Do you hear that? Conversations are happening about wine. Exchanges of curiosity and knowledge are taking place in friendly and modest settings, whether the cozy bistro, the neighborhood wine bar or the elegant restaurant. The image of a stuffy sommelier in a starched white shirt looking down his nose as you sweat over the pronunciation of a wine from a producer you don’t know anything about has become lore. Today’s wine-drinking culture won’t have any of it. Madison makes it easy to learn the story poured in every glass, to loosen our neckties (finally!) and have fun drinking wine. Learning which wines taste good to you, how they’re made and on whose soil the vines have taken root is cause for all to raise a glass. Because in Madison, the wine experience is full and the people to share it with are wonderful.
Both locations, on Whitney Way and in nearby Cambridge, offer walk-in wine tastings during regular business hours with a petite dining menu provided by executive chef Noah Przybylski, former chef of Brocach Irish Pub on Capitol Square. Many wines are from central coastal California, predominantly San Luis Obispo County and Paso Robles. Featured reds include syrahs, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. Among the whites: chardonnay, pinot gris and muscat, with a couple of rosés offered as well. The winery also is planting a vineyard in Cambridge, just 20 minutes from Madison, and will cater events and weddings. Guests can purchase a wine club membership and enjoy discounts on a six- or 12-bottle wine commitment.
The Madison tasting room, Cambridge Winery’s original location, 1001 S. Whitney Way, 819-6672; Cambridge tasting room and event center, 700 Kenseth Way, Cambridge, 423-2348
Downtown and across from the Overture Center for the Arts, this Best of Madison 2017 silver winner for ambiance is the place to enjoy a glass of wine pre- or post-performance. There’s a business casual vibe at the bar, with plenty of natural light that fades over the room beautifully just before sunset. The menu features a rosé flight of 2.5-ounce pours from grapes grown in Italy, France and Oregon. Within a collection of 150 bottles and more than 20 poured by the glass, Italian pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, chianti classico and a nebbiolo d’Alba are featured among Argentinian and Australian reds and German and Californian whites. Advanced certified sommelier and general manager Andres Medina ensures this is a thoughtful list curated to pair with chef Giovanni Novella’s Italian specialties, from appetizers of citrusy marinated olives and hunks of bread for dipping in creamy burrata and olive oil to main plates of spaghetti and meatballs and swordfish Puttanesca. 122 W. Mifflin St., 284-9378 BOM
Eno Vino Wine Bar and Bistro
This far west side restaurant received a Wine Spectator magazine’s Award of Excellence in 2016 and garnered gold in Best of Madison 2017 for wine bar. Dark wood, chocolate leather chairs and low light define this place as one of sophistication, and it’s no wonder it also nabbed bronze in the Best of Madison 2017 category for ambiance and silver for upscale dining. Grab a spot at the bar or tuck away for an intimate evening at a candlelit table. You may wish to begin the evening clinking champagne glasses of sparkling Spanish Cava Brut Reserva or Italian Prosecco. On the menu is a cabernet franc from Sonoma, California, a geisenheim from local Botham Vineyards of Barneveld, gewurtztraminer from Alsace, France, and a malbec from Mendoza, Argentina. Wine and tapas Wednesdays, a weekly event, are a great way to experience expertly chosen wine pairings. A reservation is suggested and makes sense. Private wine locker ownership is available for the serious wine drinker.
601 Junction Road, 664-9565; Downtown Eno atop the new AC Hotel Madison, 1 N. Webster St. BOM
Field Table Restaurant & Market
“I believe we have the largest natural wine collection in the Midwest,” says owner Trish Davis. It’s because they have the ability to store these wines at a cool temperature using Sub-Zero wine coolers to give the care these reds and whites—which receive only minimal intervention and are absent any preservatives or stabilizers—need to maintain their integrity. You’ll find only wines that are sustainable, biodynamic or organic on the menu and they are clearly marked, allowing full transparency at this more recent addition to the Capitol Square restaurant scene. With the assistance of executive chef Cameron Magee, who has been a part of the Field Table team since its inception, Field Table also offers natural wine dinners and pairings. There are 50 to 70 bottles from all over the world as well as a dozen on the glass pour list, which includes several on tap, like the bubbly Pét-Nat, or Pétillant Naturel. Come spring, when the doors open and the scent of tulips waft off the Capitol lawn, this is the table to be at.
10 W. Mifflin, 630-9222
Jonny Hunter, a semifinalist for this year’s James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest (making this his third consecutive nominated year), and his team are known for bringing out the best of Midwest ingredients. The Forequarter wine program heightens the dining experience of this intimate restaurant on the east side with the unassuming façade—drive too fast and you might miss it. Part of the Underground Food Collective, the restaurant offers an extensive and colorful Italian and French-heavy wine list—sparklings, whites and reds to go with an exceptional seasonal menu. The cabernet franc longs for companionship with earthy items, including the cheese plate, the charcuterie board with pickles, mustard, olives and bread, mindfully harvested meats as well as vegetable-centric plates.
708¼ E. Johnson St., 609-4717
Come for the view, stay for the wine. Located on the top floor of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Fresco offers a terrace-top dining experience high above the shops and restaurants of State Street. Chief creative officer and certified sommelier of Food Fight Restaurant Group Caitlin Suemnicht curates the menu’s reds and whites. A user-friendly menu lists wines by titled sections such as “bright and tangy,” “aromatic,” “rich and creamy” and “jammy spice,” with cheeky subheads that announce flavors such as baked apple, honeysuckle, clove and lime blossom. Among the sparkling wine list is Veuve Cliquot yellow label Champagne. All wines pair with a contemporary and seasonal menu that opens with a hard-to-choose-from list of appetizers, such as tuna tartare, wine-poached potatoes and Vietnamese spring rolls.
227 State St., 663-7374
On the Square, tucked between Grace Episcopal Church and the Wisconsin Historical Museum, sits this cozy and elegant wine bar, a Best of Madison 2017 winner. Lucas Henning, certified sommelier and co-owner (with wife Erin Bemis and partner Sam McDaniel), went to Oregon, Wisconsin, last year and made wine. The Graft Homage pinot noir is now ready to be enjoyed. Quite comfortable around a vineyard, Henning lived in Napa Valley, California, as well as Barolo, Italy, where he also made wine. Working with small, sustainable family-owned operations is a priority at Graft, like the Quivira vineyards Grenache from Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, which has flavors including bing cherry, wild strawberry preserves and black raspberry—perfect for pinot noir lovers. Enjoy small plates seasonally fresh by design to pair with every sip.
18 N. Carroll St., 229-8800 BOM
Owner and executive chef Dan Fox, a James Beard semifinalist this year (making this his third consecutive year for the prestigious award for Best Chef: Midwest) and Madison Magazine’s Chef of the Year in 2013, puts as much thought into his wine list as he does his food. This 4-year-old, just-off-the-Square restaurant offers an upscale farm-to-table menu (the pork on the menu is from heritage-breed pigs he raises on his farm) served in a rustic setting. And there’s a story behind the wine he serves. Hand-crafted wines from small family-owned farms—such as the Big Table Farm’s Laughing Pig Rosé and the Inman Family’s Pinot Noir from Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley—are blended with world varietals and listed on the menu in descending order from lighter to fuller, with 15 wines poured by the glass.
131 E. Mifflin St., 283-9500
This year’s James Beard-nominated “Outstanding Restaurant,” led by Chef Tory Miller, 2012 James Beard winner for Best Chef: Midwest, is the place to trust for exceptional food and wine selection and service. A leader in the local food movement and a staple of Madison culinary culture since 1976, L’Etoile works with more than 200 local farmers and food makers. The wine is no exception. This downtown restaurant has been included in Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants List in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Most wines on the menu are produced by small farms, which creates an exciting list of lesser-known names. A 75-page tome of German riesling, nebbiolo, brunello, a Spanish white from the Rias Baixas region and Champagne (mostly created on small-acreage vineyards) will perhaps require navigation from L’Etoile’s team of sommeliers: Michael Kwas and Stephen McGinnis.
1 S. Pinckney St., 251-0500 BOM
A muscadet from France’s Loire Valley, which is the oldest wine-growing region in the world, tastes pleasantly of salt from seashells, with citrus notes of grapefruit and lemon. It is a white that is crisp and a companion to Sardine’s oysters on the half shell. A malbec from Argentina, a French gamay that speaks of springtime, pinot noirs and chardonnays from California and a grassy sauvignon blanc from New Zealand are included on the lengthy menu. There’s a short list of wine by the glass. Maybe bring friends to enjoy the full extent of varietal offerings. Chefs/owners and Chicago natives Phillip Hurley and John Gadau have California restaurant experience that shines through in their classic interpretation of local ingredients. This sun-filled bistro by the lake is legendary, finishing strong with gold in not one, not two, but three Best of Madison 2017 categories: brunch, lake view and seafood. Consider starting the weekend with a glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne—crisp and elegant—while deciding among luxurious choices, such as brioche French toast, baked creamed eggs or the warm duck confit salad.
617 Williamson St., 441-1600 BOM
Square Wine Co.
Consider this your farmers’ market of wine. This is a wine retail store stocking bottles from small growers, each with a sense of place and terroir. This is a good place to get your feet wet and have an exchange with knowledgeable staff about the wines during Friday and Saturday tasting hours. Then go out for dinner at one of downtown’s restaurants and test your newfound wine knowledge. Wine classes are offered and in the past have included pairing wine with cheese and sake with sushi. Join the club: A half-year membership allows you to receive either one or two bottles a month.
5 N. Pinckney St., 819-6191
Owners Molly Moran and husband Conor Moran, Wisconsin Book Festival director, have created a neighborhood retail space offering wine tasting in a casual, social atmosphere. Bring your own pairings to enjoy, or make this your pre-dinner stop on your way to any one of the Schenk-Atwood neighborhood’s eclectic restaurants. Offering bottles of everyday drinkable wine with knowledge and approachable service, the Morans hope you’ll pick up a bottle on your way home, or bring friends and have a glass over inspired conversation. 2045 Atwood Ave., No. 111, 284-9732
Toot + Kate’s Winebar
Sisters Megan “Toot” Clark and Kate Biechler, with Kate’s husband Ryan Biechler, want you to know that they are not wine connoisseurs, and you don’t have to be one either to come to their wine bar in downtown Verona, where you dispense wine from 16 taps yourself. They take your credit card information up front, and how much or how little you sample is up to you. From a small 2.5-ounce pour to a full glass, this is your chance to try wines you otherwise wouldn’t dare order. Down to earth, super friendly and hardly intimidating, this is the place to learn about the wines you like.
109 S. Main St., Verona, 497-1111 BOM
Exclusive wine web extras
Here are Sommelier Caitlin Suemnicht's white and red picks for the summer.