I traveled to St. Louis steadily over the past five years and only discovered Balaban’s wine shop and restaurant on the evening celebrating the sale of our St. Louis business and the conclusion of my regular travel to the city. Had I known about the wine lover’s destination sooner, it would have been a regular stop. Without any more insight than an address and name, I walked into Balaban’s to meet the publisher of St. Louis Homes & Lifestyles and was immediately lured to an array of wine racks that turn the space into a wine shop/restaurant crossover. Balaban’s wine selection turns out to be anything but garden variety and satisfyingly mirrors the regions and growers that highlight my own cellar. Best yet, for a $10 corkage fee I could drink any of these already competitively priced wines for dinner.
The racks combine a library and current release inventory smacking of full-on “wino” sensibility. Selections from Loire, Rhone, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Germany, Australia, California, Spain, and Washington State include hard to find, venerable, and under the radar bottles at ridiculously fair prices. While the inventory is not too deep in any single region, the operators know what they are doing and turn modest depth into an efficient presentation of top wines from enough appellations to create an inspired inventory. I was pulled to the 2007 Bosquet des Papes for $41.99, then the 2007 Lafond Roc Epine for $18.99, picking up then laying down the $150 1996 Guigal Chateau d’Ampuis Cote Rotie, contemplated the 2001 Kongsgaard Chardonnay at $120, 1995 Ducru at $160, 2004 Dehlinger Pinot at $50, 1986 Lynch Bages or Chateau Beaucastel both at $175, 1984 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Saugvignon for $110, and on and on. These restaurant prices and selections were manufacturing adrenalin, and I wasn’t sure if five or forty five minutes had passed as I moved purposely through the racks while my dinner guests patiently (?) waited at the bar for me to “grab” a dinner wine.
I landed on the **** $18 2009 Domaine de Aubuisieres Cuvee de Silex to start. I have been so impressed with Bernard Fouquet’s Aubuisieres Chenin Blancs from single Vouvray vineyard sites, particularly for their restrained sweetness, bright citrus components, and integrated acidity. They make great food wines, and the palate impression is always focused and luscious. I was excited to try this Silex wine, and to see if I could determine the “flintiness” that is born from blending fruit from silex laced vineyard soils in the Loire. What followed was a silky textured wine, very slightly sweet with a melon and candy infused nose. Minerals and damp rock ran through it all. I was overly pleased with the selection, and for $28 at a restaurant table, I am not sure you can drink as satisfying and interesting a white wine as this one.
The **** $45 2008 Gramercy Cellars Walla Walla Syrah was the winning pick for our red wine. I ended up here because of the scarce availability of this wine back home in Boston and the tremendous experiences I have had drinking Gramercy wines, an upstart winery that crashed onto the scene with winning wines back in 2005. My Seattle sommelier, wino, and chef friends have been pointing me at Gramercy for the last couple years and the wines are indeed complex, rich, and always interesting. Staring me in the face at $55 for restaurant consumption made this an easier decision. I loved the wine for it’s smoked bacon and anise aromas, and also for its richness and purity of blue and black berry fruit. The wine offered the Gramercy tell-tale richness that is tied up in a succulent and smooth mouthfeel. I liked this wine as much as I have enjoyed any Gramercy wine, and the volume of flavor and wine in each sip again managed to restrain itself from ever seeming over blown or juiced up, always showcasing the component exotic aromatics and succulent fruit flavors. A truly amazing wine.
The Gramercy seems to be sold out now, but the Vouvray can still be purchased from Balaban’s online shopping site. Definitely browse the main site and the library section.
The food is good enough to hold its own against the wine inventory. The menu consists of simple tapas and tight sections of interesting appetizers, flat breads, and a few main dishes. Small plates are popular, don’t miss the smoked trout pancakes. According to my local dinner guests, the specials are the right way to go for entrees.
Balban’s is a wine lover’s paradise buried somewhere in St. Louis, tucked far enough away to remain hidden over five years of mostly mediocre eating and drinking in this friendly midwest town. All that disappointment is eased by sharing this gem of a wine oasis so you won’t make the same mistake I did!
Balaban’s—1772 Clarkson @ Baxter—Chesterfield, MO 63017
Phone: 636-449-6700—Toll free: 877-236-6701