Cucina Enoteca: Unique Wine Program Encourages Exploration

Cucina Enoteca now has two restaurants in Orange County, one at Fashion Island, the other at Irvine Spectrum. The wine director for both, Ed Manetta, says the international wine lists are not identical (about 30 percent of the offerings are unique to each restaurant), but the philosophy is the same: encourage the diner to explore the remarkable diversity of wine from throughout the world.

The wines-by-the-glass programs offer about 25 reasonably priced selections (most in the $8 to $10 range) from California, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Chile, France, and Spain. The ambitious by-the-bottle lists feature nearly 200 choices from the Americas and Europe, all of which are available in the restaurants’ wine stores at retail prices (or slightly above). They’re for purchase and take out, or for an additional $8 corkage when dining in.

The menus trumpet the fact that this is “not your usual restaurant mark-up,” encouraging diners to explore an unfamiliar varietal or producer. I’ve been drinking wine for more than 35 years, yet found many on the list that sparked my interest, and the wait staff is extremely well informed and helpful in guiding you through the maze of choices.

There are wines to match every item on the Italian-themed menu. The whites are organized into three categories: “unconventional” (varietals such as vermentino, malvasia, and albarino); “clean and crisp, unpretentious” (pinot grigio, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc); and “full and feisty, knee-buckling whites” (heartier, often barrel-fermented). Reds are grouped into five categories: “lighten up” (primarily pinot noir); “funky stuff for wine geeks” (carmenere, obscure Italian wines); “bigger, but not too big, feats of strength” (full-bodied wines both domestic and imported); and “the really really good stuff” (expensive gems such as Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia ($270)).

Vintages are not listed except for the handful of gems from the cellar, presumably because there is a rapid turnover. Wines that are sustainably, organically, or biodynamically produced, or qualify as a certified Napa green winery, are duly noted.

Tuesday nights, themed wine flights are offered from 5 to 8 p.m. for $20 a person, and all featured wines are offered at a special “to go” price. Happy Hour, with $7 daily wine selections, is 3 to 6 p.m. daily.

Stop in for a casual glass of prosecco ($12) and some formaggi and salumi at the wine bar, or dine royally in the warm and eclectically decorated main room, choosing from such iconic wines as the 1998 Krug Vintage Brut ($275); 2005 William Fevre Chablis Grand Cru Les Preuses ($84); and 2011 Opus One Napa Valley Proprietary Red ($250). However you dine, your wine experience will be exceptional.

If you must bring in your own wine that is not on the wine list, corkage is $20.


4 wine bottles

Editor’s note: Rusty Gaffney critiques the wine program of Orange County restaurants, including those reviewed in print each month by the magazine’s dining critic Gretchen Kurz. He uses the same rating system as Kurz’s restaurant reviews (using wine bottles in place of stars) to denote whether the program is (1) Good, (2) Very Good, (3) Excellent, or (4) Outstanding on every level. He also denotes pricing: ($) Most wines under $45, ($$) Most wines under $90, ($$$) Many wines over $90.

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