Most Wanted Wines

Jeffery Lindenmuth - January/February 2006

Jeffery Lindemuth sifts through some nationwide pollings in pursuit of best sellers and list trends.

Restaurants remain the primary testing grounds for new wine brands, upcoming grapes, breakout regions—with hands-on wine directors running nightly experiments in public opinion. Unlike impartial scientists, however, the men and women formulating these vibrant restaurant wine programs are not opposed to influencing outcome, reconfiguring the tastes of a growing nation of wine lovers.

At restaurants like Press in St. Helena, California, local wine is a house imperative, with only Napa Valley labels reflected on the list. But throughout the country, diners increasingly prefer that their wine, like their field greens and their fillets, grows close to home. At Rovers in Seattle, manager/sommelier Cyril Frechier counts several Washington wines among his best sellers. "Obviously the rise in Walla Walla and Eastern Washington was so fast-growing partly due to the support from restaurants." And even as far afield as Virginia and New York State it seems, now, we all live in wine country.

Another recurring theme, especially with Nuevo Latino cuisine, is what we might dub the Spanish Empire list. It exploits the precipitous rise in quality in Spain, Chile, and Argentina. And at Philadelphia's ¡Pasión! even California makes the cut, albeit not in a nod to the Franciscan fathers. "With so many wines from South America and Spain on the list, California is helpful because consumers are still more comfortable seeing some names they recognize," says owner Michael Dombkoski, who has his list covered with a range from crisp white Albariños from Rias Baixas to inky Carmenères from Chile.

California, along with Oregon, also represents a means of sating America's frenzy for the new it-grape: "Pinot is selling like crazy," says Dombkoski. "David Bruce Pinot Noir is an excellent wine, but does everyone need to drink it every night?" echoes Brit Gildersleeve, beverage director at the recently opened Scott Howard in San Francisco. But even as our penchant for Pinot makes it the new default wine, "They're going for the domestic, big, juicy Pinot Noirs," says Gildersleeve, who also notes that international Rhône varietals, including Syrah from France, Australia, Russian River Valley, and Sicily, are house favorites.

Following are more peeks into the petri dishes of wine programs around the country, to determine which are their current best sellers and discernible up-and-comers.