To find these 10 stellar wine lists, F&W editors reviewed hundreds of contenders from restaurants around the country that opened in 2003. A few trends were apparent. Lists appear to be ranging farther afield than in previous years, with more wines from emerging regions in countries like Portugal, Spain and Italy, often in bottlings of unfamiliar grapesTouriga Nacional, Torrontés, Bonarda. Luxury restaurants still boast high-end wine lists but now with a twist: Though they may feature trophy wines, most also offer bottles from less well-known places and names. In fact, the catchphrases of 2003 were "passionate small producers," "handcrafted wines" and "wines you won't find anywhere else."
NEW YORK CITY
Restaurant openings don't get more high profile than those in New York City's new Time Warner Center. Accordingly, reservations at chef Nori Sugie's Asiate, in the Center's Mandarin Oriental hotel, have been sought-after since its opening day. And although many diners come to gape at the 35th-floor views of Central Park, others visit to gawk at the floor-to-ceiling walls of wine presided over by Annie Turso, Asiate's sommelier. Says Turso, "Having worked for six years at Vong, I had a very good idea of what wines match French-based Asian cuisine like Sugie's: aromatic whites like Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc and Grüner Veltliner, as well as reds like Pinot Noir and Rhône winesall wines based on natural fruit, not on oak." Another priority was buying wines that are ready to drink, meaning "softer wines, including Merlot-based Bordeaux and older vintages." Asiate's 350-bottle list, divided by varietal, is notable not only for its well-chosen selections of Bordeaux, Burgundy and California wines, but also for its lesser-known offerings, like artisan-brewed sake, artisanal Champagne and Riesling from all over the world. There are many potential complements to Sugie's version of Japanese cooking, which is influenced by his stints in France and Australia. To pair with his pressed suckling pig, served with pig's-trotter croquette, pig-cheek confit and an apple-based japonegi sauce, Turso suggests the 2001 Walter Hansel de la Montanya Vineyard Pinot Noir: "It has gorgeous fruit and an earthy complexity." ASIATE'S BEST DEAL 2002 Hiedler Kamptal Löss Grüner Veltliner Trocken ($32) "This Austrian white is fermented dry (trocken),and it is amazingly clean and focused. It's also a steal at this price," says Turso.
France and California (with a touch of Spain) reign on the wine list at Pili.Pili, a casual neo-Mediterranean restaurant near Chicago's Merchandise Mart that attracts an eclectic crowd that includes architects and designers. The sophisticated clientele allows wine director and co-owner (with husband Jack Weiss) Tamra Presley Weiss to concentrate on "small-producer, estate-bottled wines that are handcrafted," she says. Though the 120-selection list covers a lot of ground, Weiss's love of southern French wines is obvious, along with her penchant for Rhône-style California wines from producers like Beckmen, Andrew Murray, Calera and Jade Mountain. The Rhône-Provence focus is also designed to fit with chef Fred Ramos's French-leaning, pan-Mediterranean menu; the restaurant's name is the Swahili word for a chile pepper and also the name of a spicy southern-French oil. Ramos's tagine of spit-roasted chicken with lemon confit and baby artichokes is a perfect match with the 2001 Domaine de Triennes Viognier from Provence ($36); Weiss likes the wine's "weight and floral essence with the artichokes and citrus." PILI.PILI'S BEST DEAL 2002 Pierre Sparr Alsace Pinot Gris Réserve ($34) "This is a crisp white with a lot of intensity that gives a true taste of what a great Alsace wine is likeat a reasonable price," says Weiss.
Two years ago, Boston culinary legend Lydia Shire closed her beloved Biba, gutted its interior and got designer Adam Tihany to reimagine the space. The result is the sleek, chrome-and-glass Excelsior, where diners ride a glass elevator past a three-story tower of wine that holds the inventory of the restaurant's 550 selections. Although there are lots of high-profile labels, wine director Eric Buxton is also committed to "wines from places that are just evolving into world classlike Spain." Chef Shire's menu changes weekly but, as Buxton says, "It's Boston, so there's always a lobster." To go with the Knife and Fork Lobster, a three-pound monster that's poached in butter with whiskey and cream, Buxton suggests the equally rich 2002 Kunin Stolpman Vineyards Viognier from Santa Barbara ($75). EXCELSIOR'S BEST DEAL 2001 J.M. Boillot La Pucelle Rully ($50) "It's elegant and pure, for people who are tired of over-oaked Chardonnay. It comes from an off-the-beaten-track part of Burgundy," says Buxton.
Union chef and owner Ethan Stowell's culinary style is subtle, clean, and uncomplicated, according to wine director Reinier Voorwinde, which means the food "can disappear when it's paired with a heavily oaked wine." Therefore Voorwinde looks first to small, non-oak-indulgent producers in the Loire, Alsace and the Rhône Valley. Union's 210-bottle list does include a few California cult Cabs like the 2000 Araujo Eisele Vineyard ($265) and top Northwest names like Woodward Canyon and Panther Creek. Voorwinde assembled his list with an eye to value: There are dozens of wines under $60, uncovered through "diligent scouting and actively pursuing auctions and private cellars," he says. Stowell's American bistro menu changes daily, but a recent favorite dish was roasted Arctic char with braised turnips and spinach, which Voorwinde pairs with the 2001 Alphonse Mellot Sancerre ($40) because it has "just enough racy acidity" to balance the richness of the fish. UNION'S BEST DEAL 2002 St. Innocent Pinot Noir Willamette Valley ($39) "Too many Oregon Pinots are either too thin or too bigoverextracted fruit bombs. This St. Innocent strikes a perfect balance," says Voorwinde.
ST. HELENA, CA
Given its location in a storefront on Main Street in the heart of Napa Valley's wine capital, Market began with a pretty good idea of what its wine list would feature. "We are solidly 50 percent Napa," says Market's wine director, Kristie Petrullo, "but the other 50 percent is from all over the worldeven Sonoma." The 100-bottle list, the bulk of which costs between $17 and $30, may be one of the most customer-friendly in America, thanks to the farsighted policy of marking all the value wines up no more than $14 over retail (and charging a reasonable $15 corkage fee). And even the pricier bottles are good deals. "We've got the 2001 Grace Family Cabernet for $260," says Petrullo, "which is a lot of moneybut I've seen it on other lists for $500." There are a multitude of wonderful choices to pair with chef Douglas Keane's market-based seasonal American cuisine with global twists. His Thai-marinated rock shrimp with avocado and papaya slices is tailor-made, says Petrullo, for the sparkling 1999 Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs ($47): "The wine elevates the freshness of the shrimp, basil, mint and cilantro." MARKET'S BEST DEAL 2001 Borie de Maurel Esprit d'Automne Minervois ($25) This red from the southwest of France has "great structure and complexity for the price," says Petrullo.
Guests who manage to wedge themselves into one of 1550 Hyde's 42 coveted seats find that what the spare, mostly candlelit restaurant lacks in floor space, it makes up for in outsize wine bargains. "I'd rather have wine go out the door than sit on the shelf," says Kent Liggett, who co-owns 1550 Hyde along with chef Peter Erickson. The restaurant scrapped its original "40 wines under $40" concept, partly because Liggett found that diners couldn't be talked into ordering bargains, but the 140-bottle list still has a center of gravity in the mid-$30 range. Split between California and Europe (France, Italy and Spain), it complements the food from Chez Panisse alumnus Erickson. His Californian-Mediterranean menu features superfresh, seasonal, organic dishes that change daily; one dish that's often available, however, is the Sonoma rabbit braised in rosé with tomato and rosemary, served with whole-corn polenta. 1550 HYDE'S BEST DEAL 2001 Texier St. Gervais Côtes-du-Rhône Cadinnières ($34) A single-vineyard Côtes-du-Rhône made from old-vine Grenache. Says Liggett: "People love the raspberry and blackberry fruit of this wine."
Vic & Anthony's
This steak house is the flagship of Landry's, the 300-restaurant group, and as such was designed to make an immediate impact on the Houston dining scene. The two-story, stand-alone buildingoutfitted in South African panga panga wood, red granite and marble floorsis matched by an equally impressive 1,000-plus selection wine list. As general manager Tim Kohler explains, the wine list is "the result of a long-term vision." For a new restaurant to offer seven vintages of Château Mouton-Rothschild dating back to 1945 ($18,000) certainly suggests that kind of planning. Kohler and wine manager Dave Poss assembled a list that, in addition to its terrific Bordeaux selection, also includes numerous outstanding bottles from the U.S., Burgundy, Italy and Australia, all ideal with chef Carlos Rodriguez's prime, 31-day-wet-aged center cuts. "The traditional favorite is the filet mignon," Poss says, "which I like with a robust but softer red like the 1999 Guilliams Cabernet Sauvignon ($77) from Napa's Spring Mountain." VIC & ANTHONY'S BEST DEAL 1999 Allende Rioja ($51) Poss says, "This wine has a juiciness and fruitiness that Rioja often does not, as well as the perfect balance of acidity."
"In Las Vegas it seems like every wine list is over-the-top, with big names and nothing else," complains Rajat Parr, wine director for the Mina Group of restaurants, which includes Seablue in Las Vegas's MGM Grand hotel. Like its competitors, Seablue offers splurgesa 1997 Ramonet Le Montrachet goes for $1,455but the white-wine-heavy 300-bottle list focuses on what Parr calls "esoteric and cool" choices. A recent by-the-glass lineup began with wines from Nasik (India), Rueda (Spain) and Kremstal (Austria)and those weren't even in the "Off the Beaten Path" section. They're well matched to chef Jay Wetzel's Mediterranean-style cuisine, with dishes such as shellfish with baby fennel and Portuguese sausage. SEABLUE'S BEST DEAL 2002 Skouras Moschofilero ($33) "It's like a Viognier but crisper, cleaner and brighter," Parr says of this Greek wine. "If people could pronounce the name, it would be the next big thing."
CORAL GABLES, FL
For Sergio González-arias, a physician and avid wine collector, it all started during a conversation with a friend about how Hispanics are not courted by the wine industry. González-Arias decided to take matters into his own hands; he and a few partners, including former F&W Best New Chef 1994 Robbin Haas, opened Chispa, slang for spark or spunk. González-Arias built the restaurant's 220-bottle list around wines from the U.S. and the Latin world. Although California dominates, there are also choices from places like Argentina's Mendoza, Spain's Rioja and Chile's Colchagua Valley. Patrons can compare across grape types or hemispheres by opting for a "mixed bottle," a selection of three different 250ml carafes brought out on a wooden tray. Chispa's Latin focus is enhanced by its decor, which features Cuban tile floors, big louvered windows and Guatemalan beaded lamps, and by Haas's cuisine. Part of the so-called "Mango Gang" of Caribbean fusion chefs, Haas makes what González-Arias calls "contemporary food with significant Latin expressions." A favorite is crispy pork belly and garlic clams, which González-Arias likes to pair with the full-bodied, spicy 2002 Red Car Sugardaddy Syrah ($80) from California. CHISPA'S BEST DEAL 2002 Viña Morandé Merlot ($25) "It's a soft Chilean Merlot, very fruit-forward and balanced, with a perfect middle palate. It can go with anything from seviche to meat dishes," says González-Arias.
Every wine on Nectar's list is available by the bottle, half-bottle and glass, which is not only a fun idea, but in Nectar's case probably also a necessary one. Toe-in-the-water sampling can be an appealing strategy at a place that offers no Bordeaux, no Burgundy, no Chardonnay and very few familiar names. A recent list included a Müller-Thurgau from Baden, Germany, a Primitivo from Puglia, Italy, and a vin de paille from Jura, France. "I want to force customers to think, and to drink, outside the box," says restaurant director Jarad Slipp. "But these aren't just quirky wines for the sake of weirdnessthey stand on their own." Slipp chooses the 2002 Adelsheim Tocai Friulano ($57) from Oregon to pair with chef Jamison Blankenship's scallops with haricots verts and curry-spiced chorizo. "It has a lovely floral quality and the body to stand up to the curry spices in the chorizo," he explains. NECTAR'S BEST DEAL 2002 Calvinor Torrontés ($29) "Ever tasted a wine from Uruguay? This one has a juicy brightness and a little spritziness that reminds me of a Vinho Verde," says Slipp.