It wasn't so long ago that a restaurant featured a house red and a house white as its only by-the-glass wine offerings. These were, by and large, the standard default order of diners who didn't know, or care, what they drank. But as restaurants and diners grew more sophisticated, the by-the-glass options expanded both in quality and in number. Still, the idea of an always-reliable house wine hasn't disappeared altogether, as some restaurants' by-the-glass selections have proven so popular that they're offered as regularly as any house red or white. Priced right and suited to a wide range of palates and dishes, they are like the old house wines--only better. The following are some of the choices offered by 10 top American restaurants.
MAISON ROBERT, BOSTON
By-the-glass choices White: Joseph Drouhin Mâcon-Villages ($4.50 a glass; $11 a bottle retail). Red: Chapoutier Belle Ruche Côtes-du-Rhône ($5 a glass; $12 a bottle retail).
House policy These wines represent chef Jacky Robert's palate, says Ann Robert, his aunt and a co-owner of the restaurant. "He likes a clean, dry white wine like the Mâcon as an aperitif and as an accompaniment to fish. The Chapoutier has good fruit and a little more body and substance than typical Côtes-du-Rhônes."
Critical commentary These wines aren't hard to find at most wine shops, and they're very well priced, dependable choices.
THE FOUR SEASONS, NEW YORK CITY
By-the-glass choices White: Louis Latour Chardonnay Grand Ardèche ($12 a glass; $12 a bottle retail). Red:Château Loudenne ($12 a glass; $14 a bottle retail).
House policy Julian Niccolini, managing partner, says, "A restaurant's by-the-glass wines should reflect the quality of the restaurant. The Grand Ardèche, for example, has bested Puligny Montrachets in blind tastings." But why such high prices? Niccolini explains: "We use big glasses here. In fact, we only get three and a half glasses from a bottle [instead of the typical five]."
Critical commentary The white is a Rhône Valley blend from the famed shipper Latour, and the Loudenne is a solid, if not particularly exciting, petit château Bordeaux.
LE BEC-FIN, PHILADELPHIA
By-the-glass choices White: Domaine André Bonhomme Mâcon-Viré ($9 a glass; $16 a bottle retail). Red: Château Roudier Montagne St-Emilion ($12 a glass; $21 a bottle retail).
House policy According to sommelier Edward J. Murray, "The quality of the Bonhomme is stunning." The owner of Roudier, meanwhile, has put a lot of money into the estate, and the wine has become a big overachiever for its appellation. "It's just delicious, with lots of richness and texture."
Critical commentary These wines are thoughtful, personal selections made by the chef, Georges Perrier, and a sommelier with a true passion for wine.
RED SAGE, WASHINGTON, D.C.
By-the-glass choices White: Cambria Chardonnay Katherine's Vineyard ($8.50 a glass; $18 a bottle retail). Red: Ravenswood Zinfandel Sonoma County ($8 a glass; $12 a bottle retail).
House policy Bart Bonbrest, general manager and sommelier, says, "The Cambria has enough vanilla and toastiness to suit American tastes, as well as beautiful apple and citrus fruit flavors. The Zin has spice and fruit and not too much acidity or tannin; it works well with our bolder dishes."
Critical commentary Cambria is a high-quality Santa Barbara County winery owned by Kendall-Jackson; it makes a ripe, well-balanced Chardonnay. The soft, juicy red is from one of California's top Zinfandel producers.
THE DINING ROOM AT THE RITZ-CARLTON BUCKHEAD, ATLANTA
By-the-glass choices No regular reds or whites by the glass, just sparkling wines: nonvintage Alfred Gratien Brut Champagne ($13 a glass; $35 a bottle retail) and Iron Horse Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine ($15 a glass; $32 a bottle retail).
House policy "Our reds and whites change often, but the sparkling wines are our house signature," sommelier Robert Jones explains. "I like a lighter, crisper sparkling wine like California's Iron Horse, which has been given extra aging time, so it's very complex. The Gratien, aged as long as some vintage Champagnes, is rich and full flavored."
Critical commentary Both of these are wonderful though very different wines. Don't drink them just as aperitifs.
CHEF ALLEN'S, MIAMI
By-the-glass choices White: Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay Russian River Ranches ($8.75 a glass; $17 a bottle retail). Red:Liberty School Cabernet ($7 a glass; $15 a bottle retail).
House policy According to Dale LoSasso, general manager, "Chardonnay is all Sonoma-Cutrer does, and this California winery does it well. Liberty School, a staff favorite, is the former second label of Napa's Caymus Vineyards."
Critical commentary Sonoma-Cutrer has a new owner, so its future is uncertain, but it has a reputation for meticulous winemaking. Legendary Cab producer Caymus still maintains a minority interest in Liberty School Vineyards.
COMMANDER'S PALACE, NEW ORLEANS
By-the-glass choices White: Bel Arbor Chardonnay, ($5 a glass; $7 a bottle retail). Red: C. K. Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon ($5 a glass; $8 a bottle retail).
House policy "To make our selections," says beverage manager Richard Shakespeare, "we do blind tastings of about 60 Chardonnays in this price range and 40 to 50 Cabernets."
Critical commentary These are mediocre grocery-store wines that might as well have been chosen by the restaurant's accountant. Go straight to the list of pricier offerings.
MANSION ON TURTLE CREEK, DALLAS
By-the-glass choices White: De Loach Chardonnay Russian River Valley ($8.50 a glass; $21 a bottle retail). Red: Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon ($8.50 a glass; $12 a bottle retail).
House policy "The De Loach has a good oak presence and a nice crisp acidity to match the restaurant's spicy food," cellar master Darryl Beeson maintains. "And while the Beaulieu has structure, it's not an austere Cabernet Sauvignon. The fruit just melds with the spice."
Critical commentary If you love California Chardonnay, you'll be in heaven with the De Loach. The Beaulieu won't disappoint, but you still might want to check the list instead.
VALENTINO, SANTA MONICA
By-the-glass choices White: Colle Picchioni ($6 a glass; $10 a bottle retail). Red: Ferrari-Carano Merlot ($9.50 a glass; $23 a bottle retail).
House policy Says owner Piero Selvaggio, "The Colle Picchioni is our discovery. It's a refreshing, crisp white wine that works as an aperitif or with a light first course. I'd follow it with a red like the Ferrari-Carano Merlot, which is so popular we honestly couldn't take it off the list."
Critical commentary Selvaggio is passionate about wine, and his pleasure in the Colle Picchioni is reason enough to try it. Ferrari-Carano, a lavish Sonoma winery, has a reputation for high-quality, flavor-packed wines.
ALAN WONG'S, HONOLULU
By-the-glass choices White: Joseph Phelps Gewürztraminer ($6 a glass; $15 a bottle retail). Red: Van Asperen Merlot ($7 a glass; $18 a bottle retail).
House policy Charly Yoshida, the general manager, says, "The Gewürztraminer does very well with the tropical flavors of the menu, and the red is mellow and easy to drink."
Critical commentary Phelps's reputation rests largely with its reds; this spicy white will please some, not others. The Van Asperen, a new prestige label from Round Hill Winery, is a solid choice. Still, you may be tempted to look further.
Richard Nalley is the wine and spirits editor of Departures.