Image: Valentino's, Santa Monica, Calif.
Courtesy Of Valentino's
Today's sommeliers raise their glasses to Piero Selvaggio for having the forethought in the 1970s to fall in love with (and tuck away) marquis Italian wines. Today, his cellar boasts around 200,000 bottles, and Selvaggio, who also owns a restaurant in Las Vegas, can—and will if you let him—wax poetic about each one.
updated 3/2/2008 11:41:23 AM ET 2008-03-02T16:41:23

At the Little Nell in Aspen, Richard Betts oversees one of the most vaunted restaurant cellars in America.

But right now, it's a $42 bottle of Jacques Puffeney "Cuvée Les Bérangeres" Arbois that's the pride and joy of his wine list at his Montagna restaurant.

"Anyone can spend a lot of money on a blue-chip wine," says Betts. "What makes my job interesting is finding those amazing wines that are crazy affordable."

Betts earned a master's degree in geology before turning to a career in wine, which may help explain his passion for unearthing gems that are site-specific, or speak to their terroir. He's particularly enthralled by small, lesser-known appellations in the Old World like this Arbois from the oft-overlooked Jura.

"A friend sent me a bottle with a note saying, 'I think you're going to like this,'" he says. It wasn't long before this "humble, rockin' wine," as Betts calls it, made the list, right alongside trophy burgundy wines fetching 20 times the price.

This kind of quirky juxtaposition has become common on reputable wine lists across the country as more and more maverick sommeliers like Betts are taking America's current wine fascination and running with it.

Changing guard
Their approach couldn't be more different than their tuxedoed predecessors. Betts abhors formality. "I greet customers with the biggest smile I have," he says, "but not a tie."

A smile goes a lot further in fostering trust—a key component in the sommelier-guest relationship, he says, especially when leading die-hard burgundy lovers down a slightly different path.

Not only are these new sommeliers making more adventurous selections for their lists, many are paring them down.

It used to be that less was more, says Betts, who just trimmed his 80-page tome down to about 50 and dreams of paring it down even more. "But who really cares if you have a bottle of California chardonnay from the '70s in your cellar?" he asks.

Some very succinct wine lists he thinks are incredibly smart are the one at Michy's, the Nueva Latino hot spot in Miami. When he spotted a Domaine de Marcoux Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes, a fantastic wine aged in cement tanks, he knew he was in good wine hands.

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Behind the list
We asked Betts and other sommeliers from around the country to come up with a list of 10 restaurants in America with compelling restaurant wine lists. Some were chosen for their breadth, others for their integrity or originality.

The wine list at Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colo., was a popular choice. Yes, its emphasis on wines from the Friuli-Veneto region is impressive, but it's the list's earnest tone, and its ability to teach, not preach, that appeals to consumers and other sommeliers alike. Wines are listed by taste sensation rather than by region or grape, thereby demystifying and sensualizing the wine-selection process.

Rajat Parr, wine director for Michael Mina restaurants, including Michael Mina in San Francisco, which, like Cru and Montagna, has earned Wine Spectator's prestigious Grand Award, says it wasn't that long ago that lists were written by restaurant managers or wine distributors.

"Now, someone who is wine smart is writing the list, and it shows," says Parr, whose own list boasts plenty of "off-the-beaten-path" burgundies and handcrafted, unknown champagnes by small, family-owned producers.

There is no question who is writing the wine list at Hearth and Insieme in New York City: Who else but Paul Grieco can Invoke Shirley MacLaine, Britney Spears and Rice Krispies when describing a wine? Grieco leans toward the "weird but good." So expect to find some Uruguayan Tannats right alongside those Barolos.

Just like his chef and partner in the kitchen, Marco Canora, Grieco likes to keep his wine list seasonal and so he changes it—entirely—four times a year. That's ambitious.

At Chanterelle, veteran master sommelier Roger Dagorn changes his 500-label list regularly to adapt to David Waltuck's hyperseasonal cooking. Though Dagorn has been there since 1993, he is determined not to let the wine collect dust, so to speak.

He was the first sommelier to put Chilean wines on his list and pair fine French food with sake. He recently added a Thabani merlot, 2002, made by the first all-black-owned winery in that country. The wine turned out to be the perfect choice for Dagorn's unorthodox assignment to pair wine with live jazz at a recent Sunday Salon supper at the TriBeca restaurant.

Pairing wine with jazz? It's no less controversial—or brilliant—than his pairing of Pineau des Charentes with Waltuck's trio of soups on the tasting menu—something we may be seeing more of from this generation of inventive sommeliers.

© 2012


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