Rainbow Ranch’s Operations Manager and Certified Sommelier Dale Roberts has been in the food and beverage industry for years. He took on the task of re-envisioning the ranch’s wine list, and hopes to bring it back to its glory days. One of his favorite wines right now? Pasanau Ceps Nous, a Grenache-based blend from Spain.Dave O’Connor certainly has his hand in Buck’s T-4’s wine list, but he’s quick to credit the work of wine director Porter Elliot, who brings his knowledge of European wines to the table. O’Connor prides Buck’s wine list for its unique offerings. He’s currently enjoying several types of wine from an Italian region called Bolgheri in Tuscany. The bottles usually go for $1,000 or more, but he was able to pick them up at a discount from a distributor going out of business.

Nutty with notes of blackberry

Big Sky’s Wine Spectator award winners talk vino
“We never want anyone walking out of here feeling like there wasn’t something available that fit them, whether it’s budget, style, region, impressibility.”—Dave O’Connor, Buck’s T-4

Wine Spectator recently announced its annual restaurant awards, and it came as no surprise to the wine experts at Buck’s T-4 and Rainbow Ranch Lodge that their restaurants made the list—they’ve done so for decades.                                                                        Both Big Sky restaurants received the Award of Excellence, which recognizes establishments with wine lists featuring a well-chosen assortment of quality producers along with a thematic match to the menu in both price and style. Ranging in size from 90 selections to several hundred, these lists are well-focused and tend to emphasize discovery. This year, 2,453 restaurants around the world achieved the Award of Excellence.

      David O’Connor, co-owner and general manager of Buck’s T-4, enjoys a good glass of wine—he even has posters of the many flavors of wine on his office wall. So, he was happy to discuss what his establishment has to offer, and what goes into making an award-winning wine list.

     “There is a real academic and business side to it,” he said of creating a wine list versus a collection. “It’s not just a matter of taste—there is technical knowledge you need in order to have the geographic spread. It all comes down to a spread of style, and geography gives you that.”

     Buck’s wine list is broken down into grapes, and then each variety is offered with the lightest flavors listed first, becoming more full-flavor as you go down the line. O’Connor and Porter Elliot sample everything they place on the ever-changing list. Elliot brings “old world” experience with European wine, while O’Connor has a long history with domestic varieties.

     O’Connor said while he’s always keeping an eye on what Wine Spectator and other publications say is “hot right now,” and the old stalwarts, he also likes to offer small vineyard selections, with the “if you like this, then you should really try this” method. 

     “Those are the ones that often have really cool stories behind them,” O’Connor said. “Not every customer cares about that, but the story is there if they want it.”

     “We never want anyone walking out of here feeling like there wasn’t something available that fit them, whether it’s budget, style, region, impressibility,” he said. “But what we focus on are handpicked, specifically selected things. That’s what I am most proud of—the thoughtfulness that’s applied to that list.” 

     O’Connor’s advice on ordering wine at Buck’s? “Just ask us what we’ve got that’s really cool right now,” he said. “It’s a great way to order wine.” 

     Just a few miles down the road you’ll find Jen Rau and Dale Roberts at Rainbow Ranch Lodge, two more wine lovers lucky enough to work with the storied beverage. In fact, they work at the first restaurant in Montana to receive the “Best Of” Wine Spectator award. “Which is hard to get,” said Roberts, Rainbow’s operations manager. “But then the place burned down, and with it the legendary wine cellar with hundreds of thousands of dollars of wine in today’s prices.”

     Nowadays, the only restaurants with that status are Triple Creek Ranch and Chico Hot Springs. Roberts said the goal is to get back to that “Best Of” status by increasing the depth and breadth of what’s offered. 

     “So, over the past two years we have significantly increased the number of label offerings,” said Roberts. “We have 400 or so unique offerings and about 3,000 bottles.”

     Roberts joked, “I went to Jen, and said, ‘Hey, let’s torture ourselves, and work towards our Certified Sommelier License.’” 

     The restaurateurs  traveled to Santa Rosa, Calif. to take the intro course, and became fully certified in Missoula this May. “There’s been a lot of study, stress and tears to get certified, but the rest of the time it’s just really fun,” said Roberts. 

     The two were happy to chat about wine, but with a large wine cellar downstairs, it’s sometimes easier to just show off what’s offered. 

     “That’s my baby down there,” Roberts said. He took on the wine list several years ago, deciding to organize it by region and varietal, and in doing so learned his fair share about the beverage.

     “It’s a product that comes from all over the planet, from a thousand different cultures,” Roberts said of the complexities of wine. “Everybody has a different take on it, all these little nuances, and that’s cool, I like that.”

     Roberts and Rau would have loved to chat longer, but a guest at the ranch had scheduled a wine tasting, and well, duty calls. 

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