A sometimes unheralded factor in Washington’s restaurant renaissance has been the active cadre of young sommeliers who have raised the bar for wine service. Some of them are now branching out, and they might just change the way we drink and think about wine.
They certainly may change our concept of wine bars. Maxwell Park, the brainchild of sommelier Brent Kroll, opened June 26 in Shaw, not far from the convention center. When I visited four days later, people poured through the door as soon as it opened at 5 p.m. An hour later, customers were standing and waiting for one of the 33 seats in the modest corner establishment.
Kroll, 31, has been a familiar face to the District’s wine lovers for nearly a decade from his stints at Ardeo, the Oval Room and Adour. He managed the lists for Iron Gate and the Passenger as wine director for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group before moving to Proof last year for a brief stint as general manager.
Kroll is not the only sommelier involved in the project. Max Kuller, owner of the Fat Baby restaurant group (Proof, Estadio, Doi Moi) and a sommelier himself, is a business partner. Daniel Runnerstrom, formerly of Iron Gate, and Niki Lang, formerly of Voltaggio Brothers Steak House and Fiola Mare, help manage the bar. Both are certified sommeliers through the Court of Master Sommeliers and can partner into ownership if Maxwell Park succeeds.
Named for a place in Detroit where Kroll played as a child, Maxwell Park oozes fun, right down to the chalk provided for customers to write or doodle on the slate bar. And because many customers today like to stay connected, the bar is lined with electrical outlets that include USB ports. Your check will be presented in a copy of a pocket wine guide by Oz Clarke or Hugh Johnson — another sign that “this is meant to be fun, not a dissertation,” as Kroll says.
Kroll modeled Maxwell Park after wine bars in New York rather than more food-centric examples in Washington’s first wave of a decade ago. “I want this to be a true wine bar, not a restaurant marketed as a wine bar,” he says. “If you have 20 dishes on your menu and a chef in the kitchen, you’re a restaurant.”
The wine list will eventually feature 600 labels, quite extensive for a place with 33 seats. Fifty wines are offered by the glass (with pours of varying sizes available), half of which will rotate monthly according to a theme. July’s theme is ABPG, or Anything but Pinot Grigio, emphasizing the variety of white wines from Italy.
“Not that we hate pinot grigio, but you’ve already had it,” Kroll explains. “Why not try something different?”
The July list includes one of my all-time favorites, the kerner from Abbazia di Novacella, plus a minerally saline pigato from Liguria and a fascinating sparkler from Mount Etna in Sicily. There is so much to explore. Some cocktails, beers and nonalcoholic drinks are also available.
And there is some food: Kroll plans to enlist Washington area chefs to design menus of about half a dozen snacks, to rotate seasonally. He also plans to have guest appearances by other area sommeliers. “You’ll always see one or more of us,” he says, referring to Runnerstrom and Lang, “but you may come in one night and see another somm behind the bar.”
Kroll does let his inner wine geek emerge when he talks about the four distinct temperature zones he uses to store and serve his wines. “Most restaurants have two storage areas, one for reds and one for whites. But all white wines are not meant to be served at the same temperature,” he says. A crisp falanghina might benefit from a good chill, for example, while a full-bodied Chablis should be served just slightly cool.
“I hope it catches on,” he says of the attention to temperature.
Sommeliers in charge might be catching on. Sebastian Zutant, formerly of Proof and Red Hen, plans to open his own wine bar, Primrose, in August in Brookland, with his wife, Lauren Winter. Jennifer Knowles, now wine director at Mirabelle, dipped her toe into winemaking last year, blending a pinot noir at Oregon’s Brooks winery. That wine is served by the glass at Plume in the Jefferson Hotel, where Knowles worked. She hopes to blend a cuvee for Mirabelle next year.
Maxwell Park is certainly catching on. The evening I visited, I encountered Pamela Margaux, a Charlottesville wine importer, and her husband, Claude Thibaut, maker of Virginia’s Thibaut-Janisson sparkling wines. As we surveyed the crowd of wine lovers, we realized we were decades older than everyone else in the place.
“Maybe I’ll come back when I’m 30 years younger,” quipped Thibaut, 59.
I’ll be back sooner, whether or not I fit in.