Local Restaurant Wine Lists — What to Select?

(This article was originally published in South Bay Accent in June of 2008.)

Wine expertise can be like golf; lots of time and practice are required so you don’t embarrass yourself in public. This might be one reason why restaurant wine lists can sometimes resemble an old duffer rather than Tiger Woods when it comes to the selection. But with wine consumption growing, so is the quality of restaurant wine lists, which just increases the expectation that people who dine out will be knowledgeable about wine.


(NOTE: This article is a few years old and the restaurants profiled were determined – unfortunately – by the publisher of the magazine that printed it. Other than that, it’s not too embarrassing.)


What if you would like to enjoy more wine but find the whole selection experience a tad intimidating? There are many people out there who stick to a few narrow, safe wine choices when they go out to eat so they don’t have to demonstrate non-existent wine knowledge by selecting among a myriad of wines about which they know nothing. The wine presentation and tasting ritual doesn’t help, either. What are you supposed to do with that cork when the waiter hands it to you, anyway?


When it comes to selecting wine, most people have heard the “white wine with fish and poultry; red wine with meat” mantra. Trouble is, it’s not always correct. At the most basic level, the best wine match will be similar to the dish it’s consumed with in terms of richness, intensity, and aroma and flavor characteristics. For example, raw oysters and an acidic companion such as lemon or mignonette (vinegar and shallots) would not marry well with a blockbuster, oaky California chardonnay. A better choice would be champagne or a tart French Chablis; also, the sauce should be applied sparingly. The perfect match for duck with dried cherry sauce is a pinot noir, a lighter-weight red wine whose earthy, smoky aromas and complex, cherry-tinged fruit smells bring out the best in the bird.


Wine matching can often be quite challenging. What wine should be selected to go with vegetarian dishes, for instance? If the recipe includes cheese, this richness paves the way for a fuller-bodied wine, either red or white. Usually, a vegetarian dish with tomatoes or a tomato sauce is better with a red wine. Wine and tart salad dressing are well-known enemies; drink water with this course. Certain vegetables aren’t particularly good with any wines, among them artichokes, green beans and asparagus.


Most local wine lists are dominated by California wines from the most recent vintage, which certainly simplifies one’s choices. In general, California wines don’t go through lengthy periods of undrinkability like some French red wines do as they close down during their infamous “dumb phase.” However, it’s a myth that our state’s wines come out about the same year after sunny year. Just ask winemakers about the troublesome ’98 vintage, or the glorious wines produced across the board in 1994.


If you’re like most diners, you can get through the wine ordering process, but lose it when the waiter presents you with your choice and you must knowledgeably inspect it in front of everyone. First, make sure the bottle is what you ordered, including the correct vintage and winery. Next comes perhaps the most harrowing part of the ritual: what to do with the cork when it’s presented to you. For heaven’s sake, don’t smell it; that’s for wine rubes. Inspect the cork’s condition, looking to see if it’s crumbly, has vertical stains, or is wet all the way through. The latter can indicate poor storage or a flawed cork.


The ultimate test is when you smell the small amount of wine that the server will pour in your glass. First inspect its color – be wary if the wine is too brown-tinged – and swirl it to release the aromas. If it smells musty, stale and like wet newspapers, it’s got the most common flaw and is “corked.” Present in approximately five percent of cork-sealed wines, this is caused by the interaction of various microorganisms found in the cork with chemical contaminants to which the cork has been exposed.


These days, there are plenty of places to go for a special wine experience. The South Bay and Peninsula boast 17 restaurants that not only have great wine lists, but have been honored by the Wine Spectator’s awards program for their efforts. The restaurants that have passed muster by the Spectator receive one of three awards, with the highest being the “Grand Award,” bestowed on only 91 restaurants in the entire world. These winners must pass rigorous inspections and offer an unparalleled wine experience, with a deep, deep wine selection, pristine service, and other amenities. However, all the local Spectator winners, profiled below, demonstrate superlative wine programs in which the cellar is broad and well chosen to match the cuisine and heighten the overall dining experience.


Bella Vista, 13451 Skyline Blvd., Woodside, (650) 851-1229


The view has always been unforgettable at this Continental restaurant perched on a ridge top overlooking the Bay Area. As if gazing at the twinkling lights wasn’t heady enough, Bella Vista guests can also peruse a 35-page wine list that includes offerings that just aren’t available elsewhere, from a truly spectacular selection of cabernets and Bordeaux to a whole page devoted to little-known Italian white wines. So large is the listing of California merlots that it is broken into districts. One section of the list displays “library selections” that consist of multiple vintages of collector’s red wines from California and Bordeaux. The assortment is simply jaw dropping, with vertical selections of Jordan, Opus One, BV Private Reserve, Montelena, and Heitz Martha’s Vineyard cabernets and more. Listed are 19 different Silver Oak cabs alone. On the Bordeaux side, the offering is equally remarkable, with multiple vintages of many top Bordeaux that includes all the First Growths. The menu here is decidedly food friendly, staying firmly in the realm of classic dishes such as Veal Piccata. With such a wine list, they could serve hamburgers and wine nuts would still flock.

California Cafe Bar & Grill, 50 University Ave., Los Gatos, 408-354-8118


If you’re a California cabernet fanatic, look no further than this restaurant. The list includes 11 BV Private Reserve vintages, three Caymus, eight Diamond Creek, four Heitz, six Stag’s Leap — and this is just a fraction of the total offering. Not surprisingly, California chardonnays are also impressively assembled on the wine list, featuring a long line-up of chards that are mostly of the rich, creamy, oaky persuasion. More adventurous diners can find much to choose from on this lengthy list, which also includes less widely offered varieties like pinot blanc, viognier, syrah, cabernet franc and a handful of European wines. All choices go well with the menu, which features wine-friendly items like duck breast and lamb shanks, a whole bunch of pastas and “gourmet” pizza.


Dal Baffo, 878 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, (650) 325-1588

The gigantic, two-star wine list here shows what happens when a restaurant has been around a while: it’s a treasure trove of older wines that includes vertical selections of many, many notable red wines. The menu delivers many updated renditions of wine-loving dishes such as rack of lamb coated with pistachio nuts and filet mignon sautéed with cippolline onions in truffle/cabernet sauce. One of the reasons to visit this high-end Continental-Italian dining establishment is perhaps the biggest selection of Italian wines in the region. As you’d expect on such a serious list, there are cabernets and Bordeaux in copious quantities, with the latter represented by some of the famous names as well as by more affordable offerings. Vertical selections are included from quite a few cab stars, like Opus One, Diamond Creek, Spottswoode, and more. In fact, if you can’t find many wonderful wines to drink from this huge list, you’re just not trying.


Emile’s, 545 S. Second St., San Jose, 408-289-1960


This French-Swiss restaurant has nicely evolved over the years and so has its appealing wine list, a Spectator award winner for well over a decade. There is definitely something to satisfy everyone on the list in terms of price, varietal, age and country of origin. Among lots of California chardonnays and cabernets are some rare older cabs and high-quality merlots and “meritage” wines, as well as some unusual wines like a berry-rich Chinon from the Loire region for those attuned to new experiences. The elegant food at Emile’s is a terrific match with wine. Say, fresh foie gras paired with a dessert wine (choices from France, Australia and California are all available), or lamb loin with one of the many fabulous Bordeaux or Bungundy wines, many from notable older vintages. One of the restaurant’s specialties is wild game, which is particularly wonderful with wine; an entree is offered nightly. Or just make life easy by selecting the tasting menu, where a series of courses has already been matched with ideal wines.


The Fish Market, 1855 N. Norfolk Ave., San Mateo, (650) 349-3474


If this restaurant offered just fish, the wine list would likely be brief. But there’s also fresh pasta, beef, chicken, lamb, and other goodies to bring out the best in wine. There are four different vintages available here among 48 cab and merlot selections. The California-heavy list also features some lush chardonnays like the wonderful Rochioli and a nice line up of fruity sauvignon blancs that will pair happily with entrees like grilled John Dory with salsa or mahimahi done Asian style. Based on the nice selection of pinot noirs, many from Oregon, it appears the Fish Market is aware of the appeal of this elegant varietal as a match-with-everything food wine. How about a Rex Hill reserve pinot with baked opakapaka and aioli? Shellfish lovers have a blizzard of terrific choices – lots of raw selections, shellfish cocktails, and irresistible steamers – and one of the sparkling wines or the lone Muscadet on the list would be a worthy pairing.


Lark Creek, 50 E. Third Ave., San Mateo, (650) 344-9444


The third location of this pretty, popular restaurant founded by star chef Bradley Ogden, Lark Creek’s menu is focused on American fare and the wine list largely echoes this theme. Ogden’s crew aims high and succeeds, taking familiar items like pot roast and meatloaf to levels Mom never imagined were possible. The wine list has a wealth of choices and has clearly been assembled not only to please common tastes but to showcase some of the lesser-known offerings from American wine artisans. For example, there are seldom-seen domestic versions of unusual varietals like arneis, pinot blanc and sangiovese on the list. This is an ideal place to expand one’s experiential horizons. The list itself is terrifically helpful and educational, with brief descriptions of each wine variety to help guests in the selection process, as well as abundant notes within each category. Lark Creek’s wine list helps further by making general food recommendations for wines and offering close to 20 wines by the glass and a number of half bottles.


Los Gatos Brewing Company, 130-G N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, 408-395-9929


This is definitely not just a burger-and-a-brew spot. Los Gatos Brewing has expanded its wine list from being mostly Californian to offering a range of nifty choices from worthy wine-producing countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Chile and, of course, France and Italy. Wine buffs will see winners like Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc on the list, along with hot items such as Ponzi reserve pinot noir, Mount Eden estate cab, and Penfold’s Grange shiraz. And there’s plenty of great food to pair with the wine, like pan-seared halibut with lentils, beef daube with root vegetables, and baby back ribs. The by-the-glass selections are some 20 in number and are much ordered by patrons. In fact, wine sales have even surpassed those of beer at this popular brew-pub.


Mistral, 370-6 Bridge Parkway, Redwood Shores, (650) 802-9222


When wine lovers run a restaurant, you know you’re in for a treat. Mistral – located on the waterfront in the shadow of the Oracle towers – is such a place. It’s loosely Mediterranean in philosophy, which means there’s some terrific wine food on the menu such as quail with wild rice, braised lamb shank, and pan-seared venison with cabernet-blackberry sauce. One of many intelligent things done here is a wine list that gives guests some hints about the wines in order to facilitate the selection process. Not surprisingly, the list – offering up to 240 wines – goes beyond the usual chardonnays and cabs, including a few fruity Alsatian wines, some intriguing red varietals such as sangiovese and grenache. While there are 30 by-the-glass wines, Mistral also offers a “recommended” list of interesting wine choices that have extensive descriptions of the wine.

Paolo’s, 333 W. San Carlos St., San Jose, 408-294-2558


Highly ranked for years by the Spectator, this temple of fine Italian cuisine takes wine very seriously. Some 470 wines strong, the list includes many young, highly regarded offerings and a few perfectly stored older vintages. Looking through its many pages is a treasure hunt that can unearth gems like ’90 BV Private Reserve cabernet and ’89 Leoville Las Cases. Rich in wines from most of the great wine regions, Paolo’s outdoes itself, understandably, when it comes to Italian wines. Various wine-themed events take place in this classy restaurant like winemaker dinners, Champagne dinners and themed menus such as a dinner featuring, say, the wines of Piemonte. Ten wines by the glass are rotated frequently and the after-dinner wine offering is also superb, such as 24 vintage ports going back to 1927.


The Plumed Horse, 14555 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, 408-867-4711


This venerable Spectator Grand Award winner has taken wine seriously for many years. The impressive list contains a whopping 750 selections within a19,800-bottle inventory, focusing on popular California varietals and French wines, the list has plenty of other offerings, too. It’s easy to see why this restaurant gets top local honors from the Spectator; nobody has nearly as many older wines or is as deep in the renowned districts of Bordeaux and Burgundy. But so many selections are available that there is something for every price range. The cuisine offered with this massive wine list has been hugely improved from the ’70s style food of earlier eras as a result of new management and new cooking crew.

Ristorante Piacere. 727 Laurel St., San Carlos, (650) 592-3536


This handsome spot is a great example of a modern Italian restaurant, with a seasonal, wine-oriented menu that includes many fine pasta choices, appetizers and grilled items oriented toward the contemporary and creative. Although Piacere highlights its Italian wines, the 250 selections are impressively populated with good wines from many other countries and regions. For example, the list includes 58 California cabernets alone. However, a more interesting choice here would be an Italian wine, of which there is a nice selection that includes some older wines. Try an ’89 or ’85 Barolo (great, ready-to-drink years) with the grilled beef loin for something memorable. Or plot out a multi-course Italian meal utilizing 20 by-the-glass choices or the 18-selection list of half bottles.

Sundance the Steakhouse, 1921 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, (650) 321-6798


Great steaks and red meat cry out for great red wine, which led this family-owned bastion of beef to do a serious job of assembling a wine list. The menu mostly delivers up the classics, like prime rib, grilled Midwestern steaks and chicken teriyaki, but there are a few departures, too. Sundance has a lengthy list with more than 400 choices and doesn’t skimp when it comes to variety or country of origin. Included among white wines is a long list of popular chardonnays, while the line up of cabs and merlots is well over 100, from “A” (Ahlgren cab) to “Z” (Z/D reserve cab). In addition, there’s a “captain’s list” of high-end cabs that includes several vertical collections and older vintages and some absolute gems from France. Run, don’t walk, to this restaurant if you want to try fine Bordeaux from spectacular years such as ’82, ’89 and ’90.

231 Ellsworth, (at that address), San Mateo, (650) 347-7231


Wine nuts have been making pilgrimages to this excellent restaurant for years. The superb wine list has gotten even better since new owners reopened the restaurant awhile back. The 800 selections are augmented by many rare treasures – say, an impossible-to-get Marcassin chardonnay — that cycle through the ever-changing list. The selection of Burgundies, red and white, is as fine as it comes in the region. The list is rich in virtually everything, from many vertical offerings of top California cabs like Opus One and Araujo to impressive selections of Italian and Spanish wines. Besides a remarkable selection of half bottles, the restaurant pours up to 17 wines by the glass daily, including the treats available for the tasting menu. The latter is a must, pairing the chef’s top-notch cooking with perfectly matched, often rare wines such as the legendary 1968 Gemello cabernet from a vineyard in the Saratoga foothills that was pulled out years ago. Special wine dinners and events happen throughout the year.


Zibibbo, 430 Kipling St., Palo Alto, (650) 328-7622


This noisy, bustling, enormous eatery quietly developed one heck of a good wine list a while back and opened a wine bar that is well above the norm. It’s got more than 60 by-the-glass offerings available in small tasting portions, along with some fascinating, educational “wine flights” that are, in fact, mini-tastings of, say, a few Rhone-style wines, or top chardonnays from various countries. Four hundred-plus selections strong, the wine list at Zibibbo is eclectic and excellently chosen to go with the restaurant’s assertive, addictive, pan-Mediterranean menu. Like the cuisine, the wines tend to be highly aromatic, flavorful and eminently enjoyable. Rather than simply offering an encyclopedic listing of chardonnays and cabernets as the sum of its list, Zibibbo delivers item after item of irresistible wines that any knowledgeable wine lover will recognize and get excited over.

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