Spoon and Stable recently named Claire Maxwell its wine director, and she’s already putting her stamp on the acclaimed eatery’s wine program. What can oenophiles expect? The beloved classics alongside exciting lesser known varietals, all in a comfortable, highly unintimidating environment that encourages some vino experimentation. Here, Maxwell discusses how she plans to evolve the Spoon and Stable wine program, what bottles she’s drinking this spring and summer, and more.
How did your early career inspire your love of wine?
My first job was as a gardener when I was 15. I spent about six summers taking care of flower gardens — transplanting, weeding, watering, pruning and pulling Japanese beetles off of rose bushes. Life slows down when you watch a garden grow and change over the course of a season. It might seem cliché, but it helped me gain an appreciation for the natural world around me and a love of land stewardship.
I grew up in a very agricultural county in upstate New York. I was surrounded by dairy farms, apple orchards and small-scale vegetable farmers. As I grew up, the county became more dedicated to organic farming, but historically it was home to many conventional dairy farms. My summer job as a gardener eventually led to a desire to learn more about farming and the agricultural livelihoods around me.
And then I started working in restaurants. I found great satisfaction in caring for guests, anticipating their needs before they asked, and telling them stories about dishes I loved. Learning about wine was what brought everything together for me: hospitality, storytelling and watching things grow. I had the chance to work with James Beard Award winner Deirdre Heekin of La Garagista vineyard in Vermont to plant their first vines. Ten years later, I found myself poring over the wine list at the Bachelor Farmer trying to learn all I could.
What up-and-coming wine regions have you most excited?
I’m excited about wine coming from New England, partially because it signals what is possible in cold climates like Minnesota, but also because it’s where I grew up and where I first fell in love with wine.
Large-scale farming never took off in New England because it’s mountainous and heavily forested. This left room for small farmers to experiment with alternative modes of land stewardship, including both organic and biodynamic practices. I’m most excited about winemakers who prioritize the health of their vineyards and the land they occupy, and many winemakers in New England share this priority.
Most wines coming out of New England are made from hybrid grapes, many of which were bred at the University of Minnesota. Some people are skeptical of hybrid grapes, but I think they make a beautiful wine if they are allowed to behave like themselves and not forced to taste like wines the world already knows and loves. Hybrid grapes could be thought of as the underdog of the wine world, and I’ll be the first to admit that I love an underdog.
Unfortunately, many winemakers from New England produce extremely small quantities of wine and most of it gets snapped up by New York City, so it’s not available in Minnesota — yet.
What bottles are you personally enjoying this spring?
2021 Cruse “Monkey Jacket” Red Blend
Valdiguie, Carignan, Tannat
North Coast, California
I enjoyed this bottle with my first at-home grilled meal of the year: salmon collars, snapper, asparagus and scallions. The combination was a knockout — so good it distracted me from the fact that it was actually quite cold outside. It’s got plenty of crushed red fruit and bramble notes up front, with savory herb, olive, leather and smoke to follow.
2019 G.B. Burlotto
I love a chilled red wine, and this is one of my favorites. It tastes like juicy, fresh raspberries with a whiff of lilac and a prickle of white pepper. Somehow, it is both a drinker and a thinker — quaffable and complex at the same time. It’s great for Minnesota’s in-between weather, too; Pelaverga works well with cozy comfort food, but does just as well as an early spring picnic wine.
What are the warm weather varietals you’ll be reaching for this summer?
Fans of white Burgundy rejoice: Portugal has a wallet-friendly answer to your excellent taste. It’s called Encruzado, and I think about it daily. It’s ripe and round, but with plenty of acidity and a delightful resinous quality reminiscent of the pine trees that cover the Dão region, Encruzado’s home. When aged in stainless steel, Encruzado is salty, flinty and grapefruit-y. When aged in oak, it takes on notes of hazelnut, ripe stone fruit and melon, lemon curd and white button mushrooms.
I’m also excited for the spring release from Ruth Lewandowski, specifically their rosé of Touriga Nacional, Souzão and Tinta Roriz. Do these grapes sound vaguely familiar? That’s because they are three of the permitted grapes used to make port. In the seventies and eighties, lots of California vineyards were replanted with “suitcase clones,” or vine cuttings smuggled from all over Europe, in an effort to emulate iconic French and Italian wines. Winemaker Evan Lewandowski came into possession of one of these vineyards, and the result is a deliciously herbaceous and savory rosé that packs a tropical fruit punch as well.
How will you be evolving the Spoon and Stable wine program?
I want the wine program at Spoon and Stable to inspire both comfort and curiosity. Taste and smell — and therefore drinking wine and eating food — is inextricable from the creation and recollection of memories, and I will never take for granted the power restaurants have to shape these memories.
Sometimes, when we go out to dinner, we want all of our favorites — the things we know and love, the things that have brought us pleasure in the past. Sometimes, we want to try something new with help from a server, chef or sommelier who we trust. Spoon and Stable will always offer the classics, and my goal is to earn guests’ trust so that every now and again, we can surprise and delight them with wines that are off the beaten path. The world of wine can feel intimidating and rarefied, but I’m not interested in perpetuating that stereotype.
Beyond creating by-the-glass and by-the-bottle lists, my main priority is to be available to guests during dinner service. This is the first time Spoon and Stable has had a dedicated sommelier in a while, and I’m excited to connect with guests while finding the perfect bottle or glass of wine. Instead of being intimidating, I want to help guests feel confident and empowered by their preferences, and safe enough to remain curious. More than anything, I want guests to get used to my presence, to know that I’m here to make their experience more delightful.
I’m hoping to entice new guests by bringing them more options available by the glass, some of which can be very hard to find anywhere else. Focusing on a vibrant, and at times, off-the-beaten-path by-the-glass list seems like a good first step, because guests will always have a server, or me, right there to guide them through. I want to convey that wine at Spoon and Stable is a big tent; there is something for everyone, and we’re all invested in helping guests find the right glass or bottle.
I’ve expanded our by-the-glass list with a new section I’m really excited about called “For Your Consideration.” It’s where we’re able to share limited-stock bottles with both half-glass and full-glass options, so guests can feel more comfortable going outside their comfort zone with some really special wines. You’ll find Camp 4 Cabernet Sauvignon from Kitá Wines there, a vineyard owned by the Santa Ynez Band of the Chumash tribe. Winemaker Tara Gomez is incredibly talented; this bottle has so much verve and life. Or Vitovska Solo MM17 from Paolo Vodopivec, a winemaker dedicated to working solely to Vitovska, a grape indigenous to Northeast Italy and Southwest Slovenia, where his biodynamically farmed estate is located.