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Wine isn’t just a beverage. It’s a way of viewing the world— a living, breathing piece of history and tradition, which reflects the identity of the people and places in which it’s made.

What Does a Ralph Lauren Wine List Look Like?

What Does a Ralph Lauren Wine List Look Like?

JULY 20, 2015  |  Story: ZACHARY SUSSMAN   |  Illustration: NATALIE K NELSON

A wine list inherently communicates a set of values, especially if that list is meant to reflect the identity of an international fashion brand. In the latest, "The List," Zachary Sussman contemplates New York's The Polo Bar, and the business of building an "on brand" wine list.

If you should ever find yourself becoming parched while shopping at Ralph Lauren’s flagship department store on Fifth Avenue at 55thStreet, you might consider grabbing a drink around the corner at The Polo Bar, the designer’s first New York City restaurant, which opened last year to considerable buzz (and more than a few celebrity sightings).

It’s not a bad idea, particularly considering the lack of nearby bar options. But by now you’re already arriving at the front door, where you’re about to be confronted by a pair of—well, it’s hard to know exactly what to call them, since their dress and demeanor seem far too genteel for the word “bouncer.” Let’s just call them the iPad-wielding gatekeepers tasked with enforcing The Polo Bar’s strict “by reservation only” policy, which applies even to those hapless prospective walk-ins who desire only a quick cocktail or a glass of wine.

What lured me to The Polo Bar, even if I never made it past the front door, wasn’t the food, which reviewers have deemed above average, or the opulent décor, but my curiosity about the beverage program. There’s always a kind of identity politics at play in the question of where to drink, and a restaurant wine list inherently communicates a set of values. There are big lists and finely honed lists and lists that highlight a particular subculture or region or theme, but every list expresses its own point of view, or “vision,” rather. I wanted to see for myself how that vision might be tailored (as it were) to fit the identity of an international fashion brand.

As far as the trend goes, The Polo Bar is far from the first of its kind, not just for Ralph Lauren—which already operates restaurants in Chicago and Paris—but the fashion industry at large. There are over a dozen incarnations of Armani Ristorante and the Emporio Armani Caffè, for instance, in cities throughout the world, and Roberto Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci, Salvatore Ferragamo and Marc Jacobs, among several other brands, all boast restaurants as well. There’s even been talk of a Brooks Brothers steakhouse arriving in midtown Manhattan.

Given the increasing amount of cultural capital the culinary world now wields in the public imagination, it’s no wonder that such major fashion brands would be eager to make the leap from haute couture to haute cuisine, so to speak, if only for the symbolic value.

“In general, I think these companies now want to be seen as lifestyle brands, not just clothing brands,” says Jim Clarke, former beverage manager of the Armani Ristorante in New York. “Having a restaurant is just another way to expand what a brand can offer to its customers. It also means having people coming into the store that much more, even if it’s just for a drink or a bite to eat.”

In the same way that a polo shirt instantly doubles in value once it’s stitched with Lauren’s iconic insignia, the wine list reflects the premium one can expect to pay for the privilege of being admitted to The Polo Bar. Suffice it to say that this isn’t a list for value-seekers, but in many ways that’s the point.

Lauren Sherman, editor at large for Fashionista, the world’s top fashion news site, views the phenomenon along similar lines. “Fashion brands can’t just be about the clothes anymore, and I think Ralph Lauren realized that years ago,” she explains. “All of these companies have morphed into to lifestyle brands, and I think the food element is just another aspect of that. At that level, you’re not just buying clothes, you’re buying into an idea, and Ralph Lauren is the master of building a whole world around his name that never existed before.”

It might seem ironic, given the designer’s success at selling an aspirational vision of Old World elegance to the American masses, but a certain form of exclusivity remains intrinsic to any lifestyle brand, and this extends beyond the prohibitive reservation policy. As the website makes clear, every last detail—“from the Henry Koehler polo match-inspired mural on the exterior to the saddle leather and equestrian art inside”—has been painstakingly selected to telegraph the patrician, country club vision that signals Lauren’s particular marketing genius. This same brand consciousness extends even to the wine list, which a company spokesperson kindly provided via email, even if she denied my request to interview the sommelier.

To order a bottle at a restaurant like The Polo Bar, where even the dinner plates bear the green-lettered stamp of the company name, presents a funny paradox. While it’s possible to order the aptly named “Ralph’s Corned Beef Sandwich,” the same eponymous principle obviously wouldn’t apply to the bottle of pinot noir you might drink with it.  So until Mr. Lauren purchases a vineyard of his own—it’s actually surprising that he hasn’t already—the beverage program remains the one area that unavoidably relies upon outside labels. The challenge, then, seems to be how to arrange the various selections into a cohesive whole that still manages to stay “on brand.”

In the same way that a polo shirt instantly doubles in value once it’s stitched with Lauren’s iconic insignia, the wine list reflects the premium one can expect to pay for the privilege of being admitted to The Polo Bar. Suffice it to say that this isn’t a list for value-seekers, but in many ways that’s the point.

Despite the occasional natural wine (Marcel Lapierre’s iconic Morgon for $75 or the 2013 Fanny Sabre Meursault “Les Charmes” for $190) or stray bottle from Sicily, for example, the beverage program clearly isn’t aspiring to be edgy, nor would anyone familiar with the brand expect it to be. Cocktails hover around $20 each and mostly riff on established classics (i.e., White NegroniOld-FashionedMoscow Mule). Loire reds—hardly the most radical category—are entirely absent, and the region’s whites are limited almost exclusively to Sancerre. Italy fails to extend too far beyond the confines of Piedmont, Tuscany and the burlier wines of the Veneto, and there isn’t single German bottle to be found.

Instead, the list highlights the kind of wines you’d expect to find in the cellar of Downton Abbey, or perhaps more accurately, some hedge fund manager’s home in Greenwich, CT. Above all, this translates to a considerable emphasis upon Bordeaux, a region that, above any other (with the possible exception of Champagne, which also receives plenty of attention) projects the blue-blooded image synonymous with Ralph Lauren.

Predictably, given how quickly it has become a fetish among the fine-dining elite, there’s also plenty of Burgundy to be found (albeit somewhat overrepresented by second-tier producers like Dominique Laurent or Michel Magnien), not to mention the obligatory roster of spendy reds from California: Dominus, Shafer, etc. It might seem odd that the one non-Champagne sparkler available by the glass hails from Long Island—the 2010 Lieb Cellars Blanc de Blancs—until you remember that the typical diner probably spends time “out east.”

To that end, the only aspect of the list that feels at all out of line with the brand, or at least registers as a missed opportunity, is the relatively tiny rosé section; perhaps this can be chalked up to the now popular consensus that pink wine belongs upon the deck of a yacht or at a garden party rather than a restaurant dinner table.

All considered, the beverage program at The Polo Bar succeeds in giving the impression that it consists of the same exact wines Mr. Lauren might serve you himself, if you were to visit one of his many homes. In doing so, it faithfully caters to its clientele, for whom the ultimate experience isn’t about the wine or the food, which remain incidental attractions, but the thrill of gaining admission—of inhabiting this privileged, elaborately constructed space.

After being denied a seat, I ended up taking the express train a few stops downtown to a wine bar where the sommelier, who I happen to know well, quickly sat me down and poured me a few new wines to taste. Here, my name was on the metaphorical clipboard, and I liked it. After all, exclusivity always feels good, when you’re the one doing the excluding.

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