Is There A Sommelier In The House?
Yes. Nine of them, in fact. And they're bringing the best values on their exalted wine lists straight to your kitchen table.
By Bryan Miller

(MONEY Magazine) – Unless you know a lot about grapes, trips to the local wine shop can be unsatisfying: lots of bottles you don't recognize, a few you do, and confusing price ranges. Having a sommelier at your side--one of those people in better restaurants who appear over your shoulder chirping about which viognier would best complement your tilapia--would help you find the treasures hiding on the shelves. You could ask him what he serves to guests at home, how he finds the best values and why some great bottles are underpriced. Just for example.

We couldn't stand letting those deals go undiscovered any longer, so we asked sommeliers at some of the country's best restaurants to reveal the top values on their wine lists. Many of their picks below are less than $25, and the slightly higher-priced ones are well worth the extra money. All are available at fine wine shops or on the Internet. The sommeliers chose different wines made from all kinds of grapes from all over the world, but they agreed on one point about value: Buy these wines now, before people catch on and prices go up.

1999 Gruet Methode Champenoise, Blanc de Blancs Albuquerque $22

CHOSEN BY Jay Coldren RESTAURANT Indebleu Washington, D.C.

"When I first heard it was from Albuquerque, I said, 'Yeah, okay, New Mexico.' It's always a challenge asking someone to commit to sparkling wine grown in a desert, but this is a trip worth taking. The Gruet family is an old wine-making family from Champagne, France. The climate where this wine is made is special: Every day at 4 p.m. it rains for 20 minutes, and at night it goes down to the 60s. The soil is sandy [allowing rain to sift through it easily, moistening roots but not flooding them]. The winery is an interesting place--when I looked up at the ceiling, there were dents from the disgorging of corks. The price might be low because land and warehouse space are relatively cheap."

2003 Marquis Philips Shiraz South Eastern Australia $16

CHOSEN BY Christopher Coon RESTAURANT Studio, at Montage Resort & Spa Laguna Beach, Calif.

"We have 2,108 wines on our list, so I rely on salespeople. The sales guy practically busted down my door with this wine. It blew me away. I thought, 'This is a wow for $16.' The winemaker, Sparky Marquis, is this bigger-than-life fellow. You could bottle his energy. The whole time he was visiting us he wore this crown, like a monarch. I don't know why. I went to visit him later in Australia and he was still wearing it. Why is the price so low? He may be trying to get his foot in the door over here. We bought 600 bottles and burned through them in less than six months. We bought it immediately because we didn't want another buyer to taste it, love it and buy it all out from under us before we could get a chance."

2002 Porter Creek Fiona's Hill Pinot Noir Russian River Valley, Calif. $28

CHOSEN BY Andrew Fortgang RESTAURANT Craft New York City

"This wine compares with others that can be frightfully expensive. For the quality, the price is exceptionally good. Few other pinots, from either side of the pond, exhibit as much balance at this price. I discovered it on a trip out to the vineyards. The winemaker wanted me to see everything, so we hopped into his really old truck and drove around the vineyards at 100 miles an hour. At one point we were at a 45-degree angle, and I was sure we were going to roll down the hill."

2002 Sea Smoke Cellars Botella Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills, Calif. $25

CHOSEN BY Caroline Styne RESTAURANT A.O.C. Los Angeles

"Serve this at a dinner party, and your guests will think it's a $50 or $60 bottle of wine. The Santa Rita Hills are a relatively new viticultural area above Santa Barbara with perfect growing conditions for chardonnay and pinot noir. This is the least expensive of three pinot noirs they make. I'm obsessed with this region right now because there are some amazing winemakers there who are making very affordable (and some unaffordable) wines."

2003 Villa Carafa Falanghina Campi Flegrei Italy $16

CHOSEN BY Luca Pasquinelli RESTAURANT Peristyle New Orleans

"There are hundreds of obscure grapes in Italy that nobody knows about. These winemakers go around and find the most interesting ones for their wines--the winery uses more than 12 different grapes. The vineyards are on the coast, just north of Naples, and this Falanghina grape benefits from a soil rich in such volcanic elements as pumice, which give character to grapes grown in this region. It's a good alternative to pinot grigio, which is way overpriced today."

2003 DeLille Cellars Chaleur Estate Blanc Columbia Valley, Wash. $36

CHOSEN BY Dawn Lamendola RESTAURANT Mistral Boston

"This wine is a dead ringer for a good white Bordeaux like the Blanc de Lynch-Bages, which we have on our list for $120 and retails for about $65. We're bringing it out for spring. I tried it when I visited the property last July, and it was unlike any white I'd tasted from America--a great food wine. You could drink it with many kinds of seafood, like Dover sole and halibut, or with light meats like veal."

2003 Rustenberg Stellenbosch Chardonnay South Africa $20

CHOSEN BY Philip Shayne RESTAURANT Chef Allen's Aventura, Fla.

"We have a mainstream client base who like flavors that they are familiar with. American palates are not accustomed to the unusual flavors that come out of South Africa, but this wine is appealing across the board--a chardonnay's chardonnay that's instantly recognizable. And it's even a little cheaper. South African chardonnays cost a little less than their French and California counterparts."

2003 Honig Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley $14

CHOSEN BY Bryan Ogden RESTAURANT Bradley Ogden at Caesars Palace Las Vegas

"In Las Vegas people tend to go for straightforward wines that they know. They're not much for experimenting with new grapes. The Honig is a classic example of a good experiment, with its flavors of citrus, minerals, tropical fruits. And lots of acid, so it's good with lighter fare like salads and seafood. This has been one of the by-the-glass selections for years."

2003 Ken Wright Cellars Freedom Hill Pinot Blanc Willamette Valley, Ore. $20

CHOSEN BY Kevin Good RESTAURANT Canoe Atlanta

"I have a lot of fun finding unusual selections for our list. Ken Wright is one of those rock star winemakers--if you're into pinots, he is right up there. The pinot blanc is a food-friendly wine and fits the style of our comfort food. It's also a great sipping wine. I think it's a great buy."