After sifting through hundreds of wine lists from restaurants that opened across the country this past year, FOOD & WINE came up with a clear-cut Top Ten. But the real winners are wine loversespecially those looking for well-priced bottles. The trend toward value isn't new, but in the past year it became even more dramatic. Many of the best lists feature wines by the glass at moderate markups, as well as plenty of bottles for $40 and less.
Our winning lists showcase wines from all overfrom southern France and the United States to Austria and Spainthough no country may be more popular than Italy. Indeed, several winners show a decided preference for Italian wines. But regardless of the region it emphasizes, every list has one thing in common: It is the work of an expert whose taste you can trust.
MINNEAPOLIS "We've become known around town as a great place to try lots of wines without breaking the bank," says Dwayne Beliakoff, general manager of Cafe Lurcat. And no wonder: The vast majority of the restaurant's 220 selections are less than $50 a bottle, including numerous wines in the $20 to $30 range. There's the 1999 Mountain View Viognier from California at $19 a bottle and a half-bottle of nonvintage Champagne from the small, esteemed house of Jacquesson for $26. (If you prefer Bollinger, it's on the list for only $61 a bottle.) There are also 30 reasonably priced wines by the glass. The diverse list is, like Lurcat's high-design decorlots of white and muted tones, Chagall-inspired paintings and a wall-size muralcalculated to appeal to a young, hip crowd, Beliakoff says. Chef Isaac Becker's unfussy, straightforward American cuisine is also part of the plan: There are no heavy sauces or "composed" plates here. Order the grilled lamb porterhouse, and it comes with a mint-basil jus. Beliakoff pairs it with the 2000 Adelsheim Pinot Noir ($43) from Oregon, a wine whose nuances and earthiness aren't masked by excessively heavy fruit, he says. In fact, vows Beliakoff, a recent Oregon transplant, "We'll have more Oregon wines on this list." And by that he means not just Pinot Noirs but also more aromatic whites like Riesling and Pinot Gris, which already have their own generous section on the list.
Cafe Lurcat Favorite
2000 MARTINELLI GEWÜRZTRAMINER ($40)
This dry, delicate, beautifully perfumed white, from a famed Sonoma producer, is an especially great food wine.
LOS ANGELES Although their first restaurant, Lucques, earned partners Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin a loyal following (and made Goin an F&W Best New Chef in 1999), they decided not to copy the formula with A.O.C. (named after the French wine designation Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée). "A.O.C. is more urban, architectural and Euro-style than Lucques," explains Styne, the restaurant's wine director. It also features a charcuterie and cheese bar. What's true of both restaurants is the proprietors' passion for wineat affordable prices. At A.O.C. there are 23 wines for $7 or less by the glass and dozens of bottles under $50. "I wanted a well-priced list," says Styne, who features wine from innovative producers from around the world, such as the 2001 Palacios Remondo Rioja ($23). She pairs it with Goin's arroz negro (black rice) with squid and saffron aioli because it has "a spiciness that clicks with the spiciness of the dish."
1998 CANET VALETTE SAINT-CHINIAN UNE ET MILLE NUITS ($24)
This surprisingly layered blend of five varietals comes from the Languedoc region of France.
NEW YORK CITY Veteran New York restaurateur and L'Impero managing partner Chris Cannon wanted a carefully focused wine list. "Some lists," Cannon says, "try to cover too much and end up telling the customer nothing." The list at L'Impero tells diners its focus is Europe, with an emphasis on Italyand is devised to complement chef Scott Conant's Italian-inspired cooking. "Scott's food has a delicate touch, so I wanted restrained but complex, high-acidity wines. You can't throw a huge California wine at his food," Cannon explains. The result is a list with little-known names and out-of-the-ordinary finds (a Slovenian Riesling from Joannes Protner, a Napa-made Albariño from Havens). The list is also organized by weight and style. To accompany Conant's signature roasted baby goat, for example, Cannon looks under "Spicy, Earthy & Balanced" for the 1998 Antonio Caggiano Taurasi Macchia dei Goti ($72) from Italy's Campania. "It has the structure and acidity of a Barolo, and the smoky, bacony character of a northern Rhône, which goes with the goat's almost cured-meat quality," Cannon says. If $72 seems pricey, there are plenty of great finds under $60.
1999 ORMANNI CHIANTI CLASSICO ($32)
A Tuscan winery dating from the Renaissance produces this full-bodied red with a classic nose of violets and cherries.
SAN FRANCISCO Piperade is a kind of journey into the past for chef and owner Gerald Hirigoyen. Opened on the site of his former restaurant Pastis, Piperade is a return to Hirigoyen's roots in the French Basque country. His informative, playful wine list ("The Unusual Suspects," "The Unique Blancs") leans heavily toward French and American selections, with one very distinctive feature: sections both by the glass and bottle of "The Basque Reds" and "The Basque Whites" from tongue-twisting names like Domaine Etxegaraya and Domaine Arretxea. There are also "Basques from Around the Globe," since, as Hirigoyen explains, "Basques are travelers, so we also offer Basque wines made by settlers" like Undurraga (Chile) and Etchart (Argentina). With his sautéed Monterey squid with grapes, foie gras and fingerling potatoes ("Basque surf and turf" Hirigoyen calls it), the chef recommends the Basque semibubbly 2002 Txakolina Txomin Etxaniz ($27): "The squid is rich, especially with the foie gras on top. The fizziness and clean, bright quality of the wine cut right through that richness."
1998 ERRÁZURIZ MERLOT RESERVA ($39)
Made by the descendants of a Basque immigrant to Chile, this wine is like a good Bordeaux.
ATLANTA If Woodfire Grill's spare, modern decor and open wood-burning oven seem reminiscent of northern California, it's no coincidence. The restaurant's chef and owner, Michael Tuohy, his cooking style and many of the wines on his list come from there. But general manager and wine director Greg Koetting also includes quite a few selections from other parts of the world. There are also as many as 30 to 40 wines by the glass, because, as Koetting says, "People here are so wine savvy now, they want to experiment." With Tuohy's signature Wood Grilled "Rocky" Free Range Chicken with garlicky greens, Koetting suggests the 2000 Lucien Albrecht Cuvée "A" de Albrecht Auxerrois ($44) from Alsace: "It has a wonderful body and a touch of residual sugar."
Woodfire Grill Favorite
2000 DOMAINE DES ROCHES CARPI-GOBET MÂCON-IGÉ ($27)
A great Burgundy at a great price, with mineral notes and not too much oak.
CHICAGO The all-Italian wine list at Fortunato doesn't contain any Pinot Grigios or Merlots, notes manager and wine director Amanda Jobb. "There are too many other interesting wines," she explains. It's also because Jobb didn't want to give diners "a safety net." On the other hand, the list does help by dividing wines into flavor categories such as "Fresh and Fruity" and "Lush, Lush, Lush." The real help, however, comes from Fortunato's enthusiastic staff. "We're all a bunch of wine geeks who love to find out what people like, and based on that, get them to try something new," Jobb says. Chef and owner Jennifer Newbury's adaptation of Italian cuisine to local and organic ingredients invites diners to try new things as well. One of her signature dishes is the wood-grilled baby octopus marinated overnight with garlic and crushed red pepper, which Jobb likes to pair with the 2001 Venica Ronco del Cerò Sauvignon Blanc ($40) from Italy's Friuli region. Says Jobb, "Its fresh, clean and crisp flavor matches up to the sweetness of the octopus and complements the char taste."
2001 POJER & SANDRI MÜLLER THURGAU ($30)
This wine epitomizes what's great about northern Italian whiteswonderful floral aromas and racy acidity.
DENVER With its enormous glass wine room situated right in the center of the restaurant, this latest addition to Denver's hip LoDo (Lower Downtown) neighborhood deliberately sets out to impress. And its 825-bottle wine list is definitely a big part of its success. "I wanted a wine list that would be extensive," says wine director Chris Farnum, "but not one that's all blue chips. I wanted to feature passionate younger winemakers and wines that drink beyond their price." That isn't to say that Farnum doesn't have his share of the blue chips, too, such as a 1985 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche at $1,650. But Adega also has the 1998 Bass Phillip Pinot Noir from Australia ($68) that Farnum swears "drinks just like La Tâche." Reflecting Farnum's recent travels abroad, there are impressive sections of Spanish and Italian wines, as well as strong showings of American wines, Champagnes and German whites that are terrific with the cooking of chef Bryan Moscatello (an F&W Best New Chef 2003). "French influenced, but Americanizedthat is, more fun and accessible," is how Farnum describes the chef's style. (For more on Moscatello, see "America's Best New Chefs 2003"). To go with Moscatello's most popular dish, veal cheeks Marsala, a recipe prepared with mushrooms, egg pasta and Marsala wine, Farnum says, "You don't need a tannic wine, but something as rich as the dish islike the 2001 Mitolo Jester Shiraz [$34] from Australia."
2000 REMELLURI RIOJA ($42)
This modern-looking Spanish winery uses predominantly French oak to produce a sexy, soft and supple wine with a finesse that Riojas once lacked.
WASHINGTON, D.C. Espionage chic is the look that best describes Zola, in Washington's Spy Museum complex; the restaurant's three dining rooms are decorated with murals of scenes from spy movies and code-themed artwork. Fortunately, finding great wines on the list doesn't require much detective work. Devisedby director of wine and spirits Ralph Rosenberg, Zola's list features 350 selections, with 24 wines by the glass. Chef Frank Morales' American menu is straightforward toothere's no beurre blanc but "white wine and butter sauce." Rosenberg likes to pair Morales' roasted lobster and Swiss chard ravioli with a French wine, the 2001 Apremont Vin de Savoie by Pierre Boniface ($31): "Its fruitiness brings out the sweetness of the lobster and the savoriness of the chard."
2000 JADE MOUNTAIN EVANGELHO MOURVÈDRE ($36)
This wonderfully rich, earthy red, which tastes as though it should cost twice its price, comes from a noted Napa specialist in Rhône-style wines.
BOSTON It wasn't hard for Via Matta manager and wine director Marco Deary to find wines to match the restaurant's "back to basics" Italian cooking, which relies on handmade pastas and traditional preparations. As he says, "Italian wines just fall into place with this kind of food." Except for a few Champagnes, the list is indeed all Italian, divided by region rather than by grape varietal. Otherwise, Deary says, "If you have Fiano di Avellino from Campania and Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand on the same page, the Fiano will be overlooked because people will go with the familiar." There is, however, little danger of overfamiliarity with the 100 or so selections on this list, which mixes a wealth of lesser-known wines with a few old standbys. Deary chooses one of the latter for chef Luis Morales' truffle-potato ravioli with braised short ribs: the 1998 Villa di Capezzana Carmignano ($55), a blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet from Tuscany, which he notes is "medium-to-full bodied and can stand up to the dish, but it's also silky and elegant."
Via Matta Favorite
2001 PLANETA LA SEGRETA BIANCO ($36)
This Sicilian blend, mostly Grecanico and Chardonnay, has a real burst of creaminess and plenty of tropical fruit.
BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON There's no shortage of assistance at this opulent suburban Seattle seafood palace: "We have eight sommeliers on the staff," notes wine director Erik Liedholm. Given its focus on seafood, Seastar has an extensive list that emphasizes whites, including lots of non-Chardonnayssuch as the sought-after 2001 Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc ($58) from Sonoma and such Northwestern stars as Cayuse and Beaux Frères. Liedholm recommends an Austrian white, the 2000 Nigl Grüner Veltliner ($56), with Seastar chef and owner John Howie's sesame-peppercorn seared ahi served with a jasmine-rice cake and a simple ginger-soy reduction. "The Nigl has a peppery edge and fills the mouth with flavors of cucumber and white-fleshed fruits," Liedholm says.
2001 CHÂTEAU GRANDE CASSAGNE COSTIÈRES DE NÎMES "GS" ($25)
This blend of Syrah and Grenache seduces fans of California as well as French wines with its rich, ripe fruit. It's very accessible.