These winners, from restaurants that opened in the last year, have three more things in common: bargains, breadth and offbeat bottles. From a selection of 170 Rieslings to a supply of value-priced Taittinger Champagne, the lists also showcase seven of today’s best wine directors.
Cinghiale • Baltimore
The list at this Italian wine bar–restaurant can best be described by its driving directions, says owner–wine director Tony Foreman: “Go to Rome and head north.” The 480-wine list is centered on northern and central Italy. Though many of the wines may be unfamiliar, there are 40 to 50 by-the-glass choices and five flights of four wines. Foreman says, “One glass is like seeing a photo. The flight is like seeing the film.” The wines, like chef Julian Marucci’s food, “celebrate Italian classicism and modernity at the same time,” Foreman affirms.
2006 Nals Margreid Alto Adige ($35) with Il Coniglio, a confit of local rabbit leg with spaetzle, pancetta and butternut squash. “The wine is fairly dry, but with sweet aromas that amplify the flavors of the dish,” Foreman says.
2006 G.D. Vajra Langhe Rosso ($26). A Piedmontese red “with absolute soul and personality, from a good vintage; a wine you can drink with anything,” asserts Foreman.
Fraîche • Los Angeles
Fraîche owner and general manager Thierry Perez came away from stints at Daniel and Bouley Bakery in New York City with a firm conviction: “The lists were too expensive; I promised myself that my wine list would be different.” In conjunction with Fraîche chef and co-owner Jason Travi, Perez has put together a selection of 300 bottles, 70 percent of which are $60 or less. The result? “We are selling a crazy amount of wine,” he says. Some coveted names at bargain prices: Nicolas Potel, Carlisle, Chave—and Taittinger Champagne for an incredible $63 a bottle. How does he do it? “I love wine,” Perez says, “and I love to negotiate.” At this Provençal spot in a former bank, Travi follows the mandate to create straightforward food to go with these fairly priced wines. As Perez says, “If you order a chicken here, it looks like a chicken.”
2005 Abbazia di Novacella Kerner Alto Adige ($30) with monkfish in beurre blanc. Perez loves this Italian white from the Alto Adige region because “Kerner is a great, overlooked grape, and this wine has wonderful acidity. It makes a nice match with the richness of the monkfish.”
2002 F.X. Pichler Loibner Steinertal Riesling Smaragd ($55). “Friends from other restaurants think the price is a mistake,” says Perez. “I love this dry, fruity wine—it goes with so many appetizers.”
Sepia • Chicago
There are not many familiar names on the artisan winemaker–dominated list at Sepia, an 92-seat restaurant on the first floor of an old print shop in Chicago’s Fulton River District. A Champagne is likely to be from an unknown producer like Gardet, a Chardonnay from a small winery like Stoller in Oregon. “It is daunting for some people,” admits general manager and wine buyer Chris Pappas, who specializes in hard-to-get wines. “And the list changes almost daily. It drives the servers insane, but it keeps things interesting.” Not to mention inexpensive. Sepia’s list is full of wines priced under $80 a bottle (the 2006 René Muré Pinot Blanc, for example, is a steal at only $31). It’s the result of Pappas’s tireless scouting in less-well-known regions for less-famous wines—a current favorite, for example, is the Austrian red grape Zweigelt. This dynamic approach is well-matched to chef Kendal Duque’s unadorned, ingredient-oriented cooking.
The 2005 Heinrich Blaufränkisch ($47) with the grilled Berkshire pork chop with apples, arugula, bacon and cassis vinegar. “The terrific roasted notes in the wine echo the flavors of the grilled pork and the smoky bacon,” says Pappas of the Austrian red.
2007 Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini ($41). This Greek white, says Pappas, “has good acidity with wonderful roundness and refreshing citrus notes. Sigalas is a leading organic producer in Greece.”
Spruce • San Francisco
German Riesling is very much the focus of the list created by Spruce partner and wine-and-spirits director Andrew Green. In fact, Green has put together one of the most ambitious collections of German Riesling in the country (with about 170 top bottles). “We wanted to make a statement,” Green explains. There are plenty of varietals from other countries, too, on the 1,300-bottle list. Green and chef-partner Mark Sullivan (an F&W Best New Chef 2002) are “very passionate” about dessert wines like Madeira (35 selections) and charcuterie: Sullivan makes his own salamis and pâtés. “Charcuterie is a slam dunk with Riesling,” says Green.
2005 Domaine Robert Chevillon Bourgogne Rouge ($60) with honey-lacquered duck breast. Says Green, “You need the acidity of a French Pinot Noir like this to cut through the fattiness of the duck.”
2006 Josef Rosch “Cuvée Bacchus” Leiwener Klostergarten Riesling Kabinett ($32). “It’s just off-dry and low in alcohol, with pretty floral aromas.”
Proof • Washington, DC
For a guy with a jet-black mohawk and skateboarding sneakers, Proof’s wine director, Sebastian Zutant, is on surprisingly familiar terms with some very fancy wines. His 1,000-plus-bottle list includes collectibles (Château Haut-Brion), newer cult wines (Marcassin, Pax) and a few historic icons (1947 Cheval Blanc for $11,000). How did the year-old restaurant put together a cellar like this so fast? “We cherry-picked from the cellars of our investors,” Zutant explains. In this wine-centric restaurant, the 50 or so wines available by the glass are just the beginning: “We want everybody sharing dishes from our small-plates menu,” Zutant says about chef Haidar Karoum’s modern American food; therefore, with a two-glass minimum, Zutant will open any wine on the list that’s priced at $300 or less.
1999 Domaine Maillard Chorey-lès-Beaune ($64) with miso-glazed wild sablefish. “The dish has an earthiness that makes me think of red Burgundy,” Zutant says. “This wine has some earthy funkiness, but also that bright cherry you get with Burgundy.”
2004 Yakima Cellars Elephant Mountain Syrah ($48). This Washington state red is “an amazing wine for the price, elegant but full-throttle, with knock-you-over Syrah flavors.”
Dante • Cleveland
The multimillion-dollar renovation of the former lockkeepers Inn (partially built on stilts directly on the Cuyahoga River) gave this restaurant’s interior a sleek, Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired look. The restaurant’s old mammoth wine list has changed, too: Although general manager and sommelier Dave Eselgroth still offers more than 800 selections, he has split the list into a “house list,” with most wines between $65 and $75, and a “reserve” one where a 2000 Pingus is bargain-priced at $510. “We want to be cutting-edge,” he explains, “but also affordable.” The restaurant’s formerly California Cabernet– and Bordeaux-stocked cellar now holds a worldwide selection that mirrors the global flavors in chef-owner Dante Boccuzzi’s cuisine. The astounding 90 wines by the glass also give Dante customers a chance to experiment widely.
1999 Dino Torti Oltrepò Pavese ($65) with warm tuna–foie gras terrine. Says Eselgroth, “This Barbera has a lovely texture; its acidity cuts through the fatty foie gras.”
2007 Dr. H. Thanisch Muller-Burggraef Bernkasteler Badstube Riesling Kabinett ($44). A “deceptively powerful” white from Germany’s Mosel region.
Insieme • New York City
Insieme’s voluble wine director and general manager, Paul Grieco, has compiled a global list that reads like a textbook by the coolest wine instructor in town. There are full pages on a single wine (like Sicily’s Passopisciaro), region (Cahors) or grape (Traminer). With about 300 entries, the list isn’t gigantic, but it clearly reflects the restaurant’s culinary mission as Grieco defines it: “To apply traditional elements of Italian seasonal food in a contemporary fashion.” At Insieme, Grieco and chef Marco Canora work together closely. The wine is tailored to the menu, and vice versa. Canora’s cooking, claims Grieco, is so “perfectly pure and balanced that there could be 50 wines that match any of his dishes.”
2004 Hirsch Lamm Kamptal Grüner Veltliner ($69) with the boiled meats with salsa verde, horseradish cream and mustard fruit. Says Grieco, “This dish is so light on its feet that the Grüner, with its blistering minerality and stunning acidity, will give you a thrilling ride.”
2006 St. Magdalena Goldmuskateller Alto Adige Südtirol ($35). This white “is a perfect expression of Muscat,” says Grieco. “The aroma is so dramatic you think the wine will be sweet, but it’s not because of its acidity.”
Richard Nalley is a frequent contributor to F&W and a senior editor at ForbesLife.