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As a part of my ongoing and often sporadic “Can You Get a Decent Glass of Wine from a Chain Restaurant” series, I was invited to Russo’s Coal Fired Italian Kitchen, a chain of more than 25 Italian restaurants.  I’d never been to Russo’s before and so I made the ride to Richardson, TX, with my friend, David, who graciously agreed to be a part of the taste experience.

This series started after I told my husband that I did not want to meet him for drinks after work at Mi Cocina due their very pedestrian wine list.  While I have been pleasantly surprised  with the results of this series (I’ve had two good experiences at Cafe Express and The Olive Garden),  I wasn’t sure what to expect from a pizza and pasta chain.  Again, I found that I need to check my pre-conceived notions at the door.  

We were warmly greeted by Chris Demers, director of operations for Russo’s, who began talking passionately about the wine program.  Russo’s offers twelve wines by the glass — one prosecco, five whites and six reds — and ten of those rotate monthly.  All of these wines retail for $7 for a 5 oz. pour.  When we visited the restaurant, there were some other specials including Ferrari Carano for $6 and Masi for $9.  Demers has a background of helping bring The Wine Loft, a national wine bar concept, to fruition so when he came to work at Russo’s he immediately overhauled the wine program.

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He told us that, overall, Richardson (Dallas) wine drinkers were adventurous and while he needed to have some traditional Italian Chianti’s and Pinot Grigio’s on the menu, people were also willing to try Argentian Malbec and Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.  After checking his website, we realized the list Demers has is different from the Russo’s wine list.  That is by design.  Half of these wines aren’t available via retail as he’s trying to encourage a positive adventure in wine for his diners.  It is paying off — since he overhauled the wine program, sales are up over 50 percent.  There has only been one exception — Mark West Pinot Noir.  He tried to replace this crowd favorite and quickly realized it was a sacred cow.

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Here’s the line-up that we had the night of our tasting:

White:

  • Cavit – Lunetta Prosecco 09.  I tasted peach and pear with a mineral ending.  A very nice drinkable sparkling to start your meal.
  • Castegio – Pinot Grigio 10.  This is a crisp and tart pinot grigio.  This grape isn’t my usual first choice in wine, but it was a good representation.
  • De Martino – Sauvignon Blanc 10 (Chile).  This was my favorite white.  Lots of citrus and pineapple, but with the minerality that I like.  If I tasted this blindly, I would have said this was a sauvignon blanc from New Zealand.  Note this one is very hard to find in Dallas.
  • Alias – Chardonnay 09 (California).  Loved the story behind this project by eight un-named wine makers who wanted to make a good wine.  This was made in Old World style with lemon, tropical fruits and honey, but without being a butter bomb.  This was David’s favorite white and a very nice chardonnay.
  • Chateau Ste. Michelle – Riesling 10 (Washington State).  Always a critics’ favorite — especially at this price range — this had lots of stone fruit flavor and was a great value riesling.

Red:

  • Mark West – Pinot Noir 09 (California).  The people have spoken.  No comment.
  • Ruffino – Sangiovese 10 (Chianti).  You have to have a by the glass chianti, but there are much better options on the list.
  • Ca’Momi – Merlot 09 (Napa).  This is one of them.  A big jammy, food-friendly wine with notes of plum, cherry and menthol.  A really nice merlot and David’s favorite red.
  • Altos – Malbec Classico 10 (Mendoza).  A very nice representation of a Malbec with vanilla, mocha and chocolate. 
  • Blackburn – Cabernet Sauvignon 08 (Paso Robles).  Run, do not walk and see if you can find this wine in Dallas (if I don’t buy it all first).  This drank like a $30 cab and was off the charts good.  Big notes of plum, cherry, earth and menthol.  

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We also got to sample a few of the menu items, prosciutto with buffalo mozzarella, which I didn’t try because I’m allergic to pork, and the spinach and artichoke dip, which was off the charts good.  My advice for you is to come from 3-6 for Happy Hour or on Wednesday’s when wines are $5.  Order the dip and the Blackburn and savor the fact that not only can you get a good glass of wine from a chain, but you have found a cabernet that is a fantastic price to taste ratio.

Salud.