Our personal choice for the top wine lists in town would be Highlands Bar & Grill, Icon, and Local.
We have always enjoyed the wine list at Anthony Marini's restaurants (currently Local, formerly AMBA), which were always well-thought-out with many affordable surprises, but it has really gone that extra mile since the addition of Wine Steward James W. Smith III to the staff.
Icon was too new to have made this year's list, but Jake Davidson, who's in charge of their wine program, told me he's definitely planning to enter. "It's a huge honor and gives you a lot of exposure you might not otherwise receive. I am looking forward to getting involved with that next year and Wine Enthusiast as well."
I suspect that Highlands didn't enter (I e-mailed them to ask but have not yet gotten a reply). It's just inconceivable that they would not be chosen, with more than 300 wines on the list. As they say on their web site, "It has been said of Highlands, that it is clear from the wine list that Frank Stitt is much more interested in drinking wine than he is in showing it off." Highlands is where we really started learning about wine. The by-the-glass selection changes frequently, so you can try something new, including less-common varietals, on every visit. The servers are knowledgeable about wine -- and happy to share that knowledge.
For years, we've seen restaurants market themselves using the Wine Spectator award. We recently started subscribing to Wine Spectator and finally read about what that really means. We were interested to find out that unless you're one of the Grand Award winners, it has nothing to do with the food or service (which explains why Fox Valley is in there, even though we think their food is highly overrated). As one newspaper blogger quoted from last year's dining guide issue, "It’s important to note that our awards evaluate wine lists, not restaurants as a whole. While we assume that the level of food and service will be commensurate with the wine lists entered by award winners, this unfortunately is not always true."
The basic award level, which applies to all the Alabama restaurants in the list, is awarded for wine lists "that offer a well-chosen selection of quality producers, along with a thematic match to the menu in both price and style. Typically, these lists offer at least 100 selections." The overall presentation and appearance of the list is also taken into consideration. To enter, restaurants must submit a copy of their current wine list and dinner menu, plus a cover letter that describes their wine program -- and a $250 entry fee.
Sean Meyer, who has been sommelier for Frank Stitt's restaurants the past couple of years and recently quit to start his own wine consulting business, Qsommelier, told me, "The list used to be a simple journalistic venture in which Wine Spectator was happy to catalog the best wine lists across the U.S. for the enjoyment of their readers. Unfortunately, they began to charge for submission, which really, in my opinion, begins to be more about buying a line of print on a page than true investigation. This is not to belittle the restaurants who did go through the process. The Wine Spectator still uses the same strict standards by which it awards each list -- in fact, I believe it is even harder to gain the grand award than it was 20 years ago."