If ordering wine for a table of friends seems like a daunting responsibility, here's some expert advice—about the no-fail options, the hidden values, the reasonable (and unconscionable) price markups, and more.
The World's Best Value Grapes
Monastrell from Spain
The wine regions of Jumilla, Yecla and Alicante in southeastern Spain produce dark, juicy reds from the scrappy Monastrell grape. Basic bottlings may run as little as $20 on a wine list. Top producers: El Sequé, Casa Castillo, Finca Luzón, Casa de la Ermita and Castaño.
Malbec from Argentina
Some of the best and most affordable South American reds—spicy, luscious and intense—come from Malbec grapes grown in the Mendoza Valley in the foothills of the Andes. A few are expensive, but terrific wines can be had for $25 to $40 on restaurant lists. Top producers: Bodega Weinert, Rutini, Valentín Bianchi, Santa Julia and Catena.
Primitivo from Italy
Juicy, berry-rich Primitivo (a relative of Zinfandel) grows effortlessly in the vast, rolling vineyards of Puglia, at the heel of the Italian boot. Even the best bottlings generally run under $40 on wine lists. Top producers: A-Mano, Cantele, Ognissole, Apollonio and Sinfarosa.
Riesling from Australia
Few affordable whites offer as much complexity and pair with as many different foods as zesty, citrusy dry Rieslings from Australia. Plan to pay from $25 to $45 or so. Top producers: Frankland Estate, Jim Barry, Leasingham, Mitchell, Penfolds, Petaluma and Grosset.
How to Find Hidden Values
"Ask," says Master Sommelier Shayn Bjornholm of Seattle's Canlis restaurant. "All good lists have values on them. Give the sommelier an idea of your price range and what you like. And don't be intimidated! I love it when people want to talk."
Bargain Burgundy Cheat Sheet
The grand cru vineyards of Burgundy produce some of the greatest, if not the greatest, Pinot Noirs on earth—and they cost more than almost any other wines on earth, too. For value, look to simple Bourgogne rouges from top producers—as well as wines from lesser-known villages like Chorey-lès-Beaune, Monthélie and Maranges. Prices run from $30 to $60, generally speaking. Skip the difficult 2004s and look for 2003s and 2002s from any of these top names:
Advice by the Glass
Nearly 50 percent of the wine sold in U.S. restaurants is by the glass. Here are a few key by-the-glass tips:
Ask for a taste.
An increasing number of restaurants are game to pour a small sample.
Ask when the bottle was opened.
This is particularly important for lists with more than 15 or so by-the-glass choices, and is a good idea in general. If the bottle has been open more than a day, ask if the server or sommelier will uncork a fresh one for you.
Order something unfamiliar.
This is one of the pleasures of wine by the glass. Often sommeliers will put an unusual wine they love on the by-the-glass list, just to get people to try it.
Do the math.
More and more pricey by-the-glass choices are turning up, especially on extensive wine lists. But a $20 glass of red Burgundy might still be a fair deal if it's for a wine that runs $80 or more on the list, since the standard restaurant pour is six ounces, or four glasses per bottle.
Vino by the Quartino
Some restaurants are starting to offer quartinos (or small carafes), which most often hold about a third of a bottle. These decanters allow diners to control how much wine is in the glass, and, because the restaurant pours through bottles more quickly, helps keep wine fresher.
A Wine Bar Short List
The best wine bars offer a wide range of unusual, delicious wines to sample—both by the glass and by the bottle. They also tend to move through wine quickly, helping ensure bottles will be fresh. Our recent favorites:
Eno, a casual wine bar attached to a posh dining room, features more than 80 exotic wines, such as the 2003 Tselepos Moscophilero from Greece. All are available by the taste, glass or bottle. 800 Peachtree St.; 404-685-3191.
The charcuterie-obsessed Butcher Shop (owned by F&W Best New Chef 1996 Barbara Lynch) wine director, Cat Silirie, focuses on unusual artisanal wines from Europe like Leth's 2003 Grüner Veltliner Steinagrund from Austria. 552 Tremont St.; 617-423-4800.
Cova owner Monsterville Horton IV follows one of the latest trends: Any bottle from his adjacent (and very well stocked) wine shop can be ordered in the wine bar for $10 above the retail price. Or go by-the-glass: The list is full of unexpected, appealing bottlings like the oddly named 2004 Sons of Eden Kennedy, a velvety Grenache blend from Australia. 5600 Kirby Dr.; 713-838-0700. 5555 Washington Ave.; 713-868-3366.
NEW YORK CITY
In Vino specializes in southern Italy, which makes sense, as owner Luigi Iasilli was born in Basilicata. The 24 by-the-glass and 186 by-the-bottle choices include plenty of esoteric varieties like Ribolla Gialla, Sagrantino, Lagrein and even a less-obscure Barolo or two. 215 E. 4th St.; 212-539-1011.
Behind the glass garage door at Noble Rot lies a 20-foot-long bar made from a single piece of fir, the perfect place to try one of the 450 bottles or 60-by-the-glass offerings on this impressive list. 2724 SE Ankeny St.; 503-233-1999.
At Bricco, on Queen Anne Hill, locally made cured meats and more than 20 different cheeses pair with a quirky, intelligent list split between wines from Italy and wines from Oregon and Washington. 1525 Queen Anne Ave. N.; 206-285-4900.
FAMOUS PLACES WE ALSO LOVE: Bin 36 (Chicago), AOC (Los Angeles), 'Inoteca (New York City), Bacar (San Francisco), Kazimierz World Wine Bar (Scottsdale, Arizona).
Extensive wine lists often feature older vintages of great wines. How to avoid disappointment:
Ask how the wine has been stored. A wine that hasn't been kept in temperature-controlled storage since its release may be damaged.
Check the house rules. Restaurants sometimes sell older vintages "as is," meaning that even if the wine proves to be past its prime, the customer is still expected to pay for it.
Do some research. Check the restaurant's Web site or ask someone to fax you the wine list. To find reviews of a wine or reports on the vintage, try Googling the wine's name plus the word review or rating.
Sommelier Pet Peeve
"I hate wine lists organized by price. They make people who point to the top of the list look like cheapos," says Chris Goodhart, the wine director at New York City's Balthazar and Pastis.