Head to Alaska immediately…
Six weeks a year is a small window for perfect weather. Visiting Alaska in the second half of June and throughout the month of July is the one guarantee of sunny skies and calmer seas. August or September can be beautiful, but autumn winds and cooling rains often start this early. May might be lovely, but there could also be snow. Of course, if you love winter, are curious about seeing the Northern Lights, or love experiencing what feels like an almost perpetual night sky, then you’ll want to visit in the month of December. For downhill skiing, you’ll head to Alyeska just south of Anchorage.
I grew up in Alaska, migrating between school years spent in Anchorage and the western coast to Bristol Bay in summers and winter breaks. People often ask me for suggestions about travelling in the 49th state. And just as often they ask if they can even drink wine in Alaska.
Fine dining and more interesting wine lists began in Anchorage in the early 1980s. The oil boom spurred by the opening of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the late 1970s brought residents from around the world and the money to spend on nicer things. At the same time, a small influx of chefs with an interest in cuisine from France, Japan and Italy brought with them a demand for fine wine. Soon after this, forward-thinking marketers from California began targeting the state as a perfect match for the growing trend towards steak houses and bistros. Restaurants such as The Marx Brothers and the Crow’s Nest in downtown Anchorage, as well as Jens’ in mid-town, helped ensure a place for burgundy, bordeaux and champagne in the city.
In the last decade, due to changes with local wine reps and distributor portfolios, French wine is less prevalent while South African, Australian, Chilean, Washington and Oregon wines have increased. At the same time, it’s become easier to find decent wine in Anchorage from retail stores as well as in restaurants.
A lot of people hear about the cruise ships that travel the islands of south-eastern Alaska. There are even wine cruises on more modestly sized boats that navigate these waters. But Anchorage is where you can land on solid ground and enjoy a bit of city life before or after witnessing the wilds of the north. For those of you taking this route, here are a few suggestions for drinking wine in Anchorage, Alaska.
Anchorage was founded in 1914 as the epicentre of Alaska’s railway system, uniting the waterways of the south with trains traveling inland to the north. The historic railway building is still intact near the water. Also in the early 1900s, a few years after the train station, two airstrips were built on the flats above the water, effectively connecting the region by air, rail and boat. When the airport moved to another part of town, the historic runways were converted into Anchorage’s first public park, which still runs the length of downtown, separated now into smaller parks by cross-streets and dotted with outdoor art. In downtown you’ll also find various cultural points of interest, a beautiful walk along the water and great views of the mountains.
For views of the water on one side and the mountains on the other, head to Crow’s Nest at the top of the Captain Cook Hotel. It continues to boast the deepest wine list, offering a book of wines from around the world and numerous older vintages. The restaurant harks back to an older era, still serving flaming desserts made at the table and plenty of steak. But in season the seafood selection is excellent, and the chef has started experimenting with newer flavours. All things considered, the wines are reasonably priced. You’ll find some wonderful surprises such as 1996 Salon Champagne, 1998 Togni Cabernet Sauvignon and older bottles of Vietti Barolo. You need reservations for the restaurant and attire is business casual, but there is also a bar in the centre of the top floor where you can often sneak in for a drink.
The Hotel Captain Cook, 939 W 5 th Ave, Anchorage; tel: +1-907-276-6000
The Marx Brothers
One of the city’s historic homes has been converted into an intimate restaurant with Anchorage’s other wide-ranging wine list. Here the menu changes every night offering flavourful presentations of fresh seafood and meat. As simple as it sounds, the Caesar salad, made to order at your table, is worthwhile, as is whichever seafood they have fresh that night. When it opened The Marx Brothers was one of the first to introduce Anchorage residents to the various regions of Burgundy through a comprehensive wine list. It’s also where in one of my prouder wine moments I tricked my mom into enjoying Pinot by ordering Gevrey-Chambertin. She likes her wine ‘spicy and chewy’ and didn’t know what Burgundy meant. Today, the Burgundy section has shrunk but there is still plenty worth ordering, including some historic vintages of Au Bon Climat or Cameron’s Clos Electrique, as well as a small selection of some older Italian treasures and always champagne. The by-the-glass list focuses now on value but there are 15 selections plus at least two sparkling options. You do need reservations but there is no dress code.
627 W 3rd Ave, Anchorage; tel: +1-907-278-2133
If you want to enjoy flights of wine by the glass, Crush is the one place in town to go. Since the pandemic it has shifted to late afternoon and evening hours only so it is rather harder to go for only a glass of wine, but you can still order flights with something from the bistro menu. When it opened, Crush was among the first to introduce diners in the region to some of the better wines of South America, as well as flights of lesser-known varieties. Only a few Anchorage restaurants allow wine to be carried in, but if you need wine retail, Crush has a shop beside the bistro as well. They are good at keeping up to date with the latest wine trends while retaining the stalwart classics of regions around the world.
328 G St, Anchorage; tel: +1-907-865-9198
The truth is that mid-town Anchorage is more strip malls and businesses than charming, but if you are going to be spending any time in Anchorage, you’ll probably venture into this part of town to buy more local (not kitschy) gifts, or get errands done. Alaska Sausage & Seafood can be found here and ships local seafood and meat gifts, as well as a few other foodstuffs worth considering.
For wine retail, La Bodega is worth investigating. The wine selection is modest but with a few exciting finds. There are always a few grower champagnes worth buying. The Tesselaarsdal Pinot from Hemel-en-Aarde Ridge made its way into La Bodega before I was able to buy it in California. And a charming selection of Willamette Valley wines is always there too. They have an entire cooler devoted to no- and low-alcohol options, and an enormous selection of craft liquors and cocktail ingredients as well. This is also the best place to go for Alaskan beer. (Incidentally, Alaskans are obsessed with ice cream. The ice cream place most popular with locals, Wild Scoops, is next door to La Bodega. They offer a selection of ice creams made with local ingredients and wild flavours that are worth trying if it’s your first time to Alaska and you’re curious.)
530 E Benson Blvd #5, Anchorage; tel: +1-907-569-3800
When he was still alive Jens made much of celebrating St-Jean-Baptiste Day. One of the most fun summer activities in Anchorage was watching Jens and all the other revellers that day. Today, the intimate restaurant is still worth the visit for Danish specialities. As with most fine dining in Alaska, the seafood is a standout but all of Jens’ dishes are good. The wine list has become much trimmer, but I can rely on a restrained classic like Emmolo Merlot for myself, and a heartier California Zinfandel or Cabernet for my mom. On busier nights it is smart to make a reservation but there is often room at the bar. They also serve lunch.
701 W 36th Ave, Anchorage; tel: +1-907-561-5367
The Huffman area on the southside of Anchorage is more properly for locals than tourists but it is next to great hiking up in the Chugach Mountains, most especially around the area known as Flat Top, and it is also on the way to the Potter Marsh Wildlife Viewing Boardwalk for birdwatching.
My parents’ favourite restaurant, Southside Bistro offers a mix of house-made pasta, fresh seafood and a few classic meat selections. I regularly opt for the seasonal pasta. My parents consistently go for the halibut or the salmon. Occasionally my mom will get the steak. The wine list offers a global selection though it does tend more towards the west coast of the United States. Still, they manage to sneak in some older vintages even of wines such as Ridge Monte Bello, Cayuse Cailloux and Penfolds Grange. There are always a few unexpected options, such as Jansz sparking Pinot from Tasmania, as well as a couple of pages of choice wines from Europe. Thanks to my mom’s insistence, Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú is always on offer. The bistro side tends to need reservations but there is a casual side that can usually take walk-ins.
1320 Huffman Park Dr, Anchorage; tel: +1-907-348-0088
Anchorage Wine House
Next to Southside Bistro, the retail shop Anchorage Wine House offers a good selection of classic wines with a special focus on California and the Pacific Northwest but there are nice options from France and Italy as well, and a few higher-end champagnes and a good choice of white wines. This is the sole stockist of the Bell’s Nursery wines I wrote about earlier this year. Mike McVittie, the wine buyer and manager, is usually there during the day, knows his stuff, and loves to talk wine. He’s managed to meet a lot of the top winemakers of the world and it’s fun to hear his stories, some about their first-ever visit to Alaska.
1320 Huffman Park Dr #170, Anchorage; tel: +1-907-677-9050
South of Anchorage, Girdwood
It takes an hour heading south of Anchorage to reach Girdwood. It’s one of my favourite drives in the world along the Turnagain Arm. The views are breathtaking as the road is set between the second-largest tidal range in the world on one side, and some of the highest mountains in the world on the other.
You’ll regularly see Dall sheep and other wildlife along the mountain side of the road, and sometimes beluga whales in the water. Across the water stand even more impressive mountain ranges. Alaskan law dictates that no more than five cars can be stuck behind a slow driver. So if you find yourself slowing down for the views, take advantage of one of the numerous pull outs along the water side of the roadway.
At the top of the Alyeska ski resort, Seven Glaciers is a destination restaurant designed to offer a peak experience (mountain pun intended) with a prix-fixe menu and an award-winning wine list. You’ll need reservations in advance, and to reach the restaurant you’ll take the tram up the side of the mountain from the hotel building below. Keep that in mind if you are afraid of heights. Once at the restaurant, your view will include glaciers in every direction, and a look between several mountain ranges to the water at the end of the valley. The menu changes daily and is consistently lauded.
1000 Arlberg Ave, Girdwood; tel: +1-907-754-2237
If you want to visit Girdwood but seek a more casual option, Jack Sprat sits at the base of the ski resort and has become a local favourite that tourists also enjoy. You may have guessed that my mom is picky about both food and wine, but Jack Sprat quickly became her favourite location outside Anchorage. The wine list is brief, but you are as likely to find a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck champagne as Buty Syrah from Washington or Ramey Claret from Sonoma. The menu brings together Asian-inspired options such as a Wagyu burger, hot-stone-pot dishes and curried Alaskan halibut. You don’t always need a reservation but it’s worth calling ahead before you drive there.
165 Olympic Mountain Loop, Girdwood; tel: +1-907-783-5225