As wine lists become more and more esoteric, featuring unpronounceable grape names and growing regions not found on any Rand McNally map, bewildered wine lovers may wonder if there's someplace left where they can still find familiar places and names. There is, and it's called an American steak house.
Although I probably eat in steak houses only every six months or so, I've been fascinated by their wine lists for years. Just as steak house menus seem to have their own paradigm (porterhouse, creamed spinach, onion rings) so too do steak house wine lists seem to exist in a world of their own, where entire countries like Spain and Germany are barely acknowledged, price isn't a consideration and California Cabernet reigns supreme.
Why California Cabernet? It makes perfect sense. Cabernet, after all, with its tannins and structure, is an ideal counterpoint to rich and fatty meats. And the sweet fruit of most California examples appeals to an American (read: steak house) palate. Certainly California Cabernet is prestigious, as a look at the prices of the most sought-after bottles will reveal. Indeed, over the past few years, California Cab has achieved a near-monopoly on steak house lists, even displacing other esteemed reds like Bordeaux. The exception seems to be the wine lists at the new breed of celebrity-chef steak houses, where Bobby Flay, Charlie Palmer, Laurent Tourondel, Tom Colicchio and other big names are creating their own innovative takes on Smith & Wollensky—with more innovative wine lists to match.