Deep purple

The prices and the descriptions may puzzle, but The Grape's got a fine wine idea

click to enlarge STEAK A CLAIM: The Grape's exceptional steak sandwich (center), plus chops, quiche and the beverage of choice. - Valerie Troyano
Valerie Troyano
STEAK A CLAIM: The Grape's exceptional steak sandwich (center), plus chops, quiche and the beverage of choice.

My wine hackles pricked up the instant I first glanced at The Grape's wine list. Not because of the simplified and goofy classification system where every wine is pigeonholed into one of 10 numbers (though I'll kvetch more on that later); nor is it the cojones of selling bottles of wine in the bar at twice what you pay for it in The Grape's retail store just 10 feet away (which still means the markup at the wine bar is lower than you'll find in most restaurants). Nope, the problem with its list is that I recognized so darn few of the wines.

A chain wine bar and restaurant that is one of many trying to simplify wine for the beer-and-cocktails crowd, The Grape's latest location is smack dab in the center of International Plaza's restaurant row. In the past five years, this chain of franchised locations has exploded to 17 locations, most in Florida. Introducing wine to the masses is an admirable — and I hope profitable — goal, but I'm afraid the uninitiated might not get the education or the value they're looking for.

After visiting The Grape, I called to get a printout of the standardized wine list. The local management wouldn't give me one, even after I played the "press" card. Turns out that the corporate HQ folks in Atlanta weren't very obliging, either. The stated reason was "we change the list, so we don't release it to the public," but even after I pressed harder they — ever so politely — refused.

Wonder why? I have my suspicions. Much of the The Grape's wine list is composed of wines that are either unavailable or aren't generally sold in the market, which is why many of them were little-known to me. That means very little competition, so prices can be a bit higher than down the street at your local wine merchant. And with no wine list in hand, it's hard to comparison-shop for lower prices.

That hurts when you pay $14 for a glass of Joffre Grand Chardonnay that often retails for a little less than that per bottle. Same goes for a one-dimensional glass of Zolo Chardonnay at $9, or the dull fruit in a $12 glass of Indis Chard. The Champagne page is filled almost exclusively with a little-known house called De Venoge, which The Grape has exclusive rights to in the U.S. The basic non-vintage De Venoge is fine, but at $50 retail, it's no match for cheaper competition from Veuve Clicquot or Bollinger.

On a list of 120 wines, though, there are quite a few winners. The incredibly bright fruit and lush floral aromas in a glass of Oriel Barona Rias Baixas ($13) from Portugal is worth the high price tag, as are economical reds like the Brusset Cotes Du Ventoux ($7) or Vina Sanzo Tempranillo ($7). Economical, but still priced higher than you'd find at most other places.

As a reasonably educated wine guy, I find The Grape's wine simplification system disingenuously basic. One of my slightly knowledgeable companions disliked it because he found it hard to locate the types of wine he liked in the numbered pages. But let's not sell it short. There are a lot of people in this country who still fail to drink the most fantastic liquid on earth, many of them because they feel that picking the right bottle is a process fraught with as much stress and potential remorse as getting married. Hey, if that's you, and The Grape's numerical pigeonholes and "wine edutainment" make you feel comfortable — as it did several of the people I brought — then I applaud it.

Still, I wish that the descriptions were more "edu" and less "tainment." "Take two winemaking legends, mix them together, and roll out the best of Napa Valley" doesn't tell me anything worth knowing about Marcelina Chardonnay. Who are those two people? What does the wine taste like? When you order a flight (or "bunch" in The Grape language) of three wines, they reprint the cutesy menu descriptions on a handy placemat so that you can identify your chosen glasses. Give drinkers something more informative than "Pssssst, Pesssquier is a ruby of the Cotes Du Rhone," and they can ignore or learn at their own discretion.

Otherwise, The Grape at International Plaza is much like the ones I've visited in Orlando and Sarasota. The interior is decked out in rich purples and earth tones, not quite stylish enough to compete with some of the Plaza's glitzier hangouts, but cozy. Servers are well-trained by Grape educators and can rattle off bits of info on most of the wines they carry, make excellent food wine pairings off the menu and hit a few high points of general wine knowledge.

None of The Grape franchises I visited got the trademark pita "pisas" right. The crust inevitably comes out like a chalky, overcooked English muffin, no matter if it's topped with fig paste and prosciutto ($7) or grilled veggies and goat cheese ($6). When the pitas are used, however, in "Mediterranean quesadillas" (boy, that's hard to say with a straight face), they are surprisingly satisfying, especially when stuffed with chicken, sun-dried tomatoes and gooey provolone ($8).

The steak sandwich ($17) is exceptional, with thick cuts of nicely cooked beef — tender enough to split easily under your teeth — and sweet caramelized onions piled in a loaf of ciabatta-like roll. The sandwich also comes with a small salad of miniature mozzarella balls and tomatoes tossed with balsamic vinegar. When those veggies are ripe, this is a plate of food to be reckoned with.

Lollipop lamb chops ($13 for 3) are tiny and tasty, but the miniature crab cakes ($15) are forgettably reminiscent of catering mini-quiches. And The Grape's actual quiche ($10) fails to reach even that standard. In one instance, the quiche contained so much spinach that it was difficult to find any pockets of golden custard in the dense green undergrowth.

I want to give The Grape its due. With 120 wines by the glass, educated servers and a menu that includes a few delicious little noshes, the place ain't bad. It delivers exactly what you'd expect from a chain breaking new ground in the untapped wine bar marketplace. I can drink to that.

Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertising.

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