Debbie Long's tenure as a restaurateur has been an educational journey, particularly regarding wine. When Dudley's opened in the early 1980s, the choices were primarily house white, red and rosé, with perhaps a carafe of this or that now and then. Time, the input of collectors and personal travel have transformed a tiny ordinary collection into one of the best in Lexington.
Initially, a liquor license had been out of reach; the limited, non-transferrable number that existed came at a high cost, almost onerous for a start-up. But timing is everything: In November 1981, the General Assembly in Frankfort passed retail drink license legislation, loosening restrictions. Restaurants that sat at least 100 — at the time, Dudley's capacity was 101 — and made at least 70 percent of their revenue from food were issued permits and charged only the less expensive city and state licensing fees.
Another stroke of good luck in the early days was the acquisition of a small number of fine Bordeaux for the restaurant's “cellar” — more like a temperature-controlled room. This coincided with the horse sales, when European crowds who knew wine and loved cabernet sauvignon discovered Dudley's. The finest of these bottles, the 1982s, sold out almost instantaneously, sending the message that a market existed for the good stuff.
What began as an experiment has evolved over more than 20 years to an identity: Dudley's is now known as a spot for fine dining, and all that that entails.
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The restaurant's wine list and menu have developed side by side, creating a style and sensibility that one might loosely term “loca-Cali-Bordeaux-centric” if one could tackle the pronunciation.
Dishes, many using Kentucky Proud produce, are matched mainly with California chardonnays and cabernet sauvignons, and red French Bordeaux, i.e., cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Prices range from $34 for a 2006 Liberty School cabernet sauvignon from Paso Robles to $495 for a 1996 Château Cheval Blanc Premier Grand Cru Classé (also cabernet sauvignon).
Dudley's selection of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir, small at the moment, is growing, and it has a few mighty representatives, like the 1990 Vosne-Romanée Les Brulee Domaine Leroy, a pinot noir from Burgundy, for $650.
Long says her choices have been influenced by her travels.
“I've been to California, I've been to Bordeaux, also to Italy and Chile. I have to experience wines in a context to know what I like,” she says.
An upcoming trip to Argentina probably means we can look forward to interesting malbecs, wines that are delicious and a bargain.
Dudley's has a well-earned reputation for being a horse-industry magnet, but the truth is that the ambience is essentially casual. A broad cross-section of clientele can be found on any given night, and some of the most prestigious bottles are ordered by the least-assuming diners.
In addition to the slightly more formal dining rooms, there is the patio — a great quaffing venue in warm weather. The high-ceilinged, memorabilia-strewn bar itself is a personal favorite for having a light meal in a drinking atmosphere. It is my sentimental favorite, too, having been my introduction to Lexington's watering holes when I moved here in 1994. Finally, there is a separate “wine room,” generally used for private parties, where backlit glass cabinets display bottles that are sold by the glass.
These single servings have created a focal point for training wait staff in wine service. Long figures that, if they nail the eight varietals and differentiate between drier and sweeter, they can better assist diners in making a good match with their meal.
And, for the record, my server suggested the perfect pairing at a recent lunch of pan-seared salmon and rich polenta: a 2007 Willlamette Valley pinot noir from Oregon.