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“The Sex isn’t bad,” says Arris Noble. He’s not bragging about a new lover. He’s talking about wine, specifically a sparkling rosé from the L. Mawby Vineyards on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula.
“It’s a total ladies wine,” adds Noble’s colleague, Andrew Stover. “It’s pink, it’s fruity, and it’s called ‘Sex.’”
Advertised as “sensual, naughty, provocative,” the bubblegum-colored bubbly isn’t alone when it comes to risqué wine branding.
“They make one called ‘Wet’ also,” notes Stover. “If we ever put together a bachelorette party package, which we may do because that tends to be a line of business that we get into, I can absolutely see a Wet-Sex package coming.”
That’s quite a mouthful.
Noble and Stover serve as operations director and sommelier, respectively, of the new Sax restaurant and lounge, a lavishly decorated 9,700-square-foot downtown venue, offering some eye-popping advancements to the District’s food and drink scene.
There’s a 20-foot enclosed “infinity” stage, for starters, where various cabaret performers prance around in their underwear for diners’ amusement. Then there are the scandalous artworks, depicting politicians and religious figures in all sorts of compromising positions.
Not to be outshined, however, is the venue’s sprawling wine list, complete with several edgy titled varietals, including a French product labeled “Discobitch” in glinting faux diamonds. “It’s really big in Miami,” says Stover. In D.C., however, the sassy sparkling vintage is exclusive to Sax, he says.
The various lewd vinos are all part of what the restaurant’s operators boldly assert is the largest single collection of sparkling wines in the entire District: a total of 70 different varieties, according to the current menu. By comparison, only 41 of the more than 1,150 bottles listed at wine-centric restaurant Proof are the bubbly kind.
It may be the champ of champers, but Sax is just one of a handful of new restaurants to boast having the biggest supply of some type of libation in town. The new theory on the quickest way to make a splash, it seems, is to open up with an unmatched collection of, well, whatever someone else doesn’t already have an unmatched collection of.
El Centro D.F., the latest offering from chef Richard Sandoval’s burgeoning empire, which opened along 14th Street NW earlier this month, claims to have the city’s most substantial selection of tequilas and mezcals: around 200 varieties in total, with the stated aim to eventually boost its stock upward of 300. The granddaddy of them all: the Patron Burdeos RSV, which will set you a back a whopping $80 per single shot.
The forthcoming Jack Rose along 18th Street NW in Adams Morgan is poised to assume status as the District’s Scotch capital, with early reports pegging the total bottle selection anywhere from 700 to 1,000 different kinds of aged whiskey. Photos of the interior indicate plenty of shelving to hold it all, too. The whiskey-themed location, slated to open in June, is the work of the same crew behind the popular Bourbon restaurants in Adams Morgan and Glover Park, where the house specialty is—what else?—bourbon: more than 170 different kinds, according to its menu.
These newer venues only further a trend previously advanced by such high profile eateries as Birch & Barley/ChurchKey, with its “unparalleled collection of 555 artisanal beers,” and dating all the way back to the former Brickskeller in Dupont Circle. A dubious precedent to be sure; once the proud holder of a Guinness World Record as the “bar with the largest selection of commercially available beers”—a list more than 1,000 bottles strong—the old Brick ultimately became best known for all the brews it didn’t actually have in stock.
Boasting the biggest selection of anything is, of course, a branding gimmick that transcends even booze. Consider the California Tortilla chain, with its ridiculous roster of 75 “dangerously delicious” hot sauces.
The sheer breadth of selection is sure to impress. But does anyone actually know what to do when confronted with so many choices? During my first visit to El Centro, I must have stared at those two legal-pad-size print-outs for a full half-hour before finally ordering a single tequila. And I knew what I wanted, too—the Casa Noble, a caramel-colored, vanilla-scented añejo, aged five years, which had come highly recommended by the Sandoval restaurant group’s tequila librarian in New York. I had all the details. It just took me that long to find it on the menu. Without such expert guidance, I suspect most folks would eventually circle back to their old buddy José Cuervo. Or whatever simply fits within their price range.
At Sax, the expansive sampling is just part of the overall opulent oeuvre. With its penchant for the lascivious and its laser-like focus on sparkling wine, the place comes off as one giant champagne room, minus the foolhardy strip-club patron’s misguided expectation of sexual favors. Presumably, the only backroom sex-for-money racket, in this case, is, again, the wine. And, at $60 per bottle, the “Sex” here is relatively cheap. “Affordable glamour,” is what Noble calls it.
The higher-end varietals will run you anywhere from $1,500 for a six-liter methuselah of Tattinger La Francaise to a bank-busting $10,000 for a three-liter jeroboam of Louis Roederer Cristal. If the ten-grand figure seems entirely overwhelming, that’s the whole point: the venue has only one such bottle in stock. It’s just part of the show. Impressed yet?
Billing itself as the District’s new bubbly hub is a piece of the greater sales pitch. It’s about conveying a sense of luxury, a sense of decadence. And it’s about setting Sax apart from an increasingly crowded field of destinations with their own individual drinking niche.
“When you think of the D.C. wine scene, there are some awesome wine lists,” Stover says. “But there’s no place that really kills it on sparkling wine.”
One area in particular where Sax plans to slaughter the competition is the by-the-glass category.
“You go into most restaurants in D.C., you’re going to see probably four by the glass at the most,” says Stover. “And that might include a dessert sparkling, say, a muscato or something. Most places have two by the glass, if you’re lucky. We have 13. Insane!”
Perhaps the most interesting among them is the Tedeschi “Hula O Maui,” a Hawaiian sparkling wine derived from pineapples instead of grapes, sold at $15 per glass and given top billing among the single-serving varietals. Despite its tropical fruit origin, the wine tastes rather dry; it smells faintly of pineapple, but lacks the expected sugar. “In French terminology, it would be considered brut,” says Stover. “You get everything about pineapples except sweetness.”
It’s just the sort of bizarre beverage that Stover had in mind when building the collection: “I was looking for unique things, things that were not going to be all over town. I didn’t really want to focus on having a lot of the big-name California bubblies. We don’t have Domaine Chandon. We don’t have Gloria Ferrer. And we don’t have them because you can buy them at Safeway if you want.” No Korbel, either. “That is on the bottom shelf at Safeway,” he scoffs.
Listening to Stover talk about procuring wines is a lot like hearing Howard Dean rant about the 2004 presidential campaign. He’s getting stuff from Massachusetts. And Missouri. And Oregon. And Michigan! He even managed to obtain one bubbly from, of all places, Great Britain, a South Ridge Cuvee from Sussex, priced at $85 per bottle (Note: This story originally reported the price at $350 per bottle). It’s the same variety reputedly served at Queen Elizabeth’s 80th birthday party. “As far as I know, we’re the only restaurant in America that has it,” he says proudly.
Amassing such an expansive and eclectic selection takes serious bank. “It’s not quite a million-dollar collection,” says Noble. “It’s definitely an expensive collection though.” Adds Stover, “A lot more expensive than a lot of other restaurants would be able to have just on hand.”
And it required a little hoop-jumping with regards to paperwork and taxes. “We did not go through the wholesale market to get these wines,” says Stover. “We went direct to the importer and we went direct to wineries.”
Yet, for all the effort to expand the District’s bubbly resume, most patrons so far tend to stick to what they know. “Certainly, the Perriër-Jouet is popular because it’s the real McCoy,” Stover says.
As for the “Sex,” well, you know the saying: it sells.
Sax, 734 11th St. NW, (202) 737-0101
El Centro D.F., 1819 14th St. NW, (202) 328-3131
Jack Rose, 2007 18th St. NW, (202) 688-1892
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery
Due to a reporting error, this story originally misstated the price of the South Ridge Cuvee. It is $85 a bottle, not $350.