Opulent yet balanced Russian River Sauvignon Blanc at Sardine.
L'Etoile's wine program was recently nominated for a James Beard Award. The prestigious national prize is given to a restaurant that "serves as a standard bearer for excellence in wine service through a well-presented wine list, knowledgeable staff and efforts to educate customers about wine."
Sommelier Michael Kwas has been a fixture at L'Etoile since he started as a dishwasher at the restaurant's original space in 1991. Recognition for the outstanding artisanal program he has helped shape - he became wine director in 1993 - is long overdue.
While L'Etoile's program may be the largest and most venerable in Madison, there are a number of lists and glass pours in town that will please wine lovers.
Steenbock's on Orchard has a list jumping with enticing bottles. This is especially fun to sample at lunch, when decadence demands pairing fish and chips with a great Vouvray, Domaine Huet Clos du Bourg '08. Because this bottle matches nearly every dish imaginable, your dining partners can choose anything from the Cuban sandwich to udon and enjoy the pairing.
If you're in the mood for red, uncork something equally over-the-top by ordering the Orchard Burger with a bottle of Raimondi Amarone '07. The Moody Blue cheese on the burger was born to go with this rich wine made from dried grapes.
Sardine also has a lively list, boasting a number of bottles that pair well with the restaurant's many seafood-based offerings. Winemaker Merry Edwards was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame this year, and her Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc is an opulent yet balanced choice for the food of James Beard-nominated chefs John Gadau and Phillip Hurley.
Incline, a lesser bottling by the great Riesling producer Johannes Selbach, is available by the glass at Louisianne's. But the endearing basement dining room and the hearty Creole cuisine served here cry out for multiple rounds of Beaujolais. As luck would have it, Jean Paul Brun's L'Ancien is a guest star. Begin with any of the tasty French whites on the menu, pop a few escargots, and then dive into steaks with an elegant bottle from this renegade natural wine producer.
Lombardino's sets itself apart with helpful notes on its many wines available by the glass. For instance, they say of the Bigi Orvieto Amabile '11 that it is "similar in style to a Riesling, full bouquet of ripe fruit and refreshing finish." Italian wines can be confusing, and these tips are a way to lead customers to wines that are right for them.
Papavero's wines are forever changing, as are the daily specials written on the chalkboard. The staff is knowledgeable about the all-Italian list, and can steer diners to the right pairings. As a great added element, wines here are available by the glass, bottle and quartino. Quartinos are 250 ml, a third of a full bottle, and a smart way to share and explore adult grape juice.
Nostrano also sports quartinos and has a well-curated list that features Italian as well as a few French options. Don't forget to enjoy the desserts of James Beard pastry chef nominee Elizabeth Dahl.
There's a trend toward shorter wine lists, and A Pig in a Fur Coat's program is on point. While there are a relatively scant number of options, they are well chosen, and the staff is enthusiastic about all of them. It's proof that establishments don't need a lot of bottles to engage diners. The list is a perfect complement to the tightly edited menu of oven-charred proteins by chef Dan Bonanno, a James Beard "rising star" nominee.
At Forequarter - our local James Beard nominee for best new restaurant - an eclectic list affords the opportunity for vibrant and memorable pairings. The impressively seasonal cheese boards are ideal foils for the quirky, mostly French wines.
Although it is known for an impressive Belgian beer selection, Brasserie V also sports a thoughtful wine-by-the-glass list that runs $6-$10. Try the alpine Domaine de Miscaron Chignin with warm foie gras or duck rillettes.
Likewise, Merchant, better known for its craft cocktails, provides both good glass pours and a charming bottle selection. Wines by the glass include smooth American offerings like Trust Riesling, as well as fine French examples such as Domaine les Hautes Noëlles Muscadet. Here the range is $7-$9. Merchant also boasts lengthy, well-written descriptions of each wine.
If these restaurants seem like pricey places to sip, great glass pours can be found inexpensively at Natt Spil. This little bar has a constantly revolving selection of surprises, all priced at around $7.
If even this is too much green, the Weary Traveler is the spot for thrifty winos. Here, easy-drinking pours like Pierre Amadieu Cotes du Rhone Roulepierre '09 can be had for $5.75. And it's ace with the Hungarian goulash.