Honoring the 10 most original, food-friendly, value-conscious new restaurant wine lists in America.
With our second annual Best New Restaurant Wine List Awards, FOOD & WINE celebrates the men and women who have made their restaurants key destinations for wine lovers. We pored over hundreds of lists from restaurants opened in 1999 to find the most creative, menu-appropriate and fairly priced examples in 10 cities across the country. Not only do these lists represent sound buying decisions made at a time when wine prices have reached record levels but they also reflect many up-to-the-minute drinking trends: There are more offerings of half bottles and wines by the glass, and there is a range of selections from once unfamiliar growing districts, such as Walla Walla in Washington State, Austria's Wachau Valley and the Paarl region of South Africa.ABACUS Dallas
"We feature a lot of sold-in-restaurant-only wines, which means that they are very, very allocated, and when they're gone, they're gone," says Abacus manager Matthew Scott. Chosen by Scott, owner Robert Hoffman and chef Kent Rathbun, the list is heavily weighted toward selections from California, since they are the most popular with Abacus's customers. Scott's favorite is the ZD Abacus ($395). "It's the best California wine on our list," he says, without hesitating, of this blend of ZD's reserve Cabernets from 1992 to 1998. "And," he adds, "the name is a nice coincidence." But there are numerous wines in the $25 to $45 range (although you can also opt for the stellar 1989 Château Haut-Brion at $1,500) and enough variety to complement Rathbun's globally inspired cooking, which includes everything from Victoria Lake perch to Peking duck. The restaurant's signature dish, John Dory, a flaky white fish from New Zealand, encrusted in bread crumbs and served with roasted-garlic orzo and a charred-tomato sauce, is a good match with the 1998 Newton Unfiltered Chardonnay.
1997 Bonterra Viognier ($45). Made from organic fruit, with the richness and fruity sweetness to stand up to much of Abacus's food.
ATLAS New York City
"Our list showcases underappreciated wines from all over the world," says Atlas wine director Christopher Catanesi. This moderately sized, very well priced list (with remarkable Champagne values) is replete with small and often obscure bottlings. Wines are also available by the fillip (250-ml or 500-ml decanters). The selections are primarily American, French and Italian, although numerous other nations are represented, as befits chef Thomas Beres's globally influenced cuisine. The prime rib of lamb with lavender glaze and an eggplant-and-tomato tart pairs beautifully with the Charles Mara Zinfandel ($57), made with grapes from the famed Martinelli Jackass Hill vineyard in Sonoma.
1996 François Villard St. Joseph Blanc ($38). Made primarily from Roussanne, with a portion of botrytised grapes, it is not unlike an aged white Burgundy.
AZIE San Francisco
"We look for wines with high acidity," says Booth McKinney, wine buyer for Azie (pronounced Ah-zee), of the list he created. "It just makes wines taste better with food." For example, a favorite dish on Azie's Asian-fusion menu is the curried duck breast with coconut risotto, which McKinney pairs with the Vincent Prunier Auxey-Duresses. "It has enough fruit to blend well, but sufficient balancing acidity," he says. Azie's list is notably well priced, thanks to a policy of marking up most bottles to double the wholesale rather than the standard 2.5 times. "But we've raised the price on a few cult wines," McKinney concedes, "because other restaurant people were coming in and cleaning us out." The wine list is entirely French and Californian, with a smattering of Austrian wines. McKinney explains, "Austrian wines have good, clean fruit and lots of crisp acidity."
R1997 Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage ($40). A clean wine with well-meshed flavors that McKinney says is nearly impossible to buy at retail.
AUREOLE Las Vegas
Most wine programs are hindered by parameters such as budgetary issues and storage problems. Not Aureole's. In fact, everything is oversize at this over-the-top dining spot in the Mandalay Bay resort. Storage is a four-story, glass-enclosed wine tower, and eight members of the wine staff man the 9,150-square-foot floor, communicating with one another via headsets ("Hey, Steve, which Andrew Will Merlot is drinking better now?"). There are even two "wine angels" suspended in harnesses, who fly around the tower and up and down the stacks. The $1.9 million wine list features 2,200 labels, with as many four- and five-figure bottles as you're likely to see anywhere, although there are also some 200 wines under $70, bargains in these parts. Master sommelier and list designer Steven Geddes says, "We like to feature great producers in depth, like an art museum with multiple Picassos." Artists here include Comtes Lafon, Ramonet, all the Bordeaux first growths (of course) and, surprisingly, many Washington, Austrian and German producers.
1995 Selbach-Oster Zeltinger Schlossberg ($62). Medium-bodied but fairly rich, with powerful flavors of ripe Granny Smith apples and apricots. It's a steal.
CIENEGA Los Angeles
Cienega's list is particularly notable for a generous selection of wines in the unheard-of $20 to $30 price range, including a Talley Sauvignon Blanc ($23) and a Chai du Grillion Côtes du Ventoux ($25). "I try to find the highest-quality wine that I can in every price range. It doesn't matter where it's from," says sommelier and general manager Micheal Jason Baker. "That's why one of my Cabernets by the glass is from the Backsberg winery in South Africa. I couldn't find a California Cabernet of the same quality and character for the price." Cienega's eclectic list also works well with chef Jon Fernow's food, enabling Baker to match the venison chop with rémoulade and sour-cherry sauce to a peppery Italian Syrah such as Fattoria di Manzano's Podere Il Bosco. Baker's biggest goal, however, is getting customers to try new wines. "If somebody asks for a Merlot, I'll bring them a glass of Josef Pöckl Zweigelt from Austria. If they'll taste it, they're willing to try anything."
1997 St. Hallett Shiraz Faith Vineyard ($35). Polished and elegant, from a top Barossa Valley producer.
EARTH & OCEAN Seattle
Chef Jean-Michel Boulot's pan-Asian cuisine presents a unique challenge in wine pairing. Not only are his preparations light, making use of broths and stocks instead of cream and oil, but, as master sommelier Larry Stone, who prepared the list, says, "When you have tamarind-glazed veal sparerib and sake lees-cured tuna on the menu, you have to think of wines that are adaptable." Stone looked for Sauvignon Blancs, Sémillons, Pinot Gris and light Pinot Noirs rather than California Cabernets and Chardonnays, which, he says, "run right over delicate flavors." So although the list does include sought-after wines, such as Peter Michael Chardonnay, Stone's staff might instead suggest a Bruno Giacosa Arneis from Italy.
Best Buy: 1998 L'Ecole No. 41 Sémillon ($27). Aromatic and crisp, with slight herbaceous notes. Very crisp, but with a nice, round finish.
ORTANIQUE ON THE MILE Miami
One of the most striking aspects of Ortanique on the Mile's modestly sized, well-priced international wine list is that it seems to be unusually well stocked with full-bodied reds--rather unusual for a tropical-clime restaurant. Explains co-owner Delius Shirley, "We use a lot of spices and herbs that aren't traditional in American or French cuisine, and we find that reds like Zinfandel, Syrah and Petite Sirah go very well and stand up to the spicier dishes." Shirley's partner, chef Cindy Hutson, dishes out Floribbean main courses such as Bahamian black grouper with ortanique (a hybrid Jamaican orange) and Bacardi Limón sauce, which Shirley likes to pair with a David Bruce Pinot Noir. (It's a fairly light-bodied Pinot, but one with lots of berry flavor and a touch of pepper.) There's plenty of staff training at Ortanique, including mandatory Saturday-afternoon wine seminars, which help put Hutson and Shirley's vision into action. Says Shirley, "Because there aren't classic wine matches for many of our dishes, we have to rely on our staff to act as tour guides, telling customers what the flavors are and matching them with the right wine."
Best Buy: 1995 Perrin Gigondas ($45). It is not too rich or too heavy but is rather silky and smooth, with earthy tones and a peppery finish.
THE FEDERALIST Boston
"I can make any customer happy with his wine choice," asserts Christian Vassilev, wine director of The Federalist, a restaurant that's been open less than a year in the new XV Beacon Hotel but that looks like a men's club from another era. Vassilev certainly has the tools to do so--at 46 pages, it is one massive wine list. And although there are many wines in the $35 to $50 range (not to mention about 20 wines by the glass and about 75 half bottles), it is the triple- and quadruple-figure bottles that catch the eye first--row after row of first-growth Bordeaux and Guigal Côte Roties. (Top wine price: $12,000, for a 1907 Heidsieck Monopole Champagne.) "We had an almost unlimited budget to buy wines," acknowledges Vassilev, whose list was two years in the making by the time the restaurant opened on New Year's Eve 1999. Notably, Vassilev says that on weekdays he sells more wine between $100 and $200 a bottle than in the $40 to $60 price range. The restaurant's affluent Beacon Hill clientele is also responding favorably to the American seafood-based menu, which features dishes like California red abalone with lemon risotto, fennel, capers and garlic, which Vassilev pairs with the rich, concentrated 1994 Zind-Humbrecht Heimbourg Pinot Gris.
1997 Behrens & Hitchcock Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel ($65). Full-bodied and spicy, very intense.
TEATRO GOLDONI Washington, D.C.
This restaurant has one of the most generous by-the-glass policies in the country, if not the world. Teatro Goldoni will, upon request, open any of its approximately 150 wines and serve it by the glass, whether that means a $5 pour of one of six house wines or a $55 belt of Sassicaia. The list is heavily concentrated in Italian and American offerings, with particular depth in Piedmont, Tuscany and Veneto. "We call our food Venetian World Cuisine, a lot of different things with a Venetian flavor," says chef and owner Fabrizio Aielli. "We designed the wine list the same way." The restaurant's most popular dish is lobster risotto with sun-dried tomatoes, which Aielli suggests pairing with a crisp Schiopetto Pinot Bianco from Friuli-Venezia Giulia.
1998 Casa Lapostolle Merlot ($31). A bright, lively, berry-inflected wine from famed consultant Michel Rolland.
Tru's wine list spans some 41 ambitious pages and has a table of contents that requires very small print to inventory all the countries (New Zealand, Austria, South Africa) and types of wine represented. "Our wine list has doubled in size since we opened in May 1999," acknowledges Scott Tyree, Tru's sommelier. Tyree's wide range of choices is also a means of keeping up with the ever changing menu of flamboyant chef Rick Tramonto, who approaches serious food with a sense of humor. Recent Tramonto inventions include a carved-glass caviar staircase, with different caviars on each step (paired with chilled Momokawa Sake from Oregon), and the Fish Bowl, a glass cone of seviche served in a bowl containing a live Siamese fighting fish (matched with a high-acid, citrusy Loimer Grüner Veltliner from Austria).
Best Buy: 1997 Charles Joguet Chinon Les Varennes ($55). Made from Cabernet Franc, it's an extremely perfumy wine, with a lovely, almost rose-petal quality, notes of delicate brown spices and a bright black-cherry flavor.
Richard Nalley is the wine editor of Departures and a nationally syndicated wine columnist for Copley News Service.