Wine Wisdom From Top Ranked Restaurants

Source: Shutterstock.

Source: Shutterstock.


Garrett Smith, beverage director at Sushi Nakazawa, New York:  Our list is an interesting one as it contains everything from sake to beer to wine, even teas. Sake and wine are each organized by appellation or prefecture. Prefectures, North to South, and roughly the same with the wines. We moved from a small list containing just countries of origin, organized by price when I first came to the restaurant, to a sort of hybrid. I have the Grand Crus of Chevalier-Montrachet lumped into the Puligny Montrachet section, and Bätard, BBM and Montrachet with the Chassagnes. It gives me a little OCD but my list would break if I added another page.

Jon McDaniel, general manager and wine director at Acanto, Chicago: The Dawson is an interesting place for wine because when we opened up four years ago, it was, and still is, a very cocktail-focused beverage program. Wine is growing more and more in our location because of the shift in how our guests are dining. More and more we’re seeing a younger wine-drinking palate, so our list is organized specifically by price: Great Wines—$44; Greater Wines—$66; Greater-est Wines—$88. (Though we have included a few "baller bottles" to reach above for the connoisseur.)

Justin Lee, beverage director at Atera, New York: Our wine list is organized by region throughout the world, from old to new, north to south. Therefore, terroir plays a big role in our organization. The soil type is naturally integrated into the organization from champagne's chalk soil to Chablis's kimmeridgian soil, down to Burgundy's Limestone and clay soils, all the way down to Beaujolais's Granite backbone.

Michelle Biscieglia, wine director at Blue Hill: The wine list at Blue Hill is organized by style, with categories such as 'aromatic and floral' and 'smooth and earthy.'  Although I'd say that organizing as such is untraditional, it helps to promote wines that would otherwise get lost.  I am able to put a classic Morgon from Beaujolais next to a Blaufrankisch from Austria and a carbonic Listan Negro from the Canary Islands.  Guests who would normally gravitate towards the Beaujolais are often prompted to ask about the other more obscure wines. It makes the list a lot more playful and fun for both the staff and the guests.

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Shelley Lindgren, owner and wine director at SPQR, San Francisco: Our list is follows an all-Italian direction. The way to cover so many regions is to organize by the Roman Roads that exist over the history of the Roman Empire.  This way, we can follow historical routes to cover geographical directions on the list:  Via Appia goes to southern Italy; Via Flaminia heads to Umbria; Via Salaria is the salt route in central Italy towards Le Marche and Abruzzo, Lazio.  

Jennifer Gomez, wine director at The Cavalier, San Francisco: I have fun playing with The Cavalier's theme as a London-inspired brasserie. Here, geography plays a role. We feature a good selection of classic tastes of the British. At one time or another they had strong business and culinary relations in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Portugal and Spain. You will find those on our list.

JM: I organized the list in a way that stripped price out of the equation and really focused on what you feel like drinking tonight. This way our guests can engage in the list a bit more, read our quirky descriptions, and find a wine that truly interests their palate and their wallet.  Our goal is to Make Wine Fun Again!



GS: The only reason my job exists is because everyone has a different palate, and everyone thinks differently. Some are specifically looking for Pinot Noir, love the grape and want to try one they’ve never before experienced. Many want to know what one tastes like, and will often times be looking for an extreme style, as in purely mineral, or big and rich, which pertains to both sake and wine.

JM: Guests at The Dawson respond mostly to buzz words, such as "light-bodied, “ silky," "smooth," and even "blueberries".  Our guests have responded to our staff talking about wine in a way that relates to them, using language, descriptors and flavors that are part of their vocabulary, not sommelier-speak.

JM: When it comes to The Dawson, that bold, rich, powerful aromas of fruit, jamminess, structure, cigar, and spice are what our guests go crazy for.  It is a flavor profile that lends itself towards wines without restraint. Typically wines from classic Old World regions have a long history of bottlings to live up to as to what the wine should taste like, what the tannic structure is, what it represents.

GS: The first thing I think of when I taste a wine is do I even like it? My palate is pretty broad, as long as it doesn’t taste like punishment, I’m usually ok. Then I ask if it has a cool story or history. I don’t want to have the same list as everyone else. But the most important element is if I want to put it next to chef Nakazawa’s food. It’s not just question of pairing, but (and I’m only slightly kidding) if it’s worthy. When I taste a wine or a sake, I want to envision the food and how fantastic it will become with the introduction of this wine or sake.



JL: Our guest is varied and there isn't a grape variety that gravitate to per say. However, we do add more rare grape varieties into our wine pairing menu such as Rotgipfler from Austria to other hidden gems. I alway look for grape varieties that speak of a place, and have authenticity. If I'm selecting a Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, I want it to taste as such, and not a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, and vice versa.  

MB: I think that grape varietal is the easiest route to take when describing a wine.  If I approach a guest who is overwhelmed by the wine list, I like to break it down to the simplest form and ask what they usually drink. Pinot Noir or Cabernet? Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay?  I can then branch off and find them something that maybe isn't the exact grape that they were looking for, but something similar that will hit all of the flavor and body profiles.  It creates a nice dialogue and connection with the guest.

JM: I think of all of these factors that go into creating a wine, our guests respond mostly to the geography. Their familiarity with places like Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, and Marlborough, New Zealand far outweighs appellations in Italy, France, or Spain.  Searching for cool-climate Pinot Noir that gives a great backbone of acid and brighter fruits is very popular with our guests. Our guests gravitate towards warm-climate wines.  They love wines with a bit of juiciness, plushness, and power that you get from ripe fruit in a warm-climate.  

SL: It has been the most exciting to see the regional appreciation of food and wine take place at SPQR. Even though we have Nebbiolo and Sangiovese represented and valued on our wine list, you might be equally guided to try a lesser known red from Piedmont like Pelaverga, Freisa or maybe a Nebbiolo from Alta Piemonte in areas like Gattinara or Ghemme. Nebbiolo selections have grown over the years so that part is broken up into sub-regions like Barolo and Alta Piemonte, etc.            

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GS: I think both looking at wine that reflect a particular flavor profile and which preserve the characteristics of the place are interesting, but can be muddied. I know one pair of winemakers, friends, who have polarizing views. One has vineyards that are spread more than one thousand miles apart, but he makes every one of his wines the same fashion, in his mind allowing the terroir to shine through. The other winemaker makes wines from within about a 100 mile radius, but feels that every site determines itself how it should be treated, as a unique terroir. I think too often we are looking for a right or wrong answer, when all we should be offering is instead an opinion. Every palate is different, of the winemaker all the way down to the customers and everyone in between.

MB: I always want a sense of place in wines that I'm tasting. That is what will define the flavor profile in the end.  A Grenache/Syrah blend from Châteuneuf-du-Pape will almost always fall into the 'ripe and luscious' category on the list.  There are plenty that are full and fruity, but there are also plenty that are fruity with stony minerality, classic southern Rhône mossy flavors and a nice savory quality to them.  It's what the region is about, so I want to be able to taste that in the wine.

JG: I’m looking for wines that have their structural components in balance. I want the wines that keep the integrity of their region of origin.



MB: We don’t intentionally list our wines by terroir but often I find the wines will naturally fall that way since we organize by style. Tradition and terroir will alway lead the style. A Muscadet and a Village Chablis will be on the same page. Pinot Noir on limestone, whether it's from Burgundy, Price Edward County, or California, will all be on the same page. A Fiano di Avellino grown on volcanic soil will be right next to an Assyrtiko from the volcanic island of Santorini. It always just happens on its own!  

MB: Ultimately, geography, climate, and soil variety play the biggest role in the wines that I choose.  I have a particular underlying theme in all of the wines on the list: balance. I often don't look at price or the stories behind the wines until after I've tasted them. If geography, climate and soil come together symbiotically in the wine, the result is going to be a balanced wine that lets the region speak for itself. Burgundy should taste like Burgundy; Sonoma should taste like Sonoma. If one of the components of terroir is masked by too much extraction or too much oak, then it can be tasted. The best winemakers let the grapes speak for themselves.

SL: We look for particular flavors and geographical characteristics. There are whites, for example like Fiano di Avellino, that have a distinct level of complexity from terroir, inherent acidity and texture that we really hope our guests experience from the grape.  Offering wines that we revere helps us match it with our food and the overall experience at SPQR and feel as though we are representing the quality of grapes as best we can.

GS: I try to learn as much as I can about the wine so I can introduce it to the staff and guests, and give them an idea where it comes from, and what lends certain character to it. And that’s really where soil and climate come in.  I’m not putting Klaus Peter Keller’s Limestone Riesling on the list because it comes from Limestone soils, but merely because it’s delicious, and will light that Scallop with Yuzu pepper on fire! Of course, the Limestone has generated that brightness and charged the floral tones more.