If you’re like most restaurant diners, you scrutinize the menu long before you peek at the wine list. That’s the normal approach to restaurant wine. I’ve come to embrace a different approach, however, inspired in part by a couple of extraordinary dining experiences that veered off in another direction.
Several years ago, during a tour of California's Central Coast, I popped into the Paso Robles restaurant Bistro Laurent cradling a superb bottle of grand cru Burgundy. The sommelier eyed it and made a novel proposal: Would I like the chef to prepare a special three-course dinner to complement my wine selection? The result was rather sensational. Shortly thereafter, while entertaining friends at the acclaimed San Diego restaurant Addison, I pored over the extensive wine list and selected two exceptional, extremely rare wines to be served with dinner -- without consulting the menu first. The sommelier, not missing a beat, offered me the same novel proposal: Would I like the chef to prepare a tasting menu to complement the wines selected? It was another home run. I have been a convert ever since. Now, especially when dining in a restaurant renowned for its wine selection, I almost always choose the wine first and then look at the menu to build my dining experience around the flavors I'm looking to bring out in the wine. Best Value Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine. Edna Valley Vineyard 2016 Pinot Grigio, California ($14) -- Edna Valley's 2016 pinot grigio showcases what seems to be an evolving style in California. With the emphasis on fruit purity, albeit in a subtle form, this vintage delivers remarkable complexity in an inexpensive package. It shows aromas of red citrus, pear, green apple and green citrus, as well as excellent length despite pinot grigio's inherent subtlety. Rating: 89. Niro 2015 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, Italy ($15) -- Central Italy's Abruzzo region, overlooking the Adriatic Sea, is one of Italy's most beautiful. The pace of life is mellow, much like the wines. The dominant red wine, Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, typically exhibits soft, ripe textures with the character of succulent dark fruit. The price is just as mellow, which is an added bonus. The 2015 from Niro is a prime example, a supple, delicious red that can handle grilled meats and tangy tomato sauces with equal aplomb. Rating: 88. Wild Horse 2015 Merlot, Central Coast ($17) -- California's Central Coast benefits from cool coastal influences that play right into the hands of merlot growers. Merlot loves cool evenings, which allow the grapes to recover from the daytime heat and thus retain freshness and acidity. Wild Horse makes the most of it with a lovely merlot from the 2015 vintage. This wine shows ripe plum and dark-cherry fruit, a note of wood spice and balanced tannins. Rating: 87. Tasting Notes Clos du Val 2016 Pinot Noir Rose, Estate, Carneros ($30) -- The outside temps might be a bit cooler, but that doesn't mean the season for dry rose wines is over. Thanksgiving is a perfect opportunity to enjoy rose, and this rose of pinot noir from Clos du Val is a worthy wine for the Thanksgiving feast. Indeed, this is one of the finest dry rose wines from the Napa Valley in the 2016 vintage. Crisp and refreshing, it delivers aromas of strawberry, cherry and watermelon. With exquisite balance, it will easily handle the combination of sweet and savory flavors at the Thanksgiving table. Rating: 90. Alamos 2015 'Seleccion' Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina ($20) -- Argentina continues to be the world leader in wine value, particularly with malbec, its signature grape. The Seleccion from Alamos offers richly layered dark fruits, notes of vanilla and cedar, and a gentle touch of wood spice. This vintage is full-bodied and supple with impressive length on the finish. Ratings: 88. Wild Horse 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Central Coast ($20) -- Good cabernet sauvignon for $20 or less is increasingly rare. Wild Horse delivers the goods, however, with a stellar cab from the 2014 vintage. Approachable and ready to drink now, this young cab exhibits ripe blackberry and currant fruit, a dollop of toasty oak and a gentle whiff of oak vanillin to complete the package. Rating: 88. Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.