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Inside the Wine Cellar at Highlands Bar and Grill

In “Anatomy of a Wine Cellar,” we go behind the scenes of the world’s most notable restaurant wine programs. This round: Birmingham's Highlands Bar and Grill, where chef Frank Stitt has been running the wine program from the kitchen for 35 years.

Most chefs leave their wine lists to the discretion of a sommelier or wine director. That, however, is just not the way Frank Stitt rolls.

For the past 35 years, Stitt and his wife Pardis have run Highlands Bar and Grill in Birmingham, Alabama, long revered as one of the best restaurants in the South. And while Stitt has become an icon for his Southern-inflected, European country-style cooking, he’s also become an important figure in the wine world for putting together an impressive selection at each of his restaurants: the Italian-centric Bottega and Bottega Café, opened in 1988 and 1990, respectively; French bistro Chez Fonfon, since 2000; and, of course, Highlands.

His coming-up in both wine and cooking ran parallel courses, beginning when he took a turn working with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse while studying philosophy at UC Berkeley. It was Waters who introduced him to Richard Olney, the food and wine writer for Cuisine et Vins de France in the 1960s and ’70s, for whom he served as an assistant in 1977, alongside now-famed chef Jeremiah Tower.

Olney certainly made an impact on Stitt’s cooking track, but he also availed his wine cellar; this is how Stitt came to intimately know many of France’s top producers. It was through Olney, too, that Stitt met Steven Spurrier of the Paris wine school, L’Académie du Vin, who in turn introduced him to a friend who owned a winery in Provence. “I hitchhiked down from Paris and spent three weeks working vendange,” says Stitt, pronouncing the French word for “harvest” with his soft Southern accent. He even spent a couple days in the cellar at the lauded Burgundy producer, Domaine Dujac, with Jacques Seysses. “He was certainly kind of a North Star of how wine is supposed to be for me, and to a large degree in Burgundy,” he says.

Upon returning to the States, Stitt landed in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama, where, after some time working in wine shops and teaching cooking classes, he decided to open a restaurant, with the likes of Chez Panisse and Galatoire’s in New Orleans as benchmarks. In 1982, he swung open the doors to Highlands, where he sourced produce from small, local farmers and made an unorthodox decision to run both the kitchen and wine program.

The first wine list he devised wasn’t all that different from what it is now, a collection of bottles from friends he’s made in his travels, with the stalwarts of California, like Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, Joseph Phelps, Bruce Neyers and Paul Draper from Ridge, and the classicists of France and Italy all well-represented. And even today, he remains faithful to a large number of Old World producers, particularly in Burgundy. (“Let’s just say I always buy Fourrier and Barthod and Raphet and Dujac and Lignier. I always buy Chanrion and Lapierre and Chignard in Beaujolais,” he says.)

But his affinity for the tried-and-true doesn’t mean that his selections aren’t constantly evolving; within the last decade, for example, he’s discovered a love of Austrian riesling and grüner veltliner, as well as grower Champagne, thanks to importer Terry Theise.

“I certainly favor wines with moderate to low amounts of oak that have really good acidity, lower alcohol… So that puts me pretty squarely in a European range.” But he’s found American producers that make sense too, like Ted Lemon of California’s Littorai, who have also made freshness and vitality a hallmark of their style.

This, it turns out, dovetails perfectly with the type of food Stitt likes to cooknothing too sweet, nothing too spicy, straighforward flavor combinations. “I like to think our food has an elegance and a harmony that is about balance,” he says. “They don’t have to be expensive, but they all need to have that sense of grace, I think.”

Highlands Bar and Grill Birmingham

Highlands Bar and Grill in Five Wines

Chateau d’Arlay Côtes du Jura

A pinot noir fanatic, Stitt has gravitated to expressions of the grape from a diverse range of places, like Burgundy, Santa Barbara and Oregon. But this example from the Jura, which has been offered by the glass at Highlands for the last few months, is a fairly recent discovery. “It’s pinot noir, but it is this minerally, stony wine that really to me speaks of the soil and that place, that mountain section of France.” Stitt adds that he’s become increasingly interested in the Jura, especially as more Burgundian producers have begun work there in the last decade or so.

  • Price: $26
  • Vintage: 2011

A. Margaine Brut Rosé Champagne

About seven or eight years ago, importer Terry Theise introduced Stitt to the category of grower Champagnes, including this rosé, which Stitt says goes especially well with his style of cuisine. “I love…to start off with a rosé Champagne with a lighter course, whether it’s a crabmeat beignet or baked oysters,” says Stitt. “We’re doing figs with prosciutto and goat cheese and walnuts—and the figs are coming from our farm—it’s just a phenomenal combination.”

  • Price: $54
  • Vintage: MV

Nikolaihof Steinriesler Riesling

Having grown up in his restaurants, it’s not all that surprising that Stitt’s daughter, Marie, is now working in the wine industry, for a distributor called Grassroots in Charleston. A few years ago, while she was interning at a winery outside of Vienna, she and Stitt visited the Wachau together, where Nikolaihof was among the most memorable stops. “To get to drink these wines with some age on ‘em and not break the bank—I love that,” he says. “The complexity of aroma…loses some primary fruit, but it just becomes more complex, maybe more intriguing, and that impression of sweetness almost dries up a little bit.” In addition, he prizes a 2006 Bründlmayer Heiligenstein, also on the list

  • Price: $92
  • Vintage: 1999

Domaine La Bastide Blanche Bandol

Wines from Provence take up a significant piece of wine list real estate at Highlands, undoubtedly thanks to Stitt’s time in the region in his early days—and his training at Chez Panisse. While the wines can be pretty brawny, they have a French countryside aspect that’s mirrored in his use of herbs and spices. “I just love turning people onto big, hearty Bandols. And if you can find one that’s not too expensive, all the better,” he explains. Of this bottle, he explains: “This is leathery, earthy, broad-shouldered, with some tannin.”

  • Price: $29
  • Vintage: 2013

Calera Selleck Pinot Noir

“Josh Jensen just sold Calera,” says Stitt of one of California’s maverick pinot noir producers, “[but] I have adored his wines ever since the beginning.” In addition to this bottling, Stitt also keeps single-vineyard Reed, Jensen and Mills pinots from Calera that go back multiple vintages. “He was in search of limestone in the soil, and I think there’s something about that that he’s able to capture with pinot noir that, year in and year out, is just wonderful.”

  • Vintage: 2009

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