The Boston Phoenix
April 27 - May 4, 2000


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Boston's best wine lists

by Thor Iverson

"There's nothing here I want to drink!" I was having lunch with a friend at a downtown restaurant, one with a reputation for the quality of its wine list. But the list had changed so dramatically that there was no longer a single wine on it that interested us. Thus, my complaint. Neither of us has returned to that restaurant since.

It's no secret that interest in wine is exploding. Perhaps the only thing outstripping it is the pace of new restaurant openings in Boston. These two parallel trends have wine lovers wondering where they should spend their money. Which restaurants have the best wine lists? And what makes a restaurant's wine list great?

My criteria might be different from others'. But I've decided on six key factors that separate the cream from the skim:

Originality. This doesn't mean that all the wines have to be obscurities from Tasmania, Uruguay, and Idaho, nor does it mean that the list has to be unique. It means no wholesaler-written lists loaded up with "sure sellers," and it means no rote presentations of famous names. A list should reflect the personality of the restaurant, and should present the curious diner with something new and interesting. A list should speak with its own voice, not that of United Liquors or the Wine Spectator.

Compatibility. California cabernets, merlots, and chardonnays should not be on the wine list at a Spanish tapas joint. Likewise, Provençal wines do not belong in an Alsatian restaurant. And a special complaint here in New England: seafood restaurants should chuck their big and heavy red wines in favor of fish-friendly whites from France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the coastal vineyards of New England. In general, wines should complement the food with which they'll be served.

Depth. Too many lists have a "two Riojas, four Chiantis, check . . . now we need three zinfandels" feel to them. Good wine lists look beyond the obvious. It's great to have big-name Bordeaux, but how about some value Bordeaux from obscure appellations? How about white Bordeaux? Rather than Napa cabernets, why not some from the Santa Cruz Mountains? Rather than loading up a list with merlots, why not make a specialty of a lesser-known grape such as cabernet franc? Furthermore, all truly great wine lists have vintage depth; older wines are available for those who don't like to commit vinous infanticide.

Length. Wine novellas are not required; über-lists like the Federalist's say more about the economic boom than they do about wine. But the dedication required to do an excellent short list is almost unheard-of in the restaurant biz. (Among those making efforts to pursue shortlist excellence, Silvertone and, to a lesser extent, Butterfish are worthy of note.)

Price. It is accepted in the restaurant industry that extreme mark-ups on beverages (water, soda, wine, beer, and liquor) keep food prices down. Nearly everybody does it. Well, the time of wine lovers' funding everyone else's dining must come to an end. There is simply no excuse for the high (often 200 percent to 350 percent more than retail) mark-ups that are the norm in restaurants. This does not mean that a list should be loaded up with cheap wines, but it does mean that wines both at the lower end (usually the ones that suffer the worst mark-ups) and at the high end must be enticingly priced. No one in Boston did this better than the recently closed Uva.

Support. The best list in the world is useless without a restaurant that cares. There should be a wine expert on the floor at all times, and the waitstaff should be well trained. Stemware should be high-quality and clean, wines should be stored and served at the proper temperature, and decanting should be second nature. And there's no excuse for more than one or two sold-out wines; if it means a less ornate wine list, then so be it. By-the-glass and half-bottle selections that go beyond the usual chardonnay/merlot norm are also a huge plus.

Using these criteria, I've put together a list of restaurants with superlative wine lists. In addition, I've added a personal restriction: to include a restaurant, I must have eaten there -- on my own dime, not as a guest for a wine event. This kept two likely contenders -- Waltham's Campania and Newton's Lumière -- from inclusion, but they very well might appear on a future list. Anyway, enough build-up . . . here's the list:

1) The wine list at Les Zygomates is long, but considering that almost everything is available in two different tasting portions, few restaurants offer as many wine options as this Leather District outpost. And very few people work as hard as Lorenzo Savona at finding new and interesting wines and presenting them to diners in a fun and rewarding atmosphere. Trophies and hidden gems exist for the fanatics, but what sets Les Zygomates' list apart is the respect and attention shown to novice and amateur wine enthusiasts.

2) Though it's in the suburbs, in-the-know wine lovers make a destination of Waltham's Il Capriccio. The almost exclusively Italian wine list (with some interesting additions from elsewhere) is a masterwork of diversity and detail. Jeanne Rogers is one of Boston's acknowledged Italian wine gurus, and her helpful comments are sprinkled throughout the full wine list. But it is the constantly changing short list, a menu insert with full descriptions of a few wines Rogers recommends to uncertain diners, that puts Il Capriccio in the vinous stratosphere.

3) The presence of the Blue Room on this list may surprise some people. But the wine list was one of the first in the area to group wines not by country or appellation but by style, certainly the most approachable and friendly way to introduce wine to those who (unlike our European brethren) haven't been aware of the differences between Musigny and Montagny since birth. Deanna Briggs removes "hot" wines in favor of her next exciting discovery, which keeps the list active and promotes exploration on the part of diners. It works.

4) Charles Draghi is one of the best chefs in the city, with a relentless approach to innovation that rubs off on his wine list (which he also constructs). Marcuccio's not only has an all-Italian wine list, but also consciously avoids the tried-and-true names and appellations in favor of real finds from the most obscure villages and hillsides. His training program for his waitstaff is unparalleled, though Draghi himself often visits tables to discuss wine choices, and his wine-tasting dinners (call and ask for one) are legendary.

5) Unlike Briggs and Draghi, No. 9 Park's wine guru Cat Silirie keeps a fairly high profile on the Boston oenophile scene. As well she should, because her years of experience are paying off at this trendy Beacon Hill location. Silirie doesn't shy away from well-known wines such as Burgundy, but she does dig deep for the undiscovered treasures that reward patient search. And remarkably for such an upscale restaurant, she fills every price category with good values. An excellently trained staff puts the finishing touch on one of Boston's best wine programs.

Honorable mentions go to restaurants (or restaurant groups) that have good, often excellent, wine programs but don't quite reach the heights of the five mentioned above: Dalí/Tapéo, Torch, Icarus, Elephant Walk/Carambola, Clio, Hamersley's Bistro, La Bettola, Olives, and Truc.

Finally, there are a few conspicuous absences on this list. For example, Aquitaine has an interesting list, but it continues to ruin bottles by baking them in too-hot storage areas. The Vault has discarded the last vestiges of an excellent list and replaced them with a ridiculous (but long) selection of mediocre and indifferent wines. Because the Vault has long been hailed as one of Boston's premier wine destinations (by me, among many others), this is a real shame. And the Federalist remains an expense-account wet dream that shows absolutely zero interest in the wines themselves, but only in their names and value as commodities.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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