massarotti as we left Casa Nostra.
Casa Nostra is located at Terraplen #8 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from Wednesday to Saturday from 2:00 pm to 12:00 am and Sunday from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm.