Wine Lists of Intrigue and Value
An eye-opening wine pairing can make a dinner transcendent, but the experience of poring over a jumbled wine list of predictable bottles takes that sublime steak down a notch.
Today’s savvy sommeliers know that it’s a delicate balancing act to unite in a single list the quality benchmark producers with relatively unknown winemakers from far-flung, family-run vineyards. But when somms succeed, they can produce a list rife with intrigue and value.
Among the myriad of restaurants that opened nationally in 2013, many had wine lists that caught our attention. The following ten may not reflect the most exhaustive cellars in the country (who wants to flip through a formal 80-page tome, anyway?), but they’re chock full of selections thoughtful somms can stand behind.
Pearl and Ash
220 Bowery, New York, 212-837-2370
Tightly-edited wine lists are the norm at hip downtown New York restaurants, so wine director Patrick Cappiello’s 1,000-bottle collection at Pearl & Ash is all the more brazen. “Our goal is to provide a wine list with a breadth of producers and depth of vintages, in classic and emerging wine regions,” says Cappiello. “The wines we select are often small-production, handcrafted, and in many cases employ organic farming methods. We are committed to prices that use low markups; we want to share our love of wine with others and make them accessible to everyone’s budget.” France gets most of the attention here, primarily Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne, but the list is decidedly global—all the better to wash down chef Richard Kuo’s tea-cured salmon with goat cheese, tamarind, and seaweed, or shiitake and bonito pork meatballs.
French connection: The wide-ranging list means the opportunity to sample curious choices like the Lilbert-Fils Cramant Brut Blanc de Blancs, the 2011 Lucien Crochet Sancerre “La Croix du Roy,” and the 2011 Fleurie Domaine des Terres Dorées by Jean-Paul Brun.
544 King Street, Charleston, 843-414-7060
Normally, a crisp white wine is all we need to kick back at an oyster shrine, but the list general manager and beverage director Justin Coleman cobbled together at The Ordinary—Mike Lata of FIG fame’s second eatery—offers plenty of interesting company for the dramatic shellfish towers and BBQ white shrimp with charred bread. Sixteen by-the-glass offerings mean introductory bubbles should pave the way for must-have whites including the 2012 Alzinger Grüner Veltliner from Wachau, Austria, and the 2012 Château Musar Viognier-Vermentino-Chardonnay blend “Jeune” from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley
Seeing Red: Although seafood suggests delicate white wines, Coleman’s list flaunts numerous red options such as the López de Heredia’s 2003 Tempranillo-Garnacha-Mazuelo-Graciano blend “Viña Bosconia” from Rioja.
1734 North Street NW, Washington, D.C., 202-524-5202
The revamp of historic Dupont Circle restaurant Iron Gate has ushered in seasonal-driven four-and six-course tasting menus in which diners share plates like Tony Chittum’s garlic-crusted rockfish and carrot-accented veal sweetbreads. For $35 and $45, young, on-the-rise wine director Brent Kroll, who oversees the whole Neighborhood Restaurant Group portfolio, will open bottles of surprising finds, including the Calabrian 2012 Librandi Greco Bianco “Cirò,” to pair with the dishes. Kroll’s inspiration: “Highlighting an authentic experience with beverages that echo the chef’s food.”
Easy to Read: Kroll’s wine list is at once informative and clever, integrating descriptions like “fruity, ripe, tannic” and “earthy, spiced, complex” to help sway imbibers. Kroll’s first sommelier gig was at an Italian restaurant, and that long-lasting love translates to the menu, much of which is devoted to wines like a 2010 Argiolas Cannonau “Costera” from Sardinia. Drawing inspiration from Kroll’s travels to Greece, the list also flaunts a heady array of indigenous options, including the 2011 Gentilini Robola Cephalonia from the Ionian Islands, rounded out by bottles from up-and-coming regions like Portugal and Croatia.
47 E. Houston Street, New York, 212-219-7693
Small, crowded Estela, in New York’s Nolita neighborhood, lures in diners for chef Ignacio Mattos’s food—sunchoke chip-strewn beef tartare and calamari a la plancha laced with aji blanco and squid ink are among the inventive plates. To serve as fitting companion to the ingredient-focused cooking, partner and wine director Thomas Carter, a Blue Hill at Stone Barns vet, dreamed up a mighty wine list that belies the restaurant’s size. Although it skews French, with bottles like a 2008 Léon Barral Jadis Faugères from Languedoc-Rouissillon, wines from Austria, Germany, Spain, and Italy all make significant appearances, too—there’s a reasonably priced 2008 Cascina Fontana Barolo, for example. The common thread between them all, says Carter, is that they are farmer-driven producers. His focus is on wines “that are made in the vineyard.”
Wine for One: Solo sippers in search of post-work refreshment can head to the bar and make the acquaintance of the 2012 German Blauschiefer Riesling Trocken—one of Carter’s 14-by-the-glass standouts—without splurging on a bottle.
716 N. Highland Avenue, Los Angeles, email@example.com
In order to dine at Trois Mec—the Hollywood hotspot from Ludo Lefebvre, Jon Shook, and Vinny Dotolo—one needs a ticket that goes on sale two weeks prior. This coveted entrée into the petite-sized dining room leads to dishes such as grilled cabbage with smoked almond milk Anglaise, miso flan, and fennel pollen, as well as duck with endive, duck skin puree, candied orange, and sweet clover. Oenophiles can heighten the experience with either the traditional $49 wine pairing or the $79 reserve one. General manager and sommelier Adam Vourvoulis tries not to order the same wine twice. “That way there is always something new,” he says. “Of course if it’s really good I’ll order as much as I can.”
It’s All French to Me: Vourvoulis’s list is completely French, with a strong focus on Burgundy as a nod to Chablis-bred Lefebvre. Gems include the 2011 Domaine Philippe Gilbert Menetou-Salon, 2011 Pierre Morey Monthelie, and 2011 Domaine Tempier Bandol.
1300 Battery Street, San Francisco, 415-982-2000
California-made wines often carve big dents in the nations’ wine lists, but when San Francisco’s iconic Fog City Diner on the Embarcadero shed its tired, themed guise and morphed into the sleek Fog City, Gregory Altzman insisted that the wine list—aside from Champagne—be entirely Californian. “I knew we were going to source kitchen ingredients from as close to home as possible, and felt the same about the wine,” he says. Beyond bottles of 2012 Honig Sauvignon Blanc and Joel Gott’s 815 Napa Valley, the 15 by-the-glass selections are all served on tap to emphasize freshness, and naturally in this eco-conscious city, to cut down on pollution, too.
Non-Traditional California: Altzman aims to shed light on a range of California appellations, producers, and varieties, including the unexpected, like wines from Lompoc-based Palmina, which makes Tempranillo, Dolcetto, and Grüner Veltliner. “These wines are fun, as they often express themselves in a more ‘California’ style than they do in their countries of origin. I also made sure to include my passion for blends,” Altzman points out, “like the Sean Thackrey Pleiades.”
1015 N. Rush Street, Chicago, 312-994-7100
The newest project from One Off Hospitality Group—Nico Osteria, inside the Thompson Chicago hotel—gives prolific chef Paul Kahan another genre in which to show off his culinary chops: Italian seafood. To go along with the Banyuls vinegar and crispy potato-dressed kanpachi crudo and pine nut-studded squid ink bucatini, wine director Bret Heiar sought out bottles that “were friends with the food; not competitors.” This means diners may begin their journey perched at the bar of the open kitchen with a Cavicchioli Lambrusco from Emilia Romagna in hand, followed by something Greek, such as a 2012 Skouras Moschofilero Peloponnese.
Discovering Italy: Heiar’s objective is putting wines that “highlight the place it was grown” front and center. He especially likes turning diners on to Italian varieties they may not normally consider, including the 2010 Nero d’Avola/Frappato Cos Cerasuolo Di Vittoria from Sicily.
The Kirkland Tap & Trotter
425 Washington Street, Somerville, Massachusetts, 857-259-6585
The food at Tony Maws’s first restaurant, Craigie on Main in Cambridge, is often celebrated for its unusual wine pairings. For his second venture—the casual Kirkland Tap & Trotter in Somerville—Carl York and Nick Forrester have woven together a small but equally playful list that abides by four criteria: “Wines made by real people for real people, that are delicious with an excellent quality to price ratio, that we would want to drink with our food, and that stay true to character.” Adds York, “Riesling needs to taste like Riesling.” Among those wines that made the cut: The 2012 Giuseppe Mascarello Dolcetto from Piemonte and the 2011 Antoine Jobard Aligoté from Burgundy.
Eat and Drink This: Hearty red wine-braised short rib and celery root mash with the powerful Aldo Rainoldi Nebbiolo.
2200 Post Oak Boulevard, Houston, 713-993-9898
At Osteria Mazzantini, Samantha Porter’s bold, Italian-heavy wine list—which gives shout-outs to both naturally made wines and those crafted by women—is meant as a companion for John Sheely’s pancetta bucatini and quail and poached pear risotto. The list is filled with colorful stories: A trip to Italy that inspired her extensive by-the-glass roster, her initial skepticism of the Coravin Wine System, and an ode to the oft-forgotten Malvasia grape. All that engaging dialogue encourages diners to spring for unpredictable bottles, like the 2010 Picollo Gavi di Gavi from Piemonte or the 2010 Tenuta Delle Terre Nere Rosso “Prephylloxera.” “I wanted to create a list that lends a sense of ease and curiosity to the guest while also exposing them to the obscure and funky options Italy has to offer,” Porter says.
Favorite Pairing: The Ronchi di Cialla Schioppettino Colli Orientali del Friuli Cialla with gnocchi di funghi. “Schioppettino is a wonderfully juicy wine with balanced acidity, dusty minerality, and a spiciness similar to white pepper,” says Porter. “The earthiness of the mushrooms and the pillow-like gnocchi are matched with enough acidity to cut through a rich dish.”
2448 E. Burnside Street, Portland, Oregon, 503-954-2322
The hearth at Levant is the centerpiece of this French-Arabesque restaurant where chef-owner Scott Snyder turns out dishes laden with bright Middle Eastern and North African spices. Brent Braun and Christopher Sky Westmoreland have assembled a vast wine list to complement red Fresno chili, scallion, preserved lime, and honey-spiked roasted yams, as well as cilantro-seared scallops with mashed red lentils, savoy cabbage, and pine nut-caper relish. Peppered with half and large-format bottles, the list nods to classic regions (like Riecine Chianti Classico from Tuscany), geeks out over lush Pinot Noir made in the nearby Willamette Valley, and highlights plentiful offbeat Mediterranean picks, such as Kir-Yianni’s Xinomavro “Ramnista” from Naoussa. “Greek wines don’t get a lot of love, but they work really well with our food,” says Braun.
Somms’ pick: Mas Jullien Coteaux du Languedoc Rouge “Les Etats d’Ame,” a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, and, in some years, a touch of Carignan. “This is one of our favorite Languedoc producers,” says Braun. “His wines have Bordeaux-type structure with classic Languedoc garrigue flavor profiles.”