Melissa Hom
At Alto, value characterizes much of Eric Zillier's mostly Italian wine list.
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Prize Pourfolios

Jeffery Lindenmuth / January 2009

Jeffery Lindenmuth prods awarded wine directors about the care and feeding of their winning lists.

Great wine lists are ephemeral things. By nature, wine changes with each year's passage: old vintages fade away, winemakers come and go, new regions emerge, tastes change. Without constant nurturing even the best conceived lists would inevitably wither away. So, for these wine directors with awarded lists, bringing home the prize is no license to loll on the laurels but a challenge to keep in step with global harvests, stay in sync with patron preferences, and rally for their inventive chefs.

John Ragan is the wine director at Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, honored with Wine Spectator's Best of Award of Excellence 2008, The James Beard Foundation's Waterford Crystal Wine Service Award 2008, and recently designated a Relais & Châteaux U.S. Grand Chef property. In evaluating opportunities to expand his list brimming with coveted Burgundies, Ragan says that in 2009 he'll not only remain focused on wines that best represent their origin and a sense of place but also capitalize on vintage opportunities. "As far as blue-chip wines are concerned, I think this is an important time in Piedmont, with 2004 and 2005 coming out. Wines from the Loire 2005 are also very attractive, combining a watershed vintage with great pricing. When you see vintages like these," Ragan insists, "you need to take a stance on them."

Ragan also trains an eye on the increasing quality and overall food-friendliness of Swiss wines, which he says show great potential with Swiss born chef Daniel Humm's menu. "Maybe it's partly attributable to global warming, but Switzerland, Jura, Savoie—that whole Swiss-French neighborhood—is having a little Renaissance."

Alto, also in Manhattan, was newly welcomed into the elite company of Wine Spectator Grand Award winners in 2008 under the stewardship of wine director Eric Zillier, who has amassed a list of over 2,300 wines, with northern Italy as its focal point. That said, Zillier captivates with lengthy lists of Burgundy and Bordeaux and maintains his mission for the coming year is the same as ever: "Without value you have nothing. On the surface, anyone can have the greatest wine list in the world. I want to present value at every level."

In pursuing his passion for northern Italy, Zillier says he's most interested in expanding Alto's selection of Valtellina, the Nebbiolo-based wines of Lombardy. "These wines are the unsung hero of Italian reds, but can be difficult to source. There's a hearty element to our food that you also find in the grape, yet these wines are approachable, structured, and incredible with food." With the arrival of executive chef/partner Michael White, Zillier has been quick to react to White's more southerly Italian slant. "Since Michael came on board, Campania, both whites and reds, has grown on the list, and my interest has increased as well. With his passion for seafood and his menu, they play very well into the program, and you'll see them continue to grow," says Zillier, also noting that Falanghina, a regional white grape, is a personal favorite match with raw seafood items.

In Washington, D.C., at Michel Richard's Citronelle, sommelier/bar manager Mark Slater, who brought home the James Beard Waterford Crystal Wine Service Award in 2007, says, "The word for the coming year is ‘caution.' I don't have plans to do a lot of expansion of the list." Still, this cautious investor is prepared to make Buffett-like bets when top wines hit his strike price. "I tend to play only with classified Bordeaux, and the big news is that the prices of all Bordeaux are falling. Even the prices of the 2005s are down 20 percent from their highs. I'm watching and waiting for them to come down to a rational price." To improve his bottom-line pricing for patrons, he also intends to make as many importer-distributor purchases as possible, continuing to "avoid the three-tier system wherever possible."

According to Slater, the menu remains a driving force for change on the wine list, whether it's the arrival of seasonal foods or Richard's exploration of new techniques. "The menu is what really keeps things interesting and inspires me. I often introduce wines specifically for the tasting menu, which then feed the by-the-glass and bottle list."

At Picasso at the Bellagio (Las Vegas), which won the Wine Spectator Grand Award 2008, head sommelier Robert Smith is respectful of executive chef Julian Serrano's wishes. "He told me we should be simple, elegant, and clean," a tall order for a 95 page list with over 1,500 selections. In pursuit of simplicity Smith keeps a tight focus on the wines of the countries implicit in Serrano's "French-based cuisine with Spanish influences." "Burgundy will always be a top seller here, but what I see growing are the Spanish boutiquey wines at better price points," states Smith. "I am always looking for the new quality regions, whether Jumilla, with big, spicy Monastrell, or reds and whites from Ribeira Sacra in Galicia."

The ongoing challenge for Smith, and a familiar lament among sommeliers, is the global homogenization of wines moving toward an international style. "Even in Spain you see lots of full-bodied reds that tailor to a New World palate. I try to find wines that show regional character, but many of the traditional wines are becoming more concentrated and higher in alcohol." While trophy wines will remain on offer, Smith says he's likely to grow his overall list at the expense of a few as they disappear from the cellar; for instance, he will consider replacing a single expensive wine with three of lesser cost.

Since arriving only 18 months ago at 0/8 Seafood Grill and Twisted Cork Wine Bar in Bellevue, Washington, Michael Anderson, director of wine and spirits, has captured a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, followed by a Grand Award 2008 and recognition by the Washington Wine Commission as "Most Innovative." Anderson says with wine quality soaring in Washington and around the world, his greatest challenge in the future will be saying no. "We've been blessed with some really great vintages in recent years, and prices haven't increased all that much. The global rise in quality is so tremendous, I'd like to have them all."

Anderson's program includes about 380 wines, with 87 by-the-glass pours as its centerpiece. "I want to have diversity, like 21 sparkling wines by the glass, including some from Washington as well as Champagne. We have Rieslings from many different regions. The list ranges in price from $30 to $1,000," he explains. Keying in to his wine savvy customers, Anderson says that Malbec, from both Argentina and France, is a rising star for the coming year. Additionally he notes that despite rumbles of an economic downturn, persistent requests for prestigious California and Washington labels have him angling for Quilceda Creek, Kistler Chardonnay, Colgin Cellars, and Bryant Family Vineyards, which range from $150 to $225.

Spruce made its 2008 debut in San Francisco with a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence, acknowledging their 1,300-bottle list. Andrew Green, wine and spirits director/partner, says the list is guided by three principles: "what the customers want to drink, wines that work with the chef's food, and those that put a twinkle in the sommelier's eye." The last explains Spruce's refreshing focus on German Riesling, Hungarian Tokaj, and Portuguese Madeira.

According to Green, average bottle price sales have remained strong, but he plans to build the under-$50 range simply because of great opportunities now appearing. "The 2006 Burgundies are charming and represent great value over 2005. From Germany, 2007 is just fabulous, and these wines always offer great value. And the response to Argentine Malbec continues to surprise me."

When it comes to wine lists, change is the only sure thing.