Allow me to be blunt: Restaurant wine lists are tricky, even treacherous. Only rarely can you describe a restaurant wine list as either instructive or intuitive.
Now, maybe such a list is impossible. Wine and its inherent complexities—grape variety, site, producer, vintage, winemaking technique—may simply overwhelm all attempts at useful simplification. I'm prepared to accept that, although I have to confess that I don't believe it.
I've opined before (and I have no desire to belabor it again) that, really, almost nothing has changed in how wines are presented to us on restaurant lists. As it was in 1914, so it is today: the same dry price sheet that's comprehensible only to initiates of the freemasonry of the Wine Mysteries.
So what's a normal person to do? The trick, as I see it, is to recognize that every restaurant wine list, no matter how high-minded or well-intentioned, necessarily answers to its restaurant's needs.
Look at it from their point of view. Let's say that you're a high-end establishment. That means you've got a steady stream of Big Bucks (and their expense accounts) who want or need to impress their clients. They're not interested in a geeky little Loire red that sells, even at three times cost, for $65 on the list.
Big Bucks—gender is irrelevant—are looking for a Statement Wine. So we're talking Napa. Or Bordeaux. Or a grand cru Burgundy. (Barolo would be a risky walk on the wine high-wire, given the client-might-hate-it flavor particularity of Nebbiolo.) Price is almost irrelevant; Statement is everything.
Now, more normal sorts, who are spending their own hard-earned money, would be crazy to buy such wines off a restaurant list; they're not meant for your real-world dollars.
Wine directors at high-end restaurants know this. And they're neither insensitive nor arrogant. That's why they truffle their lists with what might be called Treasure Wines, little-known gems that are a discreet, we-know-you're-here wink to you and me. Every truly good wine list, no matter how high-end, has such wines.
What are they? Actually, they're not at all hard to spot. Price is the easiest indicator. They're always among the less-expensive wines on the list. But they're not necessarily the absolutely cheapest wines on the list, although that's certainly possible. (I still remember ordering at Gramercy Tavern in New York the obscure but delicious red Loire wine called Hého Le Rouge from Domaine Les Hautes Noëlles. At $24 a bottle, it was easily the cheapest red on the list. It was so tasty that I bought a case after I returned home.)
But price isn't the sole feature. It's just a way of winnowing the possibilities. Simply choosing the least expensive wines on a list doesn't automatically secure you the best deals, or even the most interesting or most daring wines.
After all, some customers just want cheap and they don't care about quality. You're the wine director. You shrug and give 'em what they want—namely, familiar bread-and-butter bottles that are always in stock from the distributor and that make these customers happy. Those wines aren't for, ahem, us.
So what are the Treasure Wines? Doubtless you have your own candidates, but here's where I dig:
Hungarian Whites. This may seem an odd category. How many folks know about Hungarian wines? What's more, a lot of Hungary's wines are still works in progress, especially the reds.
But here's the trick: If you see a Hungarian white on the list at a good restaurant it's almost guaranteed to be exceptional. Why? Precisely because it's not a gotta-have-it, high-demand item, a Hungarian white will be on the list because the wine director fell in love with it. Chances are it will be a dry Furmint from Hungary's famous Tokaj district. Or if you're really lucky, it will be the great dry white called Juhfark (which is a grape variety) from the tiny Somló zone.
Spanish Whites. This may seem an overly broad category, but I assure you that choosing a Spanish white is one of the slickest tricks up your sleeve in today's pricey restaurant wine game.
You may be surprised to learn that Spain grows more white grapes than it does red. And, as Spain has radically modernized its winemaking in the past 20 years, nearly all Spanish whites made today are clean, fresh-tasting, savory and often oak-free.
On top of that, you get the deliciousness of unique white grape varieties such as Godello (my favorite; I've never met one I haven't liked), Verdejo, Viura (also known as Macabeo), Albariño, Hondarabbi Zuri (the grape used in the Basque country for the wine called Txakoli) and Treixadura, among many others.
Greek Wines. Now here's a sleeper category. It used to be that because of Greek restaurants there was always a supply of dull, oxidized, utterly uninteresting Greek wines on the market. Some of them were unforgettably bad. Forget them.
I can guarantee you that any ambitious restaurant list—never mind whether it's a Greek restaurant or not—will now be offering Greek whites and reds that will change your mind (and palate) forever about Greece and its wines. Really, it's been a revolution.
As with Spain, not only has the winemaking modernized but here again you get the uniqueness of indigenous varieties, such as the white grapes Assyrtiko and Moschofilero and red varieties such as Agiorghitiko, Xinomavro and Mavrodaphne, among many others. Never heard of these? You're in good company. Go for it. You'll be impressed with the refinement and originality.
Cru Beaujolais. It can't last forever, but cru Beaujolais—those 10 districts that comprise the best zones in the large Beaujolais region—offer some of the greatest restaurant red wine deals, full stop. Sommeliers are (rightly) in love with cru Beaujolais, and they now avidly seek the top producers. Yet prices remain depressed, relative to the soaring quality of the best bottlings. Personally, these are the first wines I look for on restaurant lists.
California Syrah. There's no justice in the world, and California Syrah producers will be happy to tell you all about it. The short version of the story is that just when California planted all sorts of wonderful new cool-climate clones of Syrah in the 1990s, America fell in love with Pinot Noir. So what should have been a triumph instead became a drag on profits.
Today, only the truly committed remain. And they are offering wonderful wines, truly some of the best Syrahs made anywhere in the world. California Syrah is arguably the best quality-wine bargain in a state not exactly known for deals. If you're getting a steak, you ought to be looking at a California Syrah.
I could keep going, but you get the picture. Other candidates, anyone? New Zealand wines (especially the reds)? Austrian Blaufränkisch? Australian dry Riesling from Clare and Eden valleys. (Yes! Yes!) Cast your votes here for restaurant wine list treasures.