The first place Barry Tunnell was able to buy wine for a restaurant was at the now-shuttered The Dish Famous Stuffed Pizza Restaurant & Bar in Liberty, Kansas, as a twentysomething English Lit major.
"When I was 21 years old and in college, I definitely got interested in some of the microbrew beers, but eventually drifted over to the wine side," he says, "and was able to taste a bunch of really interesting things and get to work with a lot of really excellent wines."
The famously bookish sommelier has been general manager and wine director at Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen since it opened in the Crossroads Arts District in February 2011, curating one of the most interesting wine lists in town.
We caught up with Tunnell to talk aged white wines, late-night pizza and why you should build a relationship with your neighborhood wine shop.
What's your perfect day of eating in Kansas City? I have a lot of favorite places for sure. In our neighborhood, Messenger Coffee and Ibis [Bakery] I think is doing a great job, both with coffee/pastries and also breakfast and lunch. Novel, The Rieger – The Antler Room is terrific, and I've been a longtime fan of Room 39, as well. Everything that they do, from breakfast and lunch, good coffee, good drinks, good wine, good dinner there as well.
Who are sommeliers or beverage industry professionals you admire at the moment? I think Caitlin [Corcoran] at Ça Va’s doing a really great job. Kelsey [Alt] at The Rieger, as well as [Leslie Goellner at] The Antler Room I think is doing a really interesting job with the wine program. Jim Coley from Gomer’s Midtown and Ça Va as well has been the person that’s sold me the most wine over the years, and probably introduced me to more wines than I would’ve been able to discover on my own or that I would’ve found through other people.
What concepts or beverage programs do you hope to see added or expanded in Kansas City? I would be very curious to see how a causal, on-premise/off-premise [concept] would work – like a bottle shop where you can hang out and have a glass of wine. That’s something that you see in other states, as well as quite often in Europe, but I'm not sure that the licensing is really favorable for that in Missouri or Kansas City right now. But I do think that there’s an opportunity for someone to do something really interesting with that.
What do you like to drink at home or on your day off? Beajoulais, Burgundy, coffee. I try to drink a little bit of everything when I have the chance to relax and enjoy beverages at home, just to keep myself focused on what’s going on in the wine world or the beverage world. But real favorites are definitely Beaujolais, Burgundy, Loire [Valley], Piedmont.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Burgers, pizza, right? Everybody loves those. And I think that it’s really fun to see a number of restaurants doing things like that really well right now – there’s a lot of restaurants that are doing really great burgers at the moment, and some more serious pizza places, too, like Il Lazzarone in the River Market that serves great pizza late, which is always great for people in the restaurant industry because while we’re serving good food and wine, we don’t oftentimes have the chance to actually consume it while we’re working, so a place like that can be a great industry hangout after work.
If you could give one piece of advice about wine, what would it be? Definitely the most important thing is [for consumers] to find a really good retailer and gradually build that relationship. You know, sharing recommendations from the retailer, but also giving them feedback on what you like and what you don’t like, because I think that that personal service that somebody like Jim at Gomer’s can provide, or Ryan Sciara at Underdog [Wine Co.], or Cellar Rat [Wine Merchants], in our neighborhood, where Kevin [Hodge] is doing a really good job with that – I think sometimes those wine professionals are underutilized and underappreciated for how good of a job they can do turning people onto new wines, and also helping people discover what they really like in the wine world.
What's your earliest memory of a wine that really struck you? There’s a lot of them, you know? And my palate and my preferences have changed over the years for sure, but the first wines that I got really excited about were California wineries – Ridge [Vineyards] being a real classic, some of the zinfandel-based blends made over the years in Sonoma made really big impressions. I was fortunate enough to taste some early 1990s Ridge Monte Bellos when I was getting into wine, which are really legendary wines at this point. I’d say outside of California, initially anyway, Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape were kind of the first great wines to really capture my attention.
What's the most intriguing wine you've brought in recently? There’s too many to even name. I think that among the most intriguing wines, and wines that sometimes are a little bit underappreciated, are older white wines, some of the white rioja from López de Heredia are incredible wines, and also remain pretty much incredible values [for] wines with a good amount of bottle age. Certainly some older sherries as well: We have brought in really exciting Palo Cortado sherries, and a Manzanilla Pasada from Le Cigerrara, which has about 20 years before release. Those are terrific. Vin Jaune or Château-Chalon from Jura, France, are really remarkable white wines that age for decades and decades and decades, and just become more nuanced and complex and interesting as they age.
How do you approach putting together a wine list? It's definitely seasonal. I'm usually thinking ahead for what the weather's going to be, what kind of food we're going to be serving and what kinds of foods are going to be most enjoyable for the next quarter or so. So right now, I'm really starting to think about fall wines: some richer, more textural-style white wines as well as heartier-style red wines. Once again, I think people naturally kind of gravitate to those wines as the weather cools, but they also complement the cuisine we serve in the winter months, when we might see more braised meat dishes or heartier-style dishes, whereas for the past three months we've been selling a lot of crisp white wines, a lot of dry rosé, things that maybe are better suited to enjoying on the patio when its 80 or 90 degrees.
What are your future plans? Well, I certainly hope that we continue to build Tannin and make it a great place for the neighborhood, [and] for restaurant and wine-industry people. We aim to bring in a number of great winemakers and importers for special events to allow our guests to get to know those people and build the relationships. We did a wine dinner last night with Jill Klein Matthiasson from the Matthiasson Winery in Napa, and those are the connections we’re going to continue to make more and more of over the next few years, so that our guests can build and maintain those relationships with the producers.
Tannin Wine Bar & Kitchen, 1526 Walnut St., Crossroads Arts District, Kansas City, Missouri, 816.842.2660, tanninwinebar.com