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Who Has the Best Wine List in America? | 10 Best Wine Lists

June 18, 2020
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Scott

Who has the best wine list in the country? It’s impossible to say.

Every best wine list is the best in its own way. A good wine list can be an epic physical tome or a lightweight QR menu. That’s why, when we set out to determine who has the best wine list, we ultimately decided not to rank them against each other. The experience of drinking certain wines and the purpose of specific wine lists is too variable to compare accurately.

What we can do is present the wine lists that most often show up on “best wine list” rankings online. We looked at the Gayot rankings, what Wine Enthusiast said, the Sommeliers Choice Awards, and more. In fact, we totally scoured the internet to take the years-long temperature of what wine lists generate the most positive conversation. The result is the list of wine lists below. These are the restaurants who most frequently scored top rankings.

They are presented in no meaningful order. They are the 10 wine lists that, over the past few years, people can’t stop talking about.

Here they are, in all their glory.

Aureole

When you order a bottle of wine at Aureole, Las Vegas, there is a good chance it results in a Wine Angel soaring up a four-story wine tower to fetch it. Wine Angels, you see, are the official titles of the part-gymnast, part-sommeliers Aureole employs to strap into harnesses and ascend and descend their transparent 42-foot, $1.2-million tower of wine every night. That’s Aureole’s very Las Vegas-y solution to the logistics of consistently accessing the 3,000-bottle wine collection they have on offer.

And what a collection it is. For the non-committal, Aureole Las Vegas has a rotating list of dozens of wines by the glass that the restaurant pairs with with each of its dishes for the night. That’s one reason why the Aureole wine list looms so large in wine writers’ reviews—its pairing suggestions are incredibly diverse and thoughtful.

Its east coast counterpart, Aureole New York, focuses a touch more on its traditional wine list. It has a strong old world influence, with French, Italian, and German wines center stage. But it also tips its cap to Spain, Austria, Greece, and Hungary. Its new world identity revolves mostly around California, with noticeable contributions from Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.

One particular passion of Aureole New York’s wine list is its old Madeiras. Some of which date back to the first half of the 19th century. 

The French Laundry

The French Laundry wine list is an achievement. The cellar olds over 15,000 bottles—with the most-ordered few thousand bottles staying in a smaller, more accessible cellar. The wine program has held Wine Spectator’s Grand Award since 2007. But the powers-that-be don’t let it go to anyone’s head.

"I try to get them to be humble about the wine program,” chef Thomas Keller says about The French Laundry’s sommeliers. “We don't want it to be ritualistic or religious. We want to have a party. And it's different for everyone,” he adds.

From price to region to pairing preferences, there really is something for everyone on The French Laundry’s wine list. They have wines from every major growing region—with offerings split between the world’s most renowned producers to smaller operations with devoted followings. 

What makes the wine list stand out to us, though, is its agility. They have an entire wall of half bottles that makes pairing wine with their award-winning multi-course menus easier. They have a team of professionals constantly considering how to best pair menu items with wine choices. The depth and breadth of their wine list offers a versatility and accessibility that other wine lists just can’t compete with.

Sepia

Sepia’s roughly 450-bottle wine list is the novella to other restaurants’ novels. That’s one of the reasons it’s so consistently rated as one of the best wine lists in the country. Sommelier and Wine Director Jennifer Wagoner has created a paired-down, concise, almost poetic variety of food-driven and boutique wines.

There is another reason Sepia’s wine list is comparable to literature. It tells a story. It includes brief, informative sections that weave a narrative around the wines being offered. At present, some of the delightful asides include Let’s Talk About Alsace, A Special Sort of ‘Vertical’: Krug Grand Cuvée, Grower Champagne: What Does This Mean?, and Water: The Soul of Sake, among others.

Any time a wine list provides this kind of context, we immediately love it. It instantly imbues its wines with meaning. It turns the usual headiness of wine into accessibility. And it just straight-up makes the act of choosing and drinking a wine more enjoyable—and memorable. That’s what dining out is all about.

France, Italy, Germany, and Austria loom large in the old world selections of Sepia’s wine list. While California anchors their new world offerings. Of particular note is their strong, thoughtful Champagne and sparkling section.

To stretch our thin metaphor even thinner, this is a wine list worth reading like a good book. It’s easy on the eyes, engaging, and fascinating.

Del Posto

The Del Posto wine list is an authority. What makes this wine list special is its focus. And that is on Italian wines. Other wine lists cast a wide net, sourcing and surfacing wines from all the viticultural regions around the world. Jacks of all trades, masters of none, Del Posto may say. But don’t mistake Del Posto’s depth for inaccessibility or rigidity. Their wine list, too, has something for everyone.

If you want a full-bodied red, peruse their Super Tuscans. Looking for something juicy and mild? There’s a variety of Dolcetto d’Albas with your name on them. The point is that the Del Posto wine list is a microcosm of global wine lists. To them, Italy is the world. Any wine preference you may have it fulfills.

To be sure, the Del Posto wine list pulls it off in glorious fashion. There is simply no preference or pairing that this wine list can’t deliver on. And for a wine list that bleeds focus and passion for an individual region, it’s a singular achievement.

Bern’s Steak House

Bern Laxer, founder of Bern’s Steakhouse, is the driving force behind Bern’s cellar’s accumulation of over 500,000 bottles of wine. 

Yes, half a million bottles.

In short, the Bern’s wine cellar is an absolute world-class phenomenon. But it didn’t get that way overnight. Bern has traveled across the planet extensively, researching, sipping, swirling, and swishing his way to an internationally-recognized wine collection. It took decades of hard work.

When one opens up the wine list at Bern’s, the first impression is that of a seriously mature depth. The average age of the bottles at Berns may be higher than any other wine list in the country. But Bern’s wine list is also an expertly-conceived exercise in breadth. Within the list are more than 6,800 unique wine labels.

The breakdown is as follows: around 5,500 unique red wines, 1,000 unique white wines, and about 200 unique sparkling wines. Top that off with hundreds of Madeiras, Ports, and sherries by the glass.

And that brings us to our next point. The Bern’s by-the-glass wine list that rivals other restaurants’ full wine lists. They’ve even got wines available by the glass in vintages as old as 1973.

Restaurant Gary Danko

To understand the Restaurant Gary Danko wine list one must first understand the Restaurant Gary Danko. Danko is a master saucier. Sauces are the stars in many of the 30+ dishes the restaurant offers at any given moment. He was also the in-house chef at Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley. Then he went on to own Chateau Souverain in Sonoma County. He knows wine. He knows food-driven wine decisions. He knows wine pairing. 

Restaurant Gary Danko dishes have been called bright and stunning. Large flower arrangements preside over an intimate dining room. It is this fabulous situation the Restaurant Gary Danko wine list complements and enhances.

The wine list leans heavily in two directions. First, it draws from many of the top Californian producers. Second, its international selection is particularly fond of classic French wines. The Burgundies are categorized by village, for example. That’s love. This is possibly unsurprising for a concept located in California started by a world-class saucier. It’s nevertheless an amazing experience. It’s a list that’s hard not to be in awe of.

Acquerello

Acquerello’s wine list is the product of over 25 years of building, iterating, and tasting. Like Del Posto, they focus on Italian wines. Acquerello, in fact, has had their finger on the pulse of Italian wines for decades. They were buying crates of rare Barolo at a time when most people in the U.S. couldn’t even get decent imported balsamic vinegar.

One thing that sets Acquerello’s wine list apart is their focus within their focus. Their Italian wine list, while universal, orbits around Piemonte wines. That means the nebbiolo grape looms large on the Acquerello wine list. Which is just fine by us, because it’s an incredibly versatile grape that can be balanced in majestic and unique ways throughout the winemaking process. A process that traditional Piemonte winemakers have turned into an art. And it’s these winemakers that Acquerello’s wine list endeavors to celebrate.

But their focus on elegant, traditional Northern Italian reds isn’t to the detriment of other winemakers. From California to France, Acquerello is an equal opportunity celebrator. And that, to us, is the most remarkable thing about the Acquerello wine list. It’s a dynamic and thoughtful monument to all the people that make wine possible.

Canlis

Canlis won 23 consecutive Wine Spectator Grand Awards. Precious few wine programs in the world have such a distinction. The wine list for such a venue may seem intimidating. But not the way Canlis approaches it.

“[What distinguishes] the Canlis wine program and the sommeliers who run it is their singular ability to relate to other people, particularly those who just like to enjoy a bottle with dinner, and then move on,” Canlis says on their website.

The Canlis wine list, then, is first and foremost a tool. You use it, enjoy it, and move on with your life. It is meant to be easily navigated, absorbed, and used toward an end. That end is actually pretty simple. You should be putting wine into your mouth that tastes good with the food you are also putting in your mouth. That is, fundamentally, what a wine list should help you do. We purposefully make it sound silly only to drive the simplicity of a wine list’s purpose of existing. A wine list should help you find a good wine

To do that, Canlis employs both old- and new-world selections, all food-driven and all distinguished and thoughtfully chosen. Washington and Oregon are strongly represented from this side of the planet, while rieslings, Burgundies, and Bordeauxs anchor the international offerings. California, Italy, and Spain play secondary, though very important, roles. 

The end result is an utterly accessible, versatile wine list that makes it easy to find and enjoy a good wine. You had one job, wine list. One job. At Canlis, the wine list does its job.

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park has been called a “temple of gastronomy” and a “gastronomic mecca.” Any collection of wines expected to support such a place has to be glorious in its own right. Thankfully, the Eleven Madison Park wine list is.

The wine list is expansive, impressive, and attentive. It’s a collection of wine that is completely in-tune with the award-winning prix fixe menus—whatever they may be at the moment. That’s because it’s the thoughtful, dynamic, and ever-evolving result of some of the most creative and perceptive wine brains in the world. 

The new world offerings are anchored by a heavy California presence, while the overall tenor of the wine list leans old world. Specifically, France’s Burgundy region. An epic array of red Burgundies takes up around 40 pages, while white Burgundies occupy around 30 pages. Italian reds play a big part, too. Along with red Rhônes that are numerous enough to be divided into those from the Northern Rhône Valley and those from the Southern.

One thing we especially like about this wine list is the structure and formatting. It’s about 200 pages, but it’s a breezy read. The layout is clean and easy to follow. The organization is logical and compelling. The contents of the wine list are phenomenal, of course, but the execution and delivery of that content is excellent. That’s why Eleven Madison Park always gets top marks.

Pluckemin Inn

Here’s the other wine program on this list with a wine tower. It features centrally to Pluckemin’s architecture and houses over 10,000 bottles. As of this writing, there appear to be no angels employed in its navigation. We will keep you updated. The full wine list is 127 pages that lean Californian and French, with particular focus on Burgundy, the Rhône, Bordeaux, and Champagne. Other international strengths include Piedmont, Tuscany, Spain, and Germany. 

One of the reasons the Pluckemin Inn wine list shows up on so many best lists is because there are actually multiple Pluckemin Inn wine lists. “The Pluckemin 200” list is a collection of 200 wines chosen specifically for three vitally important reasons. Approachability, value, and synergy with the food menu.  The most expensive wines on the Pluckemin 200 are around $80. It’s a remarkably versatile, accessible, and concise list that we absolutely love. And, like their full wine list, the choices track Californian and French, with a strong showing from Italy.

What Makes a Wine List the Best?

These 10 wine lists show up again and again whenever anyone talks about the best wine lists. If you’re in the business of making wine lists, studying them is a masterclass in presenting a commercial wine collection.

A peculiarity of today is that many great wine lists are digital wine lists. That’s because paper wine lists have been repeatedly shown to be relatively dangerous money pits. Contactless menus are now the new normal.

One thing we’re particularly proud of is that three of the wine lists mentioned here—Del Posto, Eleven Madison Park, and The French Laundry—all rely on BinWise to power their digital menus.

We can do the same for you, too. If you’re looking for a world-class digital solution for your wine menu, let us show you exactly how it works. It’s easy, it saves money, and it’s one of the most effective levers to pull to create the germ-free dining experience that everyone now expects.