The rest of the U.S. is beginning to figure out how awesome Denver's wine scene is becoming. Thanks to Wine Enthusiast's list of "America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants," local establishments Barolo Grill, Tavernetta and Morin, as well as Deno's Mountain Bistro in Winter Park, have garnered recognition for the state.
"We love places where the diner feels well taken care of, but also important to us, as it is with the magazine overall, is the idea of discovery," says Nils Bernstein, the food editor at Wine Enthusiast. "That you'll come out of these restaurants having learned or tasted something new, gotten a new perspective or just enjoyed a dining experience that stands out from a restaurant world that can feel annoyingly cookie-cutter."
These four places certainly stand out, though they're just a handful of a growing number of options for wine lovers in the Mile High City and Colorado's destination mountain towns. Bernstein says the magazine's yearly list comes directly from the editors and staff at Wine Enthusiast. He adds that a "great wine program can take many forms," and the size of the wine list doesn't matter as much as the overall quality.
"The only criteria is that they be places where wine is a priority and is an integral part of the dining experience," the editor adds. "Food, atmosphere and service are just as important as the wine program, since no wine lover wants to go to a restaurant with mediocre food, atmosphere or service, no matter how impressive the wine list is."
The four Colorado restaurants on the list made the cut for various reasons. Morin, for example, has a program overseen by wine director Mary Allison Wright that focuses on French-inspired wines. Wright says she could easily have made her list all French, she but prefers a playful approach to highlight other regions in the same way Morin chef/partner Max MacKissock plays with international ingredients when building French dishes.
"Because Max's food isn’t super-traditional French and it's pulling flavors from Vietnam, North Africa, Martinique and Canada, countries who have put their mark on French food, I wanted the wine to be French in nature," says Wright. "Or if the wine isn't from there, it's going to be an old vine from California or something awesome that inspires us."
The list at Morin has around 200 options at any given time, with sparkling wine and Champagne making up a healthy chunk of that. One whimsical aspect to this list comes in the form of symbols used to indicate selections, which can be found next to the price tag on each bottle. A diamond means crystalline, a Deathly Hallows symbol (from the Harry Potter books) denotes a sense of mystery in the glass, and the unpronounceable symbol Prince once used as his moniker signals wines with a bit of funk. These, along with four other symbols (sometimes used in combination), give guests an idea of what to expect in the glass.
"We have really made it a point to dismantle the traditional wine culture and barriers to feel like you have the right to know about wine, learn more about it and have it in your life," says Wright over the phone. "We wanted to make it something easily accessible for all our diners."
On the Italian side, both Barolo Grill and Tavernetta boast extensive cellars focused on Italy's producers. Barolo Grill's bottles are selected by sommelier Erin Lindstone and owner/wine director Ryan Fletter. The long, detailed catalogue includes plenty of wines by the glass and regional rarities. Wines from around Europe and the U.S. also make appearances, but these selections pale compared to the Piemonte, Veneto and Toscana varieties.
At Tavenetta, wine director Carlin Karr has compiled a detailed, ever-changing list of 300 to 400 Italian labels — or, she says, as much as will fit in the wine cellar. Karr updates and reprints her inventory daily, so it's unlikely you'll pick something that's out of stock.
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"It's definitely been taking a deep dive into Italy, and I don't know anyone else in the state that has, with the exception of [our] Champagnes, an only-Italian list," Karr explains. "I'm always looking for wines that are really interesting, provide great value and are ones our diners don't see elsewhere."
While it might seem restrictive to maintain an all-Italian collection, Karr finds it exciting and appreciates having those boundaries when exploring options. "It's forced me to find the best of what Italy has to offer," she adds.
Deno's Mountain Bistro in Winter Park doesn't have a huge range of choices like the others on Wine Enthusiast's list, but the wine knowledge has grown deeper over the restaurant's long history. Owned by Deno Kutrumbos and his two sons, Nick and Teddy, the eatery opened in 1976. The brothers have spent time in California, Italy and Central America studying wine and food, and that experience is what helped put Deno's on the national food-and-wine map.
As for Denver, there are plenty of other wine spots to visit that didn't make Wine Enthusiast's list. Some favorites include Spuntino and its fabulous wine dinners in Highland; the Italian wine and amaro program at Coperta in Uptown; newcomer Noble Riot in RiNo; and the graffitied Acorn at the Source.