Whether it's a single sheet or a massive tome that would do serious damage if you dropped it on your foot (we've actually been to restaurantswhere the list is divided into two volumes of that description), a wine list is — or ought to be — basically a menu from which to choose the potable portion of a meal.
A lot of wine lists end up seeming pretty silly if you look at them that way. Would you want a menu that offered — bragged about offering — 1,500 choices of food? What about one where the cheapest thing you'd want to eat was priced at $100? Sure, we expect the caviar to cost a lot more than the green salad, but what if there isn't any green salad?
If you're particularly interested in wine, and have a wish-list of famous bottles you'd like to try or maybe a desire to discover little-known treasures made from lesser grape varieties or produced in regions you didn't even know made wine, then diving into a big, long list can be lots of fun — especially if you've resigned yourself to paying real money for the pleasure. If you just want something decent to accompany your pasta or your coq au vin, though, a list with hundreds and hundreds of offerings can be simply annoying if not downright torturous. And if you've saved up for a special dinner that's already biting deeply into your paycheck, having to double the cost of your meal just to be able to sip something nicer than grape juice is not likely to make you smile.
The trick, from the restaurateur's point of view, is to figure out a way to stock the great, celebrated, special-occasion treasures of the wine world, at necessarily high prices — the world's best wines tend to be expensive to begin with, so we can hardly quarrel with establishments that mark them up to cover the costs of storage and service and to yield a little profit — but also to provide the average diner with a selection of agreeable things to drink at prices that are more readily digestible.
To choose our 25 best wine lists in America, we began by examining previously published lists (including Wine Spectator's Awards of Excellence and rankings from other wine sites), then polled our wine-savvy friends and added lists based on our own wining and dining experiences. We ended up with about a hundred nominees from every corner of the country — though not surprisingly, New York City and several parts of California showed up particularly often.
Next, we reached out to the nominees for copies of their lists. Some disqualified themselves by choosing not to send their lists (and in one case by refusing to disclose prices), but we still ended up with about 75 to choose from. We then analyzed them page by page, and ranked them on the following criteria: breadth and depth; variety; value; special features (wines by the glass, half-bottles, large-format bottles); areas of specialization; appropriateness to the food the wines are meant to accompany; and an elusive quality we can best describe as "personality."
The best wines lists are not necessarily those with the largest catalogues of trophy wines. Any restaurant with the right backers can build a cellar of the Screaming Eagles, Biondi-Santis, Domaine de la Romanée-Contis, and Château Lafites. Of course, having a good representation of those wines doesn't disqualify a list, either; we just like to see plenty of other, less stratospherically priced choices as well. Above all, in considering which lists to include and how to rank them, we thought of the consumer; would a diner, not necessarily a wine specialist, who ended up at one of the restaurants whose lists we considered be able to easily find good things to drink and prices that at least approximately matched what he or she was paying for the cuisine?
Some general comments: Almost all these lists had some depth in the blue-chip vintages of France and California and sometimes also Italy and/or Germany. It was a pleasant surprise, in fact, to see Germany represented so well on so many lists (German wine terminology is still confusing to most American wine-lovers, and riesling, Germany's greatest grape, remains underappreciated; this is an area definitely worth further exploration), and Austria was also frequently well-represented. Almost none of the lists we saw, though, had extensive Australian choices, and good choices of Spanish wines were in short supply as well. And it became apparent that many restaurant wine buyers haven't yet discovered Portugal as a source of table wines. The most interesting, sometimes obscure wines tend to show up on the much shorter lists offered by more casual restaurants than most of those whose catalogues were considered here. Maybe we'll tackle those kinds of lists in the future.
We've previously ranked the Top 10 Chain Restaurant Wine Lists, 6 Great Wine Lists in Northern California, and 8 Extravagant Restaurant Wine Lists. Now read on for our first annual ranking of The 25 Best Wines Lists in America.