There is a bit of irony in the fact that two women have earned star status at a restaurant called the Bachelor Farmer.
Yes, the folks behind the operation that recently was a semifinalist for a national James Beard award in the outstanding-wine-program category are named Erin (Rolek) and Amy (Waller).
Part of a burgeoning female professional wine brigade in these parts, Rolek and Waller not only steward an exceptional inventory of food-friendly wines, they also make it distinctive by offering customers almost 100 wines by the glass.
That’s because the Bachelor Farmer allows, and even encourages, its guests to order half of any bottle on the primary list, then indicates that wine’s availability on a chalkboard from which other patrons can order a single glass.
“It allows us to basically have 90 glass pours,” said Waller, the restaurant’s assistant general manager, “which is a really, really big deal. It opens up a world for pairings that is almost endless. It’s like a playground with so many toys to play with.”
To encourage guests to get a look-see at even more wines, managing partner/wine director Rolek said, “I always like to suggest splitting a glass [3 ounces apiece for two people].”
Of course, that access to a cornucopia of offerings would be diminished were the wine list not so stellar. And that’s been the case from the outset, with opening general manager Nathan Rostance and now Rolek at the helm for the last six-plus years.
The restaurant’s cuisine originally was deemed “New Nordic,” which made “grows together, goes together” pairings onerous, if not impossible. (There are few, if any, cabernet or chardonnay vineyards in Finland.) But a recent transition to a “restaurant of the North” theme, while incorporating even more domestic ingredients, has lent itself to food-friendly wines from cooler climes.
“There are lot of similarities between our harsh winters and Burgundy and Germany,” Rolek said, “and so we have some natural pairings from the fermenting and foraging worlds, and with the humble but elevated cuisines that are natural in these regions.”
Examples? Rolek touts “any off-dry riesling with a beet dish. Introducing that to a guest is one of my favorites.” For Waller, “trousseau and duck is a magical pairing. There’s an earthiness with duck and with the trousseau. They sing together.”
In general, the list focuses on fresh, bright, bracing wines — Waller notes that the acid in wine wants food — from small, independent producers in the Northern Hemisphere.
Rolek oversees the operation, and now Waller, with bartender Paul Hennessy and GM Jon Palmer, whose superb brandy list augments the wine inventory, puts Rolek’s wine aesthetic into action.
“Erin doesn’t bend to the taste of the moment,” Waller said. “She has a very clear vision all the time. I have never had to wonder ‘Where’d this come from?’ ”
The list doesn’t change so much seasonally — “We celebrate rosés a little harder in spring and summer,” Rolek said, “and we might add richer, fuller, more tannic reds in winter months” — as it rotates coveted wines with small local allocations once they run out.
On a nightly basis, Waller, Hennessy and Palmer can’t see to the needs of all customers — Rolek has been off the floor for about a year — so staff training is a huge deal. At the Bachelor Farmer, it’s thoroughly modern Mill City, or more precisely modernly thorough.
Under the aegis of Waller and Hennessy, the entire waitstaff tastes and discusses every wine added to the list. Waller said she and/or Hennessy “talk to the team almost every day about wine trivia, what pairings work.”
Whenever a winemaker from one of the Bachelor Farmer’s brands comes to town, Rolek and Waller request a session with the staff, and usually get it. The employees also reap the benefits of their leaders’ wine-country excursions.
“Erin does a lot of travel and wine learning, and I do and Paul does,” Waller said, “and we bring back stories about a cute little house on a hillside — and also a dog. It helps the team and also the guests [experience a connection with the winery].”
It doesn’t hurt that their restaurant lures a clientele interested in all manner of fermented grape juice. Rolek said she relishes having a customer base that is enterprising, interested in boldly going where they have not gone before. “We have guests who are adventurous and willing to trust us when we want to get weird or play.”
They also have traditional guests, “and we have wines for them,” Waller noted.
Lessons in wine
Rolek and Waller took somewhat divergent paths, but became the kind of team that gets James Beard attention the old-fashioned way: through hard work and focus.
Rolek has been working in food service since she was 17, first at cafes and then restaurants. Tasked with writing a wine list at the young age of 21 (“new to the legal drinking world”), she said she “leaned on wine reps, because I was OCD and a perfectionist. One of them blind-tasted me on a sauvignon blanc and a chardonnay, and I guessed right and got excited.”
She continued writing wine lists around the metro area until Rostance beckoned her to help him open Bachelor Farmer.
Waller grew up in western Minnesota; her mom ran a restaurant, but there was no alcohol there or at home. But her aunt loved Washington state wine, and a few years ago, Waller got her a bottle from Chateau Ste. Michelle’s higher-end Artist Series and experienced “a light-bulb moment. I had no idea wine could taste like cocoa and mocha and savory herbs and all these fruits. It knocked my socks off.”
Upon moving to the Twin Cities, she went to work at Lucia’s Wine Bar and started to focus intensely on her new favorite beverage, earning her sommelier certification last summer. Most every Sunday night, she has dinner with a coterie of fellow female wine professionals to dive deeply into wines.
This get-together, dubbed “The Church” by some participants, is a manifestation of a local sea change. A decade ago, men were at the helm of a significant majority of Twin Cities retail and restaurant wine programs. Not anymore.
“There’s a huge, vibrant wine community here that includes a lot of women,” Waller said. “Our point of view is a really big deal.”
A taste of spring
The two have some seasonal wine recommendations.
And they share one major one: grüner veltliner.
“As we start to get fresh produce and green things,” Waller said, “I always think of grüner. It’s made in a lot of different styles, but usually is really tart and bright with a lot of green characteristics. It’s also a great value wine.”
Waller said grüners, which primarily come from Austria, pair well with asparagus, green leafy vegetables and shrimp salad with a citrus vinaigrette.
Rolek also touted grüners and had some other more specific endorsements, including cabernet franc and several bubbly options: Peter Lauer Sekt Brut riesling from Germany and two French options, Tissot Crémant du Jura and Les Capriades méthode ancestrale sparkling wines from the Loire region.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com.