Adventurous and innovative sommeliers are some of the wine world's most influential trendsetters. The seventh annual F&W Best New Wine List awards honor their achievements and their vision.
The 10 winning lists, selected from among hundreds of nominees around the country, emphasize affordable bottles and lower markups on both inexpensive and pricier choices and wines that are about balance rather than power and richness (and thus work better with food). In short, they're the Next Big Thing.
New York City
2000 Vallone Brindisi Rosso Riserva ($32)This Italian "is super versatile," says Cru's Robert Bohr. "It's a lighter red that's great with fish. It's a little richer than most whites but not too rich. In fact, it's just right."
Cru is the rarest of new restaurantsone with a cellar full of old wine. Though cellar isn't quite an accurate term, as the restaurant couldn't possibly store its almost comically massive wine inventory on the premises. It's enough of a challenge just to keep the 3,900 bottles on its 222-page wine list on hand. Says general manager and wine director Robert Bohr, "We have a storage warehouse in New Jersey and one in France." The restaurant's staggering list grew partly from wine-collecting owner Roy Welland's own extensive cellar and partly from aggressive buying by Bohr, particularly at auctions. There's an 1899 Château Margaux ($8,990) on the listand four older vintages. Locating the perfect wine for F&W Best New Chef 2005 Shea Gallante's "modern European" cooking is both a pleasure and a logistical challenge. For Gallante's loin of grain-fed veal, served with black truffle-anchovy mayonnaise and cooked sous-videvacuum-sealed in plastic to keep the meat moistBohr likes to roust out a bottle of 1988 Alain Burguet Gevrey-Chambertin Vieilles Vignes ($88): "It has wonderful, truffle-y, earthy aromatics and a powerful, slightly tannic style that has the shoulders to stand up to the meat."
2003 Ferrer Ribière 100 Ans Carignan ($29)
Made from Carignan vines in the south of France that are up to 123 years old, this incredibly delicious red has no oak, just lots of plummy, rich fruit.
There is a semi-hidden agenda at Jack Falstaff, according to wine director Gillian Ballance. "We don't advertise it, but the food here is about 90 percent organic, and I want to keep to that theme with the wine list." Thanks to the extensive inventory of the restaurant's owner, the PlumpJack Group, she had a head start in the list's creation, although, unlike other PlumpJack restaurants, there aren't many cult Cabs here. All the wines are well-priced, mostly between $40 and $60, marked just above retail. Ballance loves the 1997 Cigliuti Cru Serraboella Barbaresco ($80) with Ormsby's leg of pork that's roasted for an entire day: "The acidity of the wine cuts through the pork fat. And while $80 isn't cheap, it's much less than what it sells for elsewhere."
Best Buy 2002 Vinya L'Hereu Petit Grealo ($39)
Sommelier Todd Thrasher says this Grenache from Catalonia is elegant and full of sweet blackberry flavor.
Restaurant Eve is proof that you don't need to stockpile mountains of bottles to produce a great wine listyou just have to choose well. This 180-selection list stays away from big names in favor of good values, says general manager and sommelier Todd Thrasher. And that includes 20 wines priced at $35 or under. At Restaurant Eve, chef Cathal Armstrong and partner Meshelle Armstrong operate both the high-end Tasting Room and the less formal Bistro. While Tasting Room diners might enjoy Lobster Crème Brûlée, in the Bistro they can opt for a confit of pork belly with glazed onions, baby carrots and Swiss chard. For the pork, Thrasher suggests the 2001 Paul Garaudet Monthelie Le Meix Bataille ($68). "It has a hearty, rustic quality."
2004 Kim Crawford Marlborough Dry Riesling ($37)
This New Zealand wine is leaner and drier than many Old World Rieslings, says owner Jeff Nace. It's great with oysters.
Neptune Oyster is tiny (just an 18-seat raw bar and a 26-seat banquette) but focused. "We have a great variety of wines and a great variety of oysters," says owner Jeff Nace. "You don't often see those together." Neptune also has two wine lists, an 86-selection list with bottles averaging around $40 and a pricier 68-bottle "Pearls" list. Both feature selections from all over the world, but there's an emphasis on Italy (Veneto, Piedmont and Friuli are key regions). To pair with Neptune chef David Nevins' seared fillet of salmon over a crispy duck and avocado salad, Nace chooses the 2002 Patricia Green Cellars Balcombe Oregon Pinot Noir ($47): "Pinot is a classic match with salmon, and this has a combination of bright cherry fruit, smokiness and a lot of elegance."
Best Buy 1999 Château de Nouvelles Fitou
Cuvée Augusta ($34)
According to wine director Stephen Geddes, this value red from the south of France has some Old World flavor (there's not much new oak) and the complexity that comes with age but it also has plenty of power and spice.
Steven Geddes won an F&W Best New Wine List award in 2000 for the epic list he put together at Aureole Las Vegas. Today he's ensconced at Mistral in the Las Vegas Hilton with the title Director of Food and Beverage Synergy. Says Geddes, "I want all of our sommeliers to care about the food and all of our chefs to love and understand wine." The chefs can start by checking out the 2,100 selections ($25 to $9,000 a bottle) on Mistral's list. It's organized by region but there's no table of contents because, says Geddes, "I want our sommeliers to be the guides." For chef Mark Purdy's pan-fried blue-crab cake with chorizo, Geddes recommends the 2002 Domaine des Persenades Gros Manseng Moelleux ($30): "Its moderate alcohol doesn't fight with the spicy sausage."
2003 Don Miguel Gascon Malbec ($27)
This Argentine Malbec has almost overwhelming aromas, but, says chef David Fhima, "it's very food-friendly."
"I am a big fan of French history," says Morroccan-born David Fhima, co-owner and executive chef of Louis XIII, explaining the origin of the restaurant's name. "But my staff thinks it's because I like Remy Martin Louis XIII Cognac." Either way, there is no mistaking the Gallic-style opulence of the restaurant's blue velvet upholstery and marble bar. The wine list is opulent too, with more than 1,800 selections. Like Fhima's cooking, which he describes as "very French, with a mix of Asian and Mediterranean spices," the list emphasizes France. To complement his signature dish, a pan-sautéed John Dory with a lemongrass-infused beurre blanc, Fhima recommends a wine from California, the terrific 2002 Far Niente Chardonnay ($103): "The two blend together and become one."
2002 Marchesi Alfieri Sansoero Grignolino ($36)
"This Italian red is light and delicate but very silky on the finish," says wine consultant Greg Steiner.
Although there were initially seven tables in 7 restaurant (they've since added a few), it's not the origin of the establishment's name. Instead, explains wine consultant Greg Steiner, "It refers to the seven seaswhich means diners at 7 get a piece of fish as fresh and as simply prepared as chefs Sam Dickey and Will Packwood can make it." Plus an accessible, well-priced list that emphasizes wines with "acidity, brightness and delicacy," like the 2003 Casalfarneto Fontevecchia Verdicchio ($34), which Steiner pairs with skate sautéed with capers, garlic and parsley. "It's perfumed and lively, simple in the best sense."
2001 Paolettti Estates Winery Piccolo Cru' ($33)
This Bordeaux-style blend from Napa is very elegant and full-bodieda terrific wine for the price.
Downtown 140 restaurant, about 20 miles outside of Cleveland, is housed in a 19th-century market with rough limestone and exposed-brick walls. The ambience is very Old Worldalthough Shawn Monday's seasonal cuisine and Tiffany Monday's wine list are decidedly New World. The strength of their 450-choice list is domestic Chardonnay, Cabernet blends and Merlot, as well as many choices under $40, including a 2002 Rabbit Ridge Chardonnay for $18. To accompany Shawn's Asian-influenced Wild Pacific salmon, served with Chinese long beans and stewed with sweet onions and shiitake wontons, Tiffany suggests the fruity, velvety 2002 Louis Jadot Savigny Les Beaune Clos des Guettes ($48): "The wine is light enough not to overpower the sauce."
2000 Château de Nages Costières de Nimes Cuvée Joseph Torres Rouge ($40)
This southern French Syrah has an expansive, creamy character and a captivating flavor of stone fruits, such as cherry and plum.
Miami-based celebrity chef Norman Van Aken took his South American- and Caribbean-influenced "New World Cuisine" on the road in 2004 and opened an outpost in West Hollywood's Sunset Millennium complex. And with Van Aken's trademark flamboyant flavors, Peter Birmingham, managing director and sommelier of the new Norman's, says, "I knew we needed wines that were lighter in tannin and brighter in acidity." For example, he pairs Jean-Bernard Larrieu's 2002 Clos Lapeyre Jurançon Moelleux ($48) with the Down Island French Toast with exotic fruits, "because the wine's a riot of exotic fruit aromas and flavors."
2004 Argiolas Serralori Rosato ($48)
This wine has more body and flavor than most other rosés, says sommelier Lauren Bernardini.
Striped Bassin an elegant, turn-of-the-century space off posh Rittenhouse Squareis undeniably formal, but according to sommelier and manager Lauren Bernardini, "We want people to feel comfortable. There is no wine pretentiousness here." When Bernardini arrived last August, she shifted the emphasis of the 440-bottle list from classic wines like Burgundy toward "funky wines that offer great value" though there are still familiar names to be found. The seafood-dominant menu is overseen by consulting chef Alfred Portale of Manhattan's Gotham Bar & Grill and executed by Christopher Lee. Bernardini suggests pairing the 2003 Basa ($44), made by Telmo Rodriguez in the Rueda region of Spain, with Lee's Canadian hard-shell lobster with English peas, fava beans, kumquats and pistachios: "It's a rich white with an orange-blossom aroma and a mild, fruity sweetness."