Kendra Anderson, aka Swirl Girl Denver, has been educating the Mile High on the magic of food-and-wine pairings — and unsung wine varietals — on social media for years, via hashtags (#justdrinkpink) and a regular column at westword.com, and through events she’s organized. Now she’s opened Bar Helix in RiNo, where she’s taking education to an experiential level, bringing together her love of wine with her culinary training and passion for gastronomy. In this interview, Anderson talks about the hardest thing about opening her bar, the soulmate pairing that sold her on wine, and the wine she’s pushing on adventurous drinkers this fall.
Westword: You’ve been championing wine in this town for the better part of a decade. But if I remember correctly, food and beverage was a career change for you. What brought you to this industry?
Kendra Anderson: I got into wine because I got into food. When I turned thirty, I had a quarter- or third-life crisis, and I realized I wanted to become a chef. I was working in corporate America, so I started doing events for friends and cooking for baby showers. My family started saying, you could have a catering business. It was like, yeah, everyone’s family says they are wildly talented. But I decided to go for it, so I applied to Cook Street and got in. The night program was perfect because I couldn’t quit my day job. This was fourteen years ago. The program was designed around French and Italian regional cuisine and wine, and I remember quite clearly being irritated that I had to do the wine part. I did not drink wine, other than the most basic Yellowtail. The wine class was taught by a woman named Bette Smith. She was on her way to becoming a Master of Wine, and she transformed my entire perspective. From day one, we learned that wines go with the food of a region. I’d never thought about wine as being part of the history of food, but it follows the same timeline — it spread from one country to another. I loved food, and when I saw that symbiotic connection, it was a momentous thing that happened. I continued on to become a chef. I started a catering business and had it for eight years. Through that progression, I started morphing — someone would ask me to do the food, and I’d ask, “What are you going to do for wine?” I started doing hybrid events. I wanted to introduce people to this lifestyle. I saw it as something that transformed my career, the way I lived, ate, drank and was.
Was there a particular wine pairing that was your aha moment?
It was the day we were studying Germany. We had made choucroute, which is a traditional dish of sausages, potatoes and sauerkraut, and we were studying riesling. Like I said, I wasn’t that into it, and the only thing I knew about riesling was that I thought I didn’t like it. But the instructor poured me this off-dry riesling, and it was a complete mind-blower. I thought, this is what it’s really all about. I hadn’t been drinking for enjoyment until then; it was a lightbulb.
You’re known in social-media spheres as Swirl Girl Denver, which was a moniker you picked up when you spent several years penning a wine column for Westword. What was your aim when you were writing?
I was interested in teaching people and giving them access: How do you make this your own? Wine is not for a certain demographic only. I’m a passionate home cook, and I thought I could get people to see that it’s cool to think about things holistically [when cooking and entertaining]. I’m not really a writer, but I did see it as an opportunity to be a virtual sommelier. I could reach people even more broadly than at a restaurant. I was also frustrated by the way the wine industry talked about wine; it perpetuated the very stereotypical things about wine. I’m a chick, I’m black, I’m an entrepreneur with a day job, and I don’t have a ton of money. I don’t speak about anything in these vaunted terms. I thought, there must be another way. If you could talk about wine in a more conversational way, it would open more doors for people. So I wrote the column in my own voice — I didn’t talk about wine in the way wine professionals would. I really loved it. It became a real parallel for my own life, and it encouraged me to explore and learn about wine.
You’ve spoken about soulmate pairings often over your time in this industry. Talk a bit about what that means.
As happened for me [with that choucroute and riesling], the idea of a soulmate pairing changes your perception about both the food and the wine. Whatever you thought was true about, say, Champagne, can change dramatically if you have it with one of my favorite pairings, tater tots. You’re having something accessible — tots — with something less accessible, and you might feel differently about both after. You might realize you don’t need a special occasion for Champagne, or you might think, I stopped eating tots in third grade, maybe I should reconsider them. Soulmate pairings create a journey. Also, food that grows together goes together: In Europe, people have developed grape varieties to support the food that they’ve had in the region. That’s a teachable moment — goat cheese and sauvignon blanc match because in France, livestock and vines are co-located. It’s the coolest thing to think about stuff like that.
You’ve also been a proponent of different wines. I remember a rosé obsession, and you seem to currently be loving Champagne. Any strategy behind what you’re pushing?
I started the “justdrinkpink” hashtag when I was the buyer for Marczyk [Fine Foods]. Pete [Marczyk, owner] was my mentor and boss, and he was really into French rosé. I loved it. It’s one of the best wines to drink with almost anything on the planet. But I was continually confronted by people who said, “I don’t like rosé, I don’t like white zinfandel.” I encountered a lot of men against rosé. That’s just so nuts to me. I felt that by making it more approachable, by repeating the message, I could get people to change their minds. It’s your prerogative to drink what you want to drink, but just give me the chance to pour this with a soulmate pairing and then tell me what you think. That applies to whatever is getting pushback at the moment. Right now, I hear a lot of people say they hate chardonnay. It’s getting a bad rap because a particular style came out of California, but even that oaky, buttery chardonnay can be perfectly delicious in the right situation. I’m happy to pour it and reintroduce it.
What’s your current obsession?
I’m in a huge cabernet franc phase. Fall is my gamay and cabernet franc season. I love how many people say cabernet sauvignon is their number-one wine, and how few of those people have had a glass of cabernet franc. Maybe one in ten would identify or order it as a variety versus blended into a Bordeaux. It’s everything cabernet sauvignon is, but lower in tannin, lower in alcohol and far more food-friendly.
You just opened Bar Helix, where you’re able to give people a taste of the pairings and wines you’re loving. Why was a bar the next step in your journey?
It really was the natural culmination of everything I had done. I went to culinary school and became a chef. I started a catering business while falling in love with wine. I wrote this column, which made me write about events, going out, restaurants, wine service and experiences. I waited tables through high school and college. Before becoming a chef or sommelier, I loved the idea of service, I loved the idea of creating those experiences. And I wanted to be able to have an experience that didn’t exist in Denver. I didn’t know of a place where I could get an amazing glass of wine but also listen to yacht rock. I didn’t know of a place where I could get a great Negroni and a great glass of Champagne. I wanted more elevated bar food. I wanted caviar that wasn’t $150 caviar service. I’m also an entrepreneur at heart, and I love creating ideas and bringing them to life. All those pieces came together for me here. I felt a real compulsion, a calling to do this, to add something new to our neighborhood and city, and I felt like I could do it better than anywhere else I had seen. It took me almost five years, from the initial business plan to when we opened. I am in love with this lifestyle. I wanted to do this more than I’ve wanted to do anything.
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You have a number of soulmate pairings on the menu — including caviar and Champagne — but let’s talk about that blueberry pop tart with foie gras for a second.
The food concept here is a lot of high/low, classy/trashy. So there’s a story behind the pop tart: For an Oscars party a few years ago, my friends and I had our annual potluck of food from Best Picture-nominated films. I drew Boyhood, and I couldn’t think of anything to make that was fancy, because this kid eats junk food. So I settled on a pop tart and thought, how do I make it elevated? I was obsessed with the foie at Mercantile, and I decided to kind of re-create it. You often go out to eat and have seared foie with a blueberry compote, or some sort of fruity complement. So I did a blueberry pop tart with foie mousse, and several years later it ended up on the menu here. We have no kitchen — or no hood. You can make a Pop-Tart in the toaster oven, you can make foie with no equipment, and it’s so fun. The menu is a love letter to all the food I love to eat that I’m hopeful I can turn people on to.
What’s been harder than you expected?
I thought it would be easier to find investors. I have never thought of not being able do something because of what I look like. I think through this experience, I realized it is harder when you’re a woman, and if you’re a minority. I don’t mean discrimination; I didn’t experience that. But I don’t look like the people who bring this kind of thing to life. And as with anything, when people aren’t familiar with something, they’re not sure if they can trust it. I often turned up with my pitch deck, dressed like this and being me, and potential investors would think, huh, I’ve never had this kind of presentation before — who is this person? I didn’t think about that before doing this. In the end, I’m an 85 percent owner here. That’s statistically not normal; that wasn’t my plan. I was scared to death when I signed on the line for a massive loan, but you have to bet on yourself. Also, this a bar — I’m not a restaurateur. It didn’t dawn on me that there aren’t that many women who are bar owners.
3440 Larimer Street
Hours: 4 to 10 p.m. daily