Big or small, the 10 best new wine lists in America are creative, food-friendly and more focused on great discoveries than on trophy bottles.
Do you get palate fatigue from drinking the same wines over and over-at different restaurants? Is somebody secretly issuing a List of Approved Bottles? Well, here's a better source: the 10 winners of F&W's third annual Best New Restaurant Wine List awards. These lists celebrate the diversity and vitality of the American wine scene, offering creatively chosen, fairly priced, food-friendly selections. If these lists are snapshots of our tastes right now, we seem to be craving new names and flavors--and lots of them. This year's winners offer a shift away from everyday Chardonnay to a world of Viognier and Vermentino, expanding geographically as well to include selections from countries such as South Africa, Argentina and New Zealand. Several have also made big commitments to small pours: wines by the glass, half bottles and tasting samples-the better to encourage experimentation. These lists don't play it safe, and they want customers to take a few risks too.
Philadelphia AVENUE B
When Marnie Old heard that Avenue B, the newest restaurant from Meal Ticket, was going to be Northern Italian, she headed straight to Italy. Old's flight brought her to Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine convention in Verona. As the beverage director of Meal Ticket (the restaurant group that owns Philadelphia's Striped Bass and Rouge), she proceeded to taste "everything she could," she says, and contacted "every distributor that sold Italian wine in Pennsylvania." Somewhere along the way, this longtime lover of French and Californian wines became an Italian wine convert. "I realized no other country in the world was making finer wines for the dollar than Italy," she says. "But not many people know that." Which is why few all-Italian wine lists succeed. But Old, backed by Avenue B's supportive owner, took the pure-Italian plunge. To overcome possible intimidation, she devised a friendly, style-oriented list. A less weighty, traditionally made Barbaresco, for example, might be grouped under "Earthy and Old World Style," while a newer-style, barrique-aged Barbaresco might be under "Dense and Powerful." A key in the back provides a map to help customers (dining on such specialties as poussin with Savoy cabbage torta or wild boar with chestnuts and Tuscan kale): "If you like red Bordeaux, then you might like the wines on page 6."
HIDDEN GEM: 1997 Di Majo Norante Ramitello ($40). Says Old, "This red from Molise is an impressively rich, riserva-quality wine" (20 S. Broad St.; 215-790-0705).
New York City BAR DEMI
Bar Demi has nothing to do with Demi Moore. This tiny wine bar is named for its huge collection of 70-plus half bottles (or demi-bouteilles). Bar Demi is the work of Diane Forley, the acclaimed chef and owner of Verbena restaurant, located next door (the two share a wine cellar).
"Diane's idea with Bar Demi," says wine director Aaron Von Rock, "is to bring together wines that match the foods of the season. Although Americans have learned to eat seasonally, they haven't really learned about drinking seasonally." For example, a recent "Champagne Tier" included gravlax, seafood cakes with pickled burdock, and a foie gras terrine, with a choice of five prematched sparkling wines, ranging from a $13 glass of Jacquesson to a $32 half bottle of Moncuit Blanc de Blancs (both from terrific small Champagne producers). The France- and-California-oriented wine list is organized by intensity, i.e., "Light, Crisp and Refreshing" to "Full and Rich." There are full bottles to be found here, if you insist, but the lure of the list definitely lies in doing things by halves.
HIDDEN GEM: 1993 Zenato Amarone ($43 a half bottle). According to Von Rock, "Wine in half bottles ages faster, so it reaches its peak sooner. This is a rich wine that in a full bottle would probably need more time, but in a half bottle it's drinking beautifully now" (125 1/2 E. 17th St.; 212-260-0900).
Most successful steak houses manage to inspire a cultlike following among their core customers. Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, the Boston outpost of a national chain, creates allegiance with two things: wet-aged beef and a massive, hundred-wine-by-the-glass list. Explains wine director David Flanagan, "We want to make it possible for people to try wines from around the world without committing to a bottle." Because this much choice can be overwhelming, Fleming's holds intensive tastings to educate its staff. The list is American-dominated, with selections organized by varietal and intensity. It is a field day for lovers of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and their combinations. Offerings range from the 1998 Kunde Merlot at $12 a glass ($42 a bottle) up to a 1982 Château Talbot (a lordly $415 a bottle). But there's lots more to choose from: With the porterhouse steak for two, for example, Flanagan recommends a Zinfandel, the 1997 Lolonis Redwood Valley Private Reserve at $13 a glass ($52 a bottle): "It's rich and jammy, and holds up to the rich flavor of the meat."
HIDDEN GEM: 1997 Schlumberger Fleur Gewürztraminer at $10 a glass ($40 a bottle). Flanagan says, "We encourage people to try something different, and this is a perfect wine to start a meal" (217 Stuart St.; 617-292-0808).
"People want decadent food again," declares Sean Herron, the owner of Echo. His response is to provide "globally inspired contemporary small-plate cuisine," meaning that the items on both the "Hot" and "Cold" sides of the menu are modestly sized, eclectic (grilled ostrich, black-bean potstickers) and meant to be mixed and matched. The 360-bottle wine list, offering 42 wines by the glass, as well as smaller tasting pours, is just as flexible. Says Herron, "People can order three or four dishes, and our staff will help match them with three or four wines." Though the list reflects Echo's global outlook, the owner's heart is clearly in America. A recent Echo list featured 70 domestic Cabernets and blends, versus seven red Bordeaux. This penchant for richer, riper wines may go back to that decadence idea. Try, for example, one of Herron's favorite combinations: the Byron Pinot Noir served with seared scallops in a foie grasbutter broth with a truffled asparagus salad and grilled polenta. As he explains, "The Byron is great because it's a little earthy, a little gamy, and that's great with the truffled asparagus salad."
HIDDEN GEM: 1999 Champalou Vouvray from the Loire ($31). "I love its spicy aromatics," Herron says. "It's the perfect summer wine" (1856 W. North Ave.; 773-395-3474).
Bethesda, Maryland GRAPESEED
"Most of the time we start out with a wine and then develop a dish that would complement it," says Grapeseed's chef and owner Jeff Heineman, a man who clearly has his priorities straight. "We'll often change an herb in a tart to give it a better affinity with, say, a Sauvignon Blanc." The international list offers 80-plus wines by the bottle, glass and half glass. Listed by varietal or type, each section features succinct descriptions in plain English. In the rosé section, for example, the Turkey Flat Vineyards bottling is characterized as "a full-bodied Aussie rosé with quite a bit of gusto." There's gusto in Heineman's New American cuisine as well. The point is, wine rules: According to Heineman, "We tasted the Catena Chardonnay from Argentina first, then decided our roasted chicken with Swiss chard and chimichurri jus would work with it."
HIDDEN GEM: 1997 Langenloiser Grüner Veltliner ($35). "This Austrian white has a great floral nose and plenty of mouthfeel to stand up to food," Heineman says (4865 Cordell Ave.; 301-986-9592).
St. Louis EAU
Eau's wine list is a tall, narrow booklet with the bistro's handsome O-and-wave logo (an obvious play on the name) rendered in the style of Japanese calligraphy. As the design hints, the restaurant's American seafood dishes are prepared with an Asian accent by chef Robert Uyemura. The wine list, however, is all-American--California, Oregon and Washington--except for a few Champagnes. This might sound familiar, but wine manager Tony Merino is determined to open his customers up to something new--such as a Skewis Pinot Noir. He's also given his list (well chosen but not extensive, with many wines under $50) a playful tone with headings like "Funky Whites" and "Homegrown Foreign Juice." The wines here are selected for their ability to pair well with food. For example, the restaurant's signature wood-roasted sea bass is a perfect match for the 1998 Domaine Carneros Pinot Noir ($60), which has lots of body, nice notes of cherry and a bit of oak.
HIDDEN GEM: 1999 Fess Parker Viognier ($41). Merino says, "The apricot and floral aromas go wonderfully with tuna tartare" (212 N. Kingshighway; 314-454-9000).
If Micole's menu, which emphasizes "elegant American cooking with a French influence," seems formal in this informal city, the wine list is one of the most wallet-friendly around. General manager Kathy Hawkins admits that the list she has created includes some "off-the-beaten-track" stuff--but with so many well-chosen wines in the $30 to $50 range, it's hard to make a misstep. Among the $30 offerings are the 1999 Rex Hill Pinot Noir from Oregon, the 1999 Jadot Moulin-à-Vent and the 1997 Trimbach Riesling, all top choices. There are a few trophy bottles, but even those are well priced (the 1997 Dominus is $154). A favorite Hawkins combination is chef Eric Roeder's signature chicken wrapped with Parmesan cheese and Parma ham paired with the luscious, lively 1998 Talley Chardonnay--a mere $42.
HIDDEN GEM: 1995 Castellani Capitel Cabernet Sauvignon ($50). A rich red with unexpected depths (1469 S. Pearl; 303-744-1940).
Seattle CAFE JUANITA
Cafe Juanita's chef and owner Holly Smith wasn't going to play it safe when she opened this Northern Italian restaurant. After working in restaurants where unfamiliar dishes and wines were discouraged, she decided to put foods like "sweetbreads and octopus and lamb kidneys--all on one menu!" The mostly Italian wine list she and manager Jerald Armstrong put together was intended to be different too. "We wanted to offer wines that would complement the food, but we didn't want wines that everybody else had," she explains. "We wanted wines like Teroldego, Vernaccia and Vermentino." They spent a lot of money putting together a strong Piedmont selection, featuring great producers like Sandrone, Gaja and Bruno Giacosa. (There is also a modest but well-chosen selection of Pacific Northwest wines.)
HIDDEN GEM: 1998 Foradori Teroldego ($35). Armstrong describes it as "a medium-bodied wine with interesting, earthy flavor. People drink red these days no matter what they're eating, and this one isn't overpowering" (9702 NE 120th Pl., Kirkland; 425-823-1505).
San Francisco BACAR
A sprawling brasserie and wine salon whose clientele feels comfortable dressed up or down, Bacar boasts a thousand-bottle wine list. The list spans the world and includes a generous sprinkling of wines in the $18 to $25 range (!) such as the 1999 Murphy-Goode Fumé Blanc ($19) and Penfolds 1998 Koonunga Hills Shiraz-Cabernet ($18). But like most top wine lists, it also reflects the many passions of its maker, wine director Debbie Zachareas. Bacar offers an astonishing 100 wines by the glass, in four different sizes, as well as in 500 ml and 250 ml carafes. Chef Arnold Eric Wong has put together an American menu with European influences that includes dishes like Cabernet-braised veal osso buco with risotto. Zachareas likes to match it with the big, rich 1994 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva from Talenti ($67). And if you like it, you'd better grab it, because Zachareas changes the list constantly.
HIDDEN GEM: 1999 Torbreck Woodcutters Red from Australia ($50). Says Zachareas, "This is made from old, old vines of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre. It has a rich and juicy texture, not over-oaked" (448 Brannan St.; 415-904-4100).
Los Angeles MAKO
Lisa Brady and her chef husband, Mako Tanaka, already had a good track record--Los Angeles's Chinois on Main and Spago--when they opened their own restaurant, Mako (pronounced MAH-ko). But that didn't impress the city's elite wine distributors. "There is a pecking order to get the highly allocated wines," Brady explains. "Until we started receiving some recognition, they were reluctant to put their wines on our list. So we became more creative and resourceful." The list Brady assembled with consultant Barry Herbst isn't large, but it is very well chosen. Tanaka's cooking is true fusion, blending the cuisine of his Japanese heritage with some Chinese influences, plus the occasional French-inspired sauce. The complexity of flavors can make for a tough wine match--like the lobster with angel-hair pasta in a coconut saffron sauce. No problem, Brady says. She recommends Didier Dagueneau's 1999 Pouilly-Fumé En Chailloux ($49). "It's lively and fruity, and it doesn't disappear with the spicy flavors."
HIDDEN GEM: 1997 Domaine Brana Irouleguy Blanc from France ($39). Says Brady, "It's a very exotic wine, with aromas of bananas and oranges, and enough acidity to stand up to the food" (225 S. Beverly Dr.; 310-288-8338).