St Kilda restaurant Stokehouse is known for startlingly fresh seafood, stunning views of Port Phillip Bay and Mark Douglass Design’s ceiling installation, made up of 2000 glass tubes frosted in a blush pink.
But for wine enthusiasts, the 650-bottle cellar has always been an equally compelling reason to return. Covering all tastes and budgets, it continues to win recognition in the annual Australia’s Wine List of the Year Awards.
Downstairs, at casual counterpart Stokehouse Pasta & Bar, sommelier Wil Martin is doing something very different. Last year, when the space formerly known as Pontoon reopened, it was with a fixed-price wine list where all 85 bottles are $79.
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And it’s a really good list, full of things you’ll want to drink, whether your tastes run classic or new-wave. From the former category there’s Airlie Bank NV sparkling, Ocean Eight pinot gris, Shaw & Smith sav blanc, Voyager Estate chardonnay and Mont Redon Cotes-du-Rhone. From the latter, Dilworth & Allain pét-nat, Garagiste aligote, Ravensworth sangiovese, Gentle Folk’s chilled red field blend and a skin-contact white field blend from Manon. (See the full list here.)
“It was so much more fun putting this [smaller] list together,” says Martin, who’s been with Stokehouse for seven years. “You’re covering a whole broad spectrum of every wine drinker, in one list of 85 bottles. And it covers almost every genre of wine drinker. It was incredibly difficult, but so rewarding.”
Convincing his bosses to give it a run was even harder. “A lot of people couldn’t get their heads around it,” he says. “They couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t want to put more premium bottles on there.”
We loved it right away, no explanation or deliberation needed. Here are five reasons why.
No more fretting about appearances
Are you confident ordering the cheapest or priciest bottle on a typical list? Lucky you. The rest of us worry if the sommelier and the other people on our table are judging us for being too stingy or too showy – even if it’s only a small, subconscious niggle.
This isn’t just ego talking. If you’re on a date or dining with a group, budgets don’t always align, and asking someone else how much they want to spend can be awkward for both parties. With this list, that conversation never has to happen. All 85 answers are the right answer, with no judgement attached (perceived or otherwise). “It’s another level of comfort for the diner,” Martin says.
No more choosing by price
The more expensive something is, the better the quality, right? We’re conditioned to believe this from the day we get our first pocket money or first pay cheque, but it’s not always true. On a typical wine list the mark-ups vary substantially, based on what the sommelier thinks will sell, and other factors. And yet, after picking a broad category like red, white or a particular grape variety, us diners tend to pick by price next. Which is understandable. Unless you work in the industry and regularly interact with wholesale prices, it’s almost impossible to know what’s worth what.
“Around town you see a lot of wine lists and the prices are, you know, $68, $75, $85, $90,” Martin says. “And what you naturally gravitate to, then, is choosing the bottle based on price.” With this list, that whole idea goes out Stokehouse’s breezy window. And, it makes trying new things more possible than ever. “It allows you to take that bit of a risk on the bottle of wine you probably don’t know anything about, because it’s the same price as the bottle you’re used to drinking,” Martin says.
… unless you want to
Okay, okay. This list is priced consistently, but just like any other wine list around town, the mark-ups still vary. The difference being: most wine lists don’t have price constraints, so every bottle is priced to make money. That’s not the case here. Martin says there are “three or four” obscure bottles on the list that Stokehouse doesn’t make any money on whatsoever. In other words, if you pick cannily, you’ll be drinking something close to wholesale price.
Despite this, the list has been a financial success, with more people than normal choosing to order extra bottles. “Once you feel comfortable in any situation – comfortable with your friends and comfortable with the money you’re spending – you open your wallet a little bit more,” Martin says.
Wine knowledge is less necessary
Beyond budget, wine itself can be intimidating (if you agree, this five-minute intro might help). Sure, you can choose a region and variety, but how do you navigate jargon like skin contact and carbonic maceration? Actually, don’t answer that. With this list, it’s not really important. Whether you’re eating with a table of qualified winemakers or young people just getting into wine, the single tier of choices makes arcane knowledge less relevant.
It’s also made staffing the relaxed, everyday pasta bar easier. “We can’t really afford to put a sommelier downstairs,” Martin says. “If you’ve got a wine list and you have chablis on there for $150, you kind of need $150 worth of information for the customer to purchase that bottle.” In line with that, all wines here are served in universal glassware, with no special chardonnay or pinot noir silhouettes, and the bottles stay on the table for guests to help themselves. “It’s that kind of old-school Italian mentality, where you pour it yourself,” Martin says.
It’s just easier
Think about your phone, with Apple or Google Pay on it. Tech companies are masters at reducing friction; at making tedious or mentally intensive processes quicker, easier and more delightful. The same is true here. When mains have just arrived, you no longer need to halt conversation and host another conference to determine a new budget. Just pick the next one than looks good and go. “It’s one less hassle you have to go through, in terms of making a decision,” Martin says. And if $79 feels like a stretch, there are always the house glasses ($12) and bottles ($50).
“Everyone kept asking me, ‘Where did you get this idea from? I’ve never heard of it.’” There was a restaurant in New York in the ’90s, one of my suppliers said that they did this, but I didn’t rip it from that. It was just a problem I was trying to fix. I hope it gets replicated and you see it in every bar and restaurant so that when I go out, it makes it so much easier for me too.”
Stokehouse Pasta & Bar
Ground floor, 30 Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda
(03) 9525 5445
Tue to Sun 12pm–11pm