Top drop stops
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
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
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
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.
should be high-quality and clean,
wines should be stored and
served at the proper temperature,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Finally, there are a few conspicuous absences on this list. For example,
has an interesting list, but it continues to ruin bottles by baking
them in too-hot storage areas.
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 email@example.com.
The Uncorked archive