Grape Expectations – Las Vegas’s Best Wine Drinking

(ELV note: The following article appears this month in Desert Companion magazine. Continue reading below or click here to see it in its original format. Unfortunately, to read it in the magazine, you’ll have to muddle through all sorts of drivel about whiskies, cocktails and beer — inferior liquids that exist only as weak(?) substitutes for the beverage you ought to be drinking.)

GRAPE EXPECTATIONS – Las Vegas’s Best Wine Drinking

Las Vegas isn’t really a “wine bar” sort of town.  Wine bars generally require (and promote) a certain level of contemplative thought, and Las Vegas generally is about as contemplative as a UFC cage match. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t fabulous places to indulge in your taste for fermented grapes. What it means is that you have to go to some of our finer restaurants to find wines (by the glass or bottle), that will blow your socks off. Below are my 13 favorite sipping venues – places where our town’s great sommeliers take enormous pride in pouring vintages from around the globe – wines you can drink, or think about, to your grape’s content.


Greek wines may be unpronounceable, but they’re also delicious. They’re also substantially under-priced compared to similar seafood-friendly wines from France and Italy. Don’t even try to master the odd lisps and tongue rolls of Assyrtiko, Moshofilero or Mavrodaphne. Just point and smile, or ask the staff for help. (I promise they won’t make fun of you.) Anyone who orders anything but Greek wines with this food should be sentenced to a year of drinking nothing but Harvey Wallbangers.


The list is as thick as a dictionary, and, at first blush, not for the faint of heart or parsimonious of purse. But look closely and you’ll find a surprising number of bargains for under $100. Or ask sommelier Phil Park and he will happily point them out to you. The champagne bar is where you’ll find serious oenophiles perusing the list a full half hour before their reservation, just like they do it in France.


These two sister restaurants are a few miles apart, but connected by a love of white wines that owner Bank Atcharawan has successfully brought to Chinatown. Both lists are deep in Rieslings and chardonnays, and the champagne selection at Chada Street puts most Strip lists to shame, at decidedly gentler prices. Not for nothing does every sommelier in Las Vegas treat both of these venues like their personal after-hours club.


A pinot noir wall, lakeside dining and the gentlest mark-ups in town ($10 over retail) make MB a must-stop on any wine lover’s tour of Vegas. Jeff and Rhonda Wyatt are always there to help you choose a glass or a case of whatever mainstream cab or off-beat syrah suits your fancy. Or do what I do: just stick with Burgundy and go nuts.


What I love about Italian wines is what I love about Italians and Italian food – they are friendly, passionate, fiercely regional and confusing, in a good way. Don’t know your Montelcinos from your Montepulcianos? No problemo, Geno Ferraro is always there to help you parse the Barbarescos from the Barolos. One of the greatest Italian lists in America at one of our finest Italian restaurants.


I don’t understand Spanish wine any more than I understand how José Andrés can have so much energy and so many great restaurants. But the next best thing to knowing a lot about a country’s wines is knowing a sommelier who is eager to teach you. Chloe Helfand is that gal in Las Vegas, and she is always there with a smile and a lip-smacking wine you don’t know made with a grape you’ve never heard of. Which is one of the reasons we love sommeliers. And Chloe.


Mark Hefter’s wine program is a lot like Mark Hefter: Fun, interesting, intelligent and all-over-the-map. Hefter has poured wine from Le Cirque 2000 in New York to Spago and Circo in Las Vegas, and needless to say, the man knows his grapes. With over 50 wines by the glass, he can dazzle anyone from the novice drinker to the dedicated oenophile. But what we love about his list is its eclecticism. Here is where you can dip your toe into the world’s most interesting wines at very friendly price points. Curious about those orange and pink wines that are all the rage these days? Here’s where to start.


If your measure of a great wine bar is the number of wines by the glass offered, look elsewhere. If you rate your wine tasting by quality – of the breadth and depth of the list, the bar snacks, the staff, and the mixology (should you stray into creative boozy territory) — then this is your place. The list is conveniently located inside the (massive) menu, and the mark-ups are not for the timid. But the excellence of everything – from the steaks to the pastas to the Super-Tuscan verticals – will take your breath away.


Robert Parker (yeah, that Robert Parker) calls Lotus’s wine card the greatest German wine list in America, and we have no reason to argue with him. It’s also shoulder-deep in sake, Alsatian whites, and Austrian Grüner Veltliners – all of which match (in surprising ways) Saipan Chutima’s fierce and fiery country Thai cooking.  This is where you’ll find almost every wine professional in town on their day off, usually at a table groaning with Riesling bottles.


The trouble with Sage is the food is so good sometimes you forget about the wine,  and the wine list is so good sometimes you forget about the food. I like California pinot noir and chardonnay with Shawn McClain’s innovative fare, but the list covers the world in all areas of consequence. Choices like this are a happy conundrum to have, whether you’re dining in the main room or hanging out in the stunning bar.


Great wine drinking in the ‘burbs is harder to find than a corner without a fast food franchise. Hearthstone deserves props for actually having a wine program, and for a list that breaks down according to varietal character – “Big Reds,” “Crisp, Clean & Lean,” “Voluptuous But Light,” etc. The by-the-glass selection is solid, but what really gets our attention is the ½ off Monday night specials, that allows for some serious drinking of some serious bottles. That discount only counts for bottles under a Benjamin, but if you’ve got the coin, $2,500 for a bottle of ‘o5 DRC Echezeaux, or $2,800 for some Screaming Eagle, are also flat out steals.

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Downtown Las Vegas is so wine-challenged it makes Summerlin look like Napa Valley. Amidst all of the bars and hipster hangouts, though, this teeny tiny space in Container Park holds forth with small selection of interesting reds and whites from around the globe – most in the $30-$60 range. Wine snobs will be underwhelmed, but for those looking for a break from craft cocktails and exotic coffees, it’s an oasis.