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Creating a Game-Changing Wine List in Napa

Ryan Stetins and Matt Stamp lead the charge at Compline, their wine bar and shop

After you’ve run one of the country’s greatest wine programs, what’s next? Consulting, importing, writing—many wine directors leave service behind. Not Ryan Stetins and Matt Stamp. They’ve devoted their next steps emphatically to the restaurant floor. At Compline, launched in September 2017, the partners are creating a unique footprint for wine service in California’s Napa Valley. With a list that straddles the divide between new thrills and stellar classics and between far-flung finds and homages to home; great food that still lets the wine lead; a globe-trotting educational program; and perhaps most importantly, radically accessible pricing, Compline has been an instant destination for a new wave of Napa drinkers. How do Stetins and Stamp do it? By putting two well-trained heads together and cocaptaining a tight ship.

“We each worked with big-money lists,” Stetins explained as he sat down one morning in the sunny room that opens onto the patio at Compline. He oversaw the programs at Charlie Trotter in Chicago and Las Vegas; Stamp, a Master Sommelier, had gone from The French Laundry in Yountville, California, to directing education at the Guild of Sommeliers. They knew each other from the community that works the “upper echelon of restaurants” but started talking in earnest after Stetins moved to wine country in 2012. “We just wanted a cool place to drink in Napa,” Stetins says. “We wanted some awesome wines, the list didn’t need to be big, and for us, food is important, so we said, ‘Let’s have a kitchen as well.’”

Pricing Drives Traffic

Stetins took nine months off from other work to focus on Compline before its opening. That lead time allowed the partners to carve out an intricate niche. Says Stetins, “We said, ‘What bottle shop is interesting in Napa? Where can you dig through and get out for $20? Nowhere.’ That birthed the retail shop, with a focus of $35 and under.”

Guests at the bar can order from the bargain-loaded list, with prices starting under $40. Or they can grab a bottle off the shelves that wrap the host stand and, if they want, drink it in-house for a $15 corkage fee, a steal in a town built on exorbitant Cabernet. “Everywhere you’d go,” says Stetins, “you’d spend $200 on a Tuesday night. How can you go out in Napa, have a great meal, a couple of glasses of wine or a bottle, and leave for under $100?”

Stamp and Stetins provided the answer. Galician winemaker Laura Lorenzo’s low-intervention Daterra Viticultores Vino Tinto Portela do Vento 2016 for $32; a lush, golden, quaffable Bournaire Muscadet 1996 for $26—rock-bottom retail pricing is a cultural strategy for the partners. It ensures the right mix of crowd. “We wanted to offer something Napa locals could experience,” says Stetins, “and then, because of that, guests to the valley would get the local experience by hanging out here, seeing everybody we know gathering around the tables.”

Many seats are filled with the up-and-comers who create a sustained scene: assistant winemakers, sommeliers, students from the Culinary Institute of America’s St. Helena campus. “They’re running on a budget, so they can buy a bottle for $12, and with corkage, tax, and service charge, they’re drinking a wine in Napa Valley for under $30,” says Stetins. “Are we making a lot of money from that? No, but that person is going to tell a friend. There are nights when this entire place is full of students and, at that point, yeah, we’re making our margins. Or that person comes back to celebrate graduation with their parents and has a big dinner, and we get the big buzz out there.”

Chef Yancy Windsperger’s eclectic menu—gnocchi in a vegetarian “bolognese,” wheat-berry salad with pickled cauliflower—is a draw, but it’s wine that’s front and center. The philosophy is the opposite of most restaurants, and even many wine bars, where glasses are chosen to pair with the food. Here, the food is designed for the wines. “We encourage chef to make sure the menu can go with a breadth of wine,” says Stetins. “This dish can go with this, this, and this glass.”

Eclectic List for Eclectic Palates

“Oftentimes,” Stamp says, “the coolest wine destinations feel exclusive. That’s not what we want. We want to create an inclusive environment.” That inclusivity is exemplified by bottle choice. In Napa, the broad-mindedness of Compline’s inventory engenders customer loyalty and adds excitement. “There’s somebody who has their 9-to-5 job at XYZ Winery,” says Stetins, “but they make 100 cases of Valdiguié from the Sierra foothills on the side. Those wines are price-appropriate and approachable, fun and interesting. There is a kind of revolution happening in winemaking, and that has a lot to do with assistant winemakers. If you look at the list, there’s probably equal numbers of assistant winemaker wines as big-house wines.”

Merryvale Estates winemaker Simon Faury, a Compline regular, can find the Pinot Noir from his own micro label, Domaine Faury-Gros, on the list for $115. And when Kara Maraden is done with her workday as the director of viticulture at Foley Family Wines, and Mike Schieffer punches out from his assistant winemaker gig at Turley Wine Cellars, the couple can sit at the bar at Compline, where the $25 Sémillon from their side project, Fine Disregard, is on the retail shelves and their $72 Syrah is in the cellar.

“It’s cool that there’s a place in Napa that’s willing to offer something more esoteric from our backyard,” says Schieffer, “and it meant a lot to us to have placements here. The exposure is great.” In addition, he says, “the list is so thoughtful. It’s really eclectic.”

That kind of praise from that kind of patron is what Stamp and Stetins are after. “We have a huge contingent of assistant winemakers coming and hanging out,” says Stetins, “and they’re the ones who are like, ‘Oh, sweet, you have a new wine from Sardinia’ or ‘Let’s drink Barolo tonight. We’re celebrating.’ We kind of balance the geekdom with the classics.”

The Rigor of Selection

“We try to maintain a comprehensive but not overweight wine list,” says Stamp. “We want people to be able to choose from all of the world’s classic wine regions, but we don’t feel the need to have 40 bottles from each of them. We might have one or two amazing Sancerres, for example, that are critical to the category.”

Compline’s 300-bottle list and its retail shelves, which contain about the same number of selections, provide the partners with opportunities and challenges. “If I put on a red wine from Nemea at Trotter’s,” says Stetins, “it would just get buried and never move. Here I can say, ‘Hey, we have this great red wine from Northern Greece, and you gotta try it out.’”

But finding that exemplary, affordable bottle requires discipline. Stetins, who admits to being “a Riesling nut,” can’t just snatch up every Grosses Gewächs he desires. “It focuses you as a buyer,” he says. “If I want this one, I have to sell through this [other] one to get to it.”

Stamp and Stetins both taste every potential addition, keeping each other in check. “If there’s a wine we both thought was great, we buy it,” says Stamp. “If one of us is passionate about it and the other isn’t, then we have to build a case for it and think through and enunciate the qualities of the wine. Sometimes the by-the-glass list is where we have that conversation the most—not just about what it is you like but how it fits in price and style with others.”

Take Peter Sisseck’s wine from Ribera del Duero. Stamp had visited the winery. He liked the wines. “I campaigned hard for the 2015,” he says, “but Ryan was not sold on it for the glass list. We kept it around for a day and thought it improved with air, which is always a win for the glass program.  Then we thought it would fit a spot because, at the time, we weren’t running a Cab by the glass. So, by committee, we decided it was a good move for us.”

Sisseck’s Dominio de Pingus PSI goes for $17 on Compline’s 20-strong glass list. That works out to only twice the wine’s average retail cost. “I always say I’d rather sell wine than look at it,” Stetin says. “You can cover the same margin by lowering your percentage and selling more. If you sell a bottle for $50 rather than $75 but you end up selling two, there you go. For older or allocated wines, we have the same mentality. If at another restaurant the 1978 Montelena is $850, it’s probably $500 here. We don’t want to have that bottle in the cellar two years from now. We tasted it, it’s at its peak, let’s price it to sell it. It’s more about cash flow than percentages.”

It’s a philosophy that was inspired by the hotelier Steve Wynn, with whom Stetins worked while in graduate school in hospitality management at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “He said selling to get money moving is the way that your business keeps moving,” Stetins says. “You can put $100 in the bank every day and be happy about it, or you can keep on flowing—growing the cellar, growing the restaurant. Eventually money will come.”

Stamp and Stetins set prices according to a finely calibrated sliding scale, factoring in their supply and betting on demand. “Complete control in ownership is interesting because you can just make a move, gamble on it, and see if it works,” says Stetins. But as with all successful gamblers, they must stay focused on the cards in front of them. Logging bin numbers for every wine into their POS software, the two obsessively track inventory. “We look at our numbers more than two or three times a week and say, How is this running?” Stetins says. “We do bottle checks at the end of the night to see that every bottle sold was rung in. We challenge chef to a standard food cost to keep his items in line. Since Matt and I are running the wine program, there is no one we can place the blame on. If our wine costs are high at the end of the month, it’s us doing the inventories.”

Stamp and Stetins taste a lot—more than 100 wines a week—and they work directly with importers with whom they’ve built relationships over the years: Blue Danube, for its “great Balkan and off-the-beaten-path producers from Austria, Hungary, and Bosnia,” according to Stetins; Rosenthal, Kermit Lynch, and Skurnik, for German and sparkling wines; and Marc De Grazia, for Sicilian, Tuscan, and Piedmontese selections. They get many back vintages, particularly in Napa, directly from wineries. To procure something from a cellar, they’ll take a younger wine, too, in an act of mutual support with a winery. The benefit is flexibility for guests. Compline’s list, for instance, includes two Snowden Cabernets. The Ranch 2014 is $86, and the Reserve 2008 is $250. Says Stetins, “It gives us an opportunity to say, ‘Is this a special night, or is this just a night to have a good bottle of wine?’”

Staying Rooted While Rambling

Despite their circumspect buying, the partners sometimes become activists with their list. “With the regions for which we have two or three wines, it goes back to the business sense. Can we sell it?” says Stetins. “But Bordeaux, we’ve taken a stand on: It’s coming back, and we want it to come back. Sommeliers our age or younger haven’t experienced it because it’s cost-prohibitive. And there were things coming over that were not worth the $10 you paid for them. So we’re searching hard to find class producers. Château Chasse-Spleen—that’s a geeky Master Somm question: Where is it? But hey, we found a producer and we’re serving an ’08 for $86.”

The pair’s ambitious yet thoughtful approach to global bottles has brought them fans, including San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Esther Mobley, who put Compline in her 2017 roundup of best new restaurants and bars in the Bay Area. “Napa has to cater to people who are coming to drink Napa wine,” Mobley says. “A few years ago, there were not many options for a refreshing glass that was still attainable.” Compline is an “exciting addition,” she says, to the handful of places that are changing that. “The other day,” Mobley says, “I got a red Burgundy from the Maranges appellation there. It was a beautiful, easy-drinking, light-bodied, earthy wine after a day of drinking a lot of Napa.”

But though half the list and most of the retail bottles come from outside California, Stamp and Stetins have structured their list with their hometown in mind. “A lot of people think about wine color first,” says Stamp, “but we felt that’s not necessarily the first decision people make in Napa. Here it’s local or not local, so that’s how we divided our list.”

After the sparkling page and a small selection of rosé still wines comes Napa, both the whites and the reds. Representing a third of Compline’s list, they’re not your usual suspects. We want to give people an honest accounting of what’s happening in Napa,” says Stamp, “so we try to list some wines that are richer and riper and denser—Hestan Merlot, which is a big, opulent style, and Memento Mori cult Cabernet—but we also want to show people other things.”

To that end, the Napa and Nearby section is organized to show off the true range of grapes vinified in the area. The Chardonnay page is followed by one categorized thus: Bordeaux Grapes, Rhône Grapes, Germanic Grapes, and Field Blends. Cabernets are followed by categories from Pinot Noir to Zinfandel, with some of the partners’ favorite bottles creating their own groupings, like that Wilson Foreigner Rancho Chimiles Valdiguié 2015, the single wine under the heading Napa Gamay. Customers get a sense of the true eclecticism of a wine-growing region that has otherwise become synonymous with two iconic grapes.

Education Is a Key to Success

It is a misconception that this town cares only about Cabernet and Chardonnay,” says Samuel Baron, the winemaker at Kivelstadt Cellars, whose luscious yet lean Mother of Invention white Rhône blend is $11 a glass at Compline. “I have enjoyed many of Matt’s classes ranging from Madeira, Ribera del Duero, and Santorini. These are all world-class wines, and by broadening their availability, Compline helps broaden the palates of winemakers as well as consumers.”

Baron is referring to one of Compline’s cornerstones—its education program. Held nearly every Monday, the hour-and-a-half sessions featuring eight wines apiece are organized primarily into series: four classes called Blind Tasting Basics; a World Tour covering Burgundy, Champagne, and Atlantic Spain—“Whatever I want to spend time brushing up on myself,” says Stamp, “and areas where we think it would be fun to add things to list.”

That’s one of the business reasons for the classes. They’re also a revenue driver. “Class starts at 6 pm,” says Stetins, “but at 5, the bar starts filling up, and then 50 percent of everybody from the classes has dinner with us after or hits the bottle shop, because if you’re geeked out on a wine, you take it home and tell people about it. That’s the strongest hold—the story that they can tell from what they’ve learned.”

Learning is a pull for staff too. From throughout California, the Midwest, and as far away as Seoul, South Korea, wine pros and aspiring pros have found their way to Compline. For a few, says Stetins, the position has actually been “a step down,” but for all of them it’s in service to “a big leap forward” in their wine education. Opening staffers, like the young sommelier Kaleb Kriger, who recently landed a gig at San Francisco’s acclaimed Lazy Bear, have already moved on to Michelin two- and three-star restaurants.

The [personnel] attrition is by design, says Stetins. “It’s a lethal cocktail for a restaurant owner to train an employee you know you’re going to lose in 18 months,” he says, “but that’s the model we built. We wanted this to be an incubator for somms to go off into a bigger program or graduate to buyer. That’s gotten us interest, which is helpful in a climate where restaurants are closing because they can’t staff themselves. We’re bringing in people who are truly hungry.”

Staff training focuses on finding the balance between excellence and approachability. Despite the partners’ backgrounds in fine dining, “we didn’t want the guests to feel pomp and circumstance,” says Stetins. “Wear what you want; talk about the wines you care about. Placement of glasses, care of silverware, placement of food, how you pour wine, how you address the table can all be done with a formal mind-set and comfortable execution.”

That principle extends to the glassware. The only place in the U.S. where you can buy the glasses that Compline uses is Compline itself. Handblown in Austria, the collection of Sophienwald stems used here is delicate, but breakage is minimal. “I’d say 75 percent of all glasses broken are broken during polishing, so we thoroughly train our staff on how to polish with care. We do a glassware inventory every month because to have them fabricated and shipped from Austria, we need a month lead time.”

It’s time and money the partners are willing to spend. “You’re going get paid back in spades for having appropriate glassware,” says Stetins, “not only for the olfactory experience but for the experience of this fine piece of crystal. For me, a wine glass is like a speaker. You’re not going to listen to the White Album on some piece of crap.”

It’s a metaphor for what these classically trained pros are trying to do at Compline as a whole: Gather the best juice, equipment, and team, and then let them let their hair down and rock and roll.

Betsy Andrews is a journalist and poet. Her award-winning books include New Jersey and The Bottom. Her writing can be found at betsyandrews.contently.com.

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