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Drinking Out Loud

How to Go Right—and Wrong—with a Restaurant Wine List

Wine lists are minefields. Do you know how to pick your way through?

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 18, 2014

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.

Ricardo A Maduro
Panama —  February 18, 2014 12:00pm ET
Excellent recommendations..!
Will try them all - Hungarian first - Thank you.
Randall Rae
Vancouver —  February 18, 2014 1:32pm ET
I am always inspired by your joy of wine and the people and regions that each represents. Thank you for your continued contributions to our reading enjoyment!
Don Clemens
Elgin, IL, USA —  February 18, 2014 3:14pm ET
Great post, Matt! As a former beverage director/sommelier, I really appreciated your noting that we really LIKE to offer something unique. And when we do that, it is very likely going to be a very good example of that type of wine.
Scott Creasman
Atlanta, GA —  February 18, 2014 4:37pm ET
Great article. Even at many prestige restaurants, unless you are at a place that has been around for a long time, the big Cali cabs and Bordeaux's on list aren't ready to drink in addition to being high priced. To your point about Loire, Chinon/Cab Franc is one my go-to red wines, especially when the list is crazy expensive. It is usually very food friendly and while I don't know a ton about the producers, but as mentioned, there is usually only one on the list so the buyer must have liked it. I also look for Allegrini as a producer; usually great quality for the price (not from status areas of Tuscany or Piedmont), made in enough quantity that many places have it, and also tends to be food friendly and approachable at younger ages.
Benoit Souligny
quebec canada —  February 18, 2014 4:58pm ET
cahors often have great wines at small prices, entry level douro reds from good companies are my favorite treasures on wine lists(crasto,de la rosa,vallado...)
Wilson Mctavish Zildjian
Castine, Maine —  February 18, 2014 7:49pm ET
Excellent article, Matt! I have been enjoying the Greek and Spanish whites as my own personal secret. I will look into Hungarian whites, and revisit Cru Beaujolais, thanks to your insights here.
One way I have been able to find red wines in a restaurant that are not too young to drink is to look for Rioja. Even the crianzas are often ready to try, as well as being reasonably priced.
Richard Moreland
MIlford, MI —  February 18, 2014 9:11pm ET
Funny you mentioned Verdejo, as I am enjoying a revelation of a wine from Jorge Ordonez that set me back a cool $12. If I saw this on a restaurant wine list for $25, I'd be doing backflips.
John Wilen
Texas —  February 18, 2014 9:34pm ET
This post further supports the retailer's old wine axiom: "It’s easier to get rid of a case of syphilis than it is to get rid of a case of California Syrah…"
Pamela Heiligenthal
Willamette Valley, OR —  February 18, 2014 9:43pm ET
Love the recos Matt. Another suggestion--Ask the Somm to recommend his/her diamond in the rough...they all have them and you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Ron Brooks
Alexandria VA —  February 20, 2014 9:23am ET
Another great white wine to seek out is Istrian Malvasia; aromatic, rich and bone dry and will probably set you back $40.00. I like the one from Bruno Trapan.
Bill Matarese
Florida, USA —  February 20, 2014 11:54am ET
Spot on Matt! And I am glad that you mentioned New Zealand at the end of the article. So many of the Marlborough Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs are truly excellent and incredible bargains to boot!
Joe Dekeyser
Waukesha, WI USA —  February 20, 2014 3:36pm ET

Also good buys for German rieslings.
Ron Lippitt
warwick' RI USA —  February 22, 2014 2:19pm ET
The last few vintages of Bandol have been excellent. Also some of the lesser known Bolgheri reds are usually a great deal.

Andrea Mitroff
Lafayette, CA USA —  February 23, 2014 3:59pm ET
Have had dry Furmint Kiralyudvar and Royal Tokaj Wine Co.

Great values!
Christopher Ivey
Chicago, IL —  February 24, 2014 11:10am ET
Sicily, particularly Cornelissen and Occhipinti.
Sardinian vermentino is great but northern Tuscany is doing more food-versatile ones right now. Great depth.
Corsica, I think, is about to explode, both red and white.
Portuguese whites, whether it's Douro blends, anything made with Síria, Loureiro or 100% Alvarinho (and more) are delicious and still utterly cheap.
Washington reds, with their balance between New World freshness and Old World complexity/mystery, are always worth it.
Californian wineries messing around with rare grapes (for California) have been pumping out distinctive wines from Trousseau, Torrontés, Malvasia, and so many more. Most would be under $90 on lists.
There's something possibly special going on in Rioja right now at a hyper-local level. A real experimentation with reds and whites that haven't been really exported in the U.S. Tiny wineries are bucking Rioja tradition and making reds using carbonic maceration and clay. And whites are emphasizing their freshness and acidic snap more. Could be the region's new direction. Or at least offer some real diversity.
Daniel Davis
New Orleans, LA, USA —  February 24, 2014 2:30pm ET
Great advice! And, as one who writes one of these necessarily-complex wine lists, I can attest to the truth of each of your points. Very well done. (Now stop cherry-picking my Cru Beaujolais!)
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  February 24, 2014 2:58pm ET
Thank you, Mr. Davis. I'll see if I can restrain myself.

(By the way, Mr. Davis--whom I do not know personally--is the sommelier at the famous Commander's Palace restaurant in New Orleans, which won a Wine Spectator Grand Award in 2012. He was interviewed this past December by Wine Spectator's Lizzie Munro: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/49362)
Timothy Morton
Seattle, WA —  March 4, 2014 2:12pm ET
Washington wines are the unsung heroes. I am continually amazed theses wines are not offered on restaurant wine lists.
Also, this region of the country is always dark and dreary, not a very attractive place to visit or live.
Bill Stell
Greenville, SC —  April 12, 2014 6:07pm ET
This also explains why most retail employee's prefer to bring their own bottles to restraurants. When you KNOW the actual price it is difficult to pay restraurant prices. Although Southern Italy and Spain do offer great values.

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