There has never been a better time or place to be a wine lover than in America in 1999, when so many restaurateurs are beating the bushes (or at least the grapevines) to bring bottles from the world's best wineries to their tables. With our first annual Best New Wine List Awards, FOOD & WINE celebrates the innovation and diligence of the men and women who create the lists. We focused on restaurants in seven cities that opened in 1998 and scrutinized their lists to determine which ones were made by real devotees and which served as truly seamless complements to their menus. Fair pricing was key, as was a good selection of wines by the glass. The following restaurants got it right.
The Elephant Walk
The Elephant Walk's exotic French-Cambodian menu includes such dishes as black tiger shrimp sautéed in coriander, fennel seeds and lemongrass. Finding wines to match required extensive tastings. "We discovered that the wines that go well with our menu are whites from Alsace and the Loire, which have a higher acid level and are judiciously oaked," says Richard Pile, the restaurant's wine director. As a result, the list features Pinot Gris (such as the 1995 Trimbach Réserve for $32.95), Rieslings and Vouvrays, in addition to the Rhône whites that are Pile's special passion. "We only mark up white Rhônes one and a half times their wholesale price, as opposed to the two and a half times markup on most other wines, because we want people to try them," Pile says. The restaurant's list also has tasting notes describing the managers' by-the-glass selections, as well as educational marginalia that cover wine basics.
Great find 1991 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc ($52.95). Powerful and exotic, this wine will open your eyes to the Rhône's fine white wines (2067 Massachusetts Ave.; 617-492-6900).
NEW YORK CITY
White-hot since it opened, well, really since before it opened (thanks to the fame of chef-owner Mario Batali), Babbo doesn't depend on the familiar either with its menu, which features Italian country dishes like beef cheek ravioli with crushed squab liver, or with its extensive all-Italian wine list. "I'm really interested in wines from Italy's lesser-known regions," explains Philip Morace, the wine director who helped design the original Babbo list. "Even a lot of the wines fromwell-known regions like Tuscany and Piedmont can be pretty obscure." Some of Morace's most gratifying discoveries were the white wines of Friuli made from the Tocai Friulano grape. "They work so well with food and they are so delicious that you could probably put a whole list together just with Tocai," Morace claims. "As it is, there are about eight on the list now." Babbo also offers a selection of wines by the quartino, or quarter liter, priced from $9 to $22, to encourage experimentation. This helps make what could be an intimidatingly obscure wine list much more accessible.
Great find 1997 Col d'Orcia Rosso di Montalcino ($23). Little brother to Brunello, this well-structured, medium-bodied red packs plenty of flavor (110 Waverly Pl.; 212-777-0303).
Vintage could be setting a dangerous precedent--dangerous, that is, to restaurants with puffed-up wine prices. "We look for wines that you can't find just anywhere, and we sell them at close to retail prices," explains Sheryl L. Hoar, Vintage's general manager. This means that the restaurant, instead of marking up a bottle the standard 250 to 300 percent over the wholesale price, raises the price only 50 percent. Thus Vintage will offer a wine that costs $10 wholesale for just $15 (versus the standard $25 to $30). And these aren't commonplace wines; the restaurant sells a number of highly coveted bottles that are hard to find at retail stores. For wines like these, in fact, Vintage sometimes charges below retail prices. Such bargains, combined with a menu of comfort food (steak frites, roast cod with mashed potatoes), make it a neighborhood bistro that wine lovers might locate somewhere between Paris and paradise.
Great find 1994 Silver Oak Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($75). You'd have a very hard time finding this much- sought-after bottling at this price at any Washington, D.C., wine shop (2809 M St. NW; 202-625-0077).
Restaurant designer Adam Tihany made wine the visual focus of this loft-like restaurant, placing wine racks in a glass room where bartenders reach bottles via a library ladder. General manager and wine director Kelly G. Mullarney, meanwhile, made sure that his very attractive wine list showcased chef Patrick Robertson's food. "The list tends toward lighter style wines that complement Patrick's cooking," he says. Alsace wines, he adds, work especially well. "They not only have a nice light style but also a spicy complexity that's just the thing for dishes like grilled salmon with an emulsion of saffron, olive oil and lemon." Future plans include a significant expansion of the current by-the-glass wine offerings.
Great find 1996 Ici/La-Bas Les Révélés Pinot Noir ($55). This silky and lively beauty is made by Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat fame (160 N. Loomis St.; 312-850-0303).
The almost all-Italian (or Italian varietal) wine list of Tavolino makes it a bit of a renegade in San Francisco, the gateway to California wine country. "We expected a ruckus when customers couldn't get a California Char-donnay," wine director David Benjamin notes. "But I think it's actually been fun for people."
Tavolino, modeled after a Venetian wine bar, serves cicchetti (the Venetian version of tapas), which include small dishes like seared scallops and black risotto, and the restaurant offers close to 20 wines by the glass. Initially, these were primarily from the Veneto (Soave, Bardolino and Amarone), although Benjamin later added wines from other Italian regions, as well as some Cal-Ital selections, such as the house red, a blend made by Sonoma's Duxoup winery.
Great find Ruggeri Prosecco ($6.25 a glass). This sparkler from the Veneto tastes like peaches and is wonderful with raw oysters (401 Columbus Ave.; 415-392-1472).
COSTA MESA, CALIFORNIA
As its name suggests, Pinot Provence, sister of the famed Patina in Los Angeles, emphasizes Provençal-inspired dishes, like daube of stewed lamb and seared scallops with fennel confit, and also highlights French country wines. "We want to introduce diners to a taste of the Mediterranean, as well as the region's wines," general manager Michael A. Jordan says. Accordingly, the restaurant's list features a notable helping of bottles from southern France, such as the 1995 Clos Sainte- Magdeleine Cassis Blanc ($36), which manages to be both crisp and substantial. There is an eye-popping assemblage of trophy wines from more familiar precincts, too, including first-growth Bordeaux and sought-after California labels like Bryant Family and Dalla Valle. But, Jordan says, "Everything's selling. We decant a lot of terrific bottles on any given day."
Great find 1995 Mas de Daumas Gassac Vin du Pays de l'Hérault ($37). Rich and substantial, this red wine comes from France's up-and-coming Languedoc-Roussillon region (686 An-ton Blvd.; 714-444-5900).
"I look for good value wines wherever I can find them," says Mark Magiera, the original wine buyer for Stars Seattle, as well as a buyer for other Stars restaurants. "And, for me, southern France is where the best values are today." Magiera's twice-yearly tasting trips to France have paid off with such wines as the intriguing 1997 Château La Canorgue Viognier ($5.75 a glass), an organically grown Provençal white. The list at Stars Seattle also features a worthy selection of wines from the Northwest, including the 1997 Woodward Canyon Chardonnay ($58) from Washington State and the 1996 Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir from Oregon (also $58). The extensive, eclectic list reflects the restaurant's wide-ranging culinary influences: from northwestern (king salmon gravlax) to Franco-Texan (duck confit with chipotle cream and Texan salsa). But all wines, even such high-end bottles as the 1993 Roederer Cristal ($172), are offered at prices designed to move cases. "People should have the opportunity to spend money for something special," Magiera says. "But there are also a lot of appealing wines at Stars for less than $30. It's a balancing act."
Great find 1996 Domaine de l'Hortus Rosé de Saignée ($24). With its blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, this rosé from the Languedoc is seductive (600 Pine St.; 206-264-1112).
Richard Nalley is the wine editor for Departures and a nationally syndicated wine columnist for Copley News Service.