Any wine lover knows that the best reason to hit the road in the summer is not to take in the sights but to sip the local vintage. From your perch in that Mediterranean villa, you can sample the best of the region's food and wine.
Regional focus is a crucial aspect of a good wine list, as is brevity, but it's rare to find both here in New York. The trend toward phone-book wine lists, with a little bit of something from all over (and a great deal too much from Bordeaux and Burgundy), may make sommeliers feel like they've arrived in the big leagues, but they're of very little use to the average, reasonably informed diner. More to the point, there are very few top-level chefs currently at stove in New York whose dishes will not be obliterated by the cult Californian grape soups that crowd those bulging lists.
If you are stuck here for the summer, you don't have to put up with the gouging wine list at the latest monument to culinary excess, where the mortgage drives 300 and 400 percent markups -- a problem compounded by the ocean of dumb money gurgling through the city's arteries like LDL cholesterol. (The New York restaurateur's unwritten law remains: Make a living on the food and a killing on the wine.)
A good wine list, like a good vacation, should focus tightly on the strengths of a region. At these restaurants you can taste wine from some of the most interesting regions in Europe and still concentrate on the strengths of the chef and the provenance of the cuisine.
Cucina Toscana is a tough row to hoe in New York, a place well populated with super- and pseudo-Tuscans. I Coppi (432 East 9th Street) is pushing the limits of rustic authenticity, but the place is a hot ticket -- its smoker-friendly garden just opened, further increasing its Tuscan authenticity -- and the food gets better by the week. Chef Sara Jenkins, who, despite her name, grew up in Tuscany, has a gossamer touch.
I Coppi's list, put together with quiet passion by co-owner John Brennan, is exclusively Tuscan. (Caveat on price: Tuscan wines, especially those from the small, hot producers favored here, are not cheap. Nonetheless, Brennan keeps his markup around a fair 200 percent; your pleasure will be enhanced by knowing you're not being gypped.) His "Young Simple Tuscan" section presents a handful of delicious bottles at 30 bucks or under that are not chosen to shame you into buying something pricier. Two faves: Fattoria Ambra 1996 Carmignano ($30) and the yummy young Castello di Fonterutoli 1997 Badiola ($28), which is also the house pour. The list is organized clearly from "Chianti Classico Riserva" to "Super-Tuscans."
The Sangiovese grape, the heart of Tuscan wine, dominates in most of the wines here. Warm, dusty, and rich, it always evokes for me olive groves on a summer day. There are several vintages of ever-reliable Chianti Classico Riservas from Castello di Ama, Castello dei Rampolla, and Badia a Coltibuono (most $55-$85). I also like the Riserva from Geografico (warm and currant-y; $36) and especially the Berardenga from Fattoria di Felsina -- a terra-cotta red of old-style Chianti, with a perfect traditional Sangiovese nose and beautifully layered mouth ($42).
Other quick hits: Fattoria Querciabella Chianti Normale 1997, young and aromatic ($35), and the 100 percent Sangiovese Grosso Castello di Gabbiano per Ania 1993, full, deep, an old friend ($48). Also from Castello di Fonterutoli, Siepi 1995 ($100), a rich, magnificent fifty-fifty Merlot-Sangiovese blend in the internazionale style; eat hearty with this -- it will overpower delicate dishes. Whites are not big in Tuscany: There are two crisp Vernaccias (di San Gimignano; $22 and $25) and the evocative Terre di Tufi 1997 from Fattoria Ponte a Rondolino ($35). If you want to splurge on super-Tuscans, they're well represented (at a certain depth): Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Tignanello, Solaia. There's also an unusual (and currently unlisted) selection of Vin Santo. (Ask.)
I love Greek food, in part because food criterati tend to look down on it, but it's tough to find a place that doesn't serve it up with little other than Retsina -- that frightful pine-cleanser plonk redolent of student days. Molyvos (871 Seventh Avenue, near 55th Street) is unique in having a readably short, well-chosen list that suits its hearty, sunny food. Ignore the usual thwacking great left-coast Chards and Cabs and dive into the unusual number of Greek wines (37). Like other formerly backward wine-producing nations (e.g., Portugal), Greece is coming on strong with producers like Skouras and Boutari (both well represented here) turning out quite unique wines from traditional Greek grape varieties. In whites, try Moschofilero from Tselepos ($24), crisp, citrusy, elegant; or the lovely Assyrtiko Thalassitis from Santorini ($29), lightly perfumed and slightly salty, like sunlight sparkling off the Mediterranean. The gorgeous Assyrtiko from hot guy Gerovassiliou ($30), by contrast, is deeper and rounder, like eating a peach on a sailboat. Somehow, all these sharp, clean whites evoke the sea. On wine's dark side, Boutari's Xynomavro (another traditional grape; $35) has an exotic nose and light, complex mouth unlike any red I've ever tasted; Boutari's Xynomavro/Merlot blend ($40), on the other hand, is quite Bordeaux-esque, evoking a fine cru bourgeois. Greek reds are distinguished by having only the most delicate hint of wood. Sommelier-wine manager John Pardalis, a charming Spartan (literally, from Sparta), also recommends the 1996 Refosco (red) from Domaine Mercouri. He promises new infusions of Greek bottles soon. Molyvos's list has some of the most deliciously new, palate-opening wines I've had in a long time.
A pioneer in tight focus was rufino Lopez, first at the long-lamented Alcala on Amsterdam and now at the well-established Solera (216 East 53rd Street). His blessedly brief, exclusively Spanish list has been updated. Standouts among the (underappreciated) Spanish whites: Organistrum Albariño ($45), full, round, but dryly elegant; crisp, fragrant Viña Godeval from Valdeorras ($38); the unpronounceable Txakoli of Txomin Etxaniz ($32), a lighthearted lunch companion from the Pais Vasco (Basque country). In the red column, it's hard to beat any Rioja -- Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva, from Cune or Muga; Vega Sindoa from Navarra ($30); new additions from Abadia Retuerta in Sardon del Deuro (hard by Ribera del Deuro); and the full-bodied 1996 Pasanau from the red-hot Priorat region ($56). If there's a hole in this list, considering the stylish Iberian fare, it's rosados, so popular amongst Iberians themselves. A fine substitute: the list's single biggest bargain, Juvé y Camps Reserva de la Familia, a fruity, yeasty cava (sparkling white) that dances with anything and will add a mere $30 to your check.