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Spring Cleaning: Let's Improve Wine Lists, Please…
By Michael Franz
May 2, 2017
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With Spring now in bloom and everything--even the air itself--suggesting fresh starts, I have a proposal:  Let’s push to improve restaurant wine lists in the United States.  If you’re a general manager in a restaurant, or a wine director, I’m talking to you.  But if you’re a rank-and-file customer, I’m talking to you too, because many restaurants really do respond to suggestions…and criticism.  This has a lot to do with the high failure rate of restaurant businesses, but rather than focusing on the grim side of the equation, let’s accentuate the positive:  If you send a note or whisper in the ear of a general manager, you might really change things for the better.  And holy moly…there are a lot of wine lists that could be better.

I see lists all the time that are appallingly overpriced, shockingly thin or preposterously large, difficult to use, filled with sloppy typos, or fundamentally imbalanced toward certain grapes or regions.

It is not pretty out there folks, as you surely know if you dine out frequently and know a bit about wine.  What is most shocking to me is the disparity in thoughtfulness and care of execution that separates dinner menus from wine lists these days.  Menus have gotten much, much better during the past decade, whereas wine lists have, on average, been dead in the water.

Of course, we aren’t going to see any improvement without kicking around some ideas of what would constitute improvement, so here are my five top indicators of excellence in a restaurant wine list:

1) A Wide Range of Choices to Suit Different Preferences and Foods:

Nothing hacks me off in a restaurant like opening a list that offers little or nothing beyond mass-market renditions of Chardonnay and Cabernet.  There is no excuse for this in most jurisdictions, even in many “Control States” or counties where political entities exercise a monopoly over wine supply and distribution.  Given the many thousands of different wines with differing flavor profiles that are available even under state or county monopolies, there's no question that a list of this sort stands as an inexcusable failure on someone's part.  The only issue is a diagnostic one:  Is the failure due to ignorance, indifference, laziness, or outright kickbacks from one or two suppliers?

Sure, some restaurants offer fairly simple food, and there's no reason to expect a place geared toward burgers or pizza to maintain a 200-bottle list.  But is 40 too much to ask?  And is it too much to ask that these 40 be made from, say 25 different grapes?  If the other 15 are going to be Chardonnays and Cabernets, would it be terribly tough to source them from different countries offering different flavor profiles and price levels?

Moving up a notch to restaurants that offer a wider array of dishes, we can say that if there's a real range of food choices on a restaurant's menu, then failure to provide at least as broad a range of wines is an appalling failure, given that nearly 200,000 different wines are available in the United States.

Thinking about that number for a moment, it surely seems that it should be a lot easier for a restaurant's wine buyer to build a diverse wine list than for the chef to write a diverse menu.  If the back of the house is offering more diversity on the plate than the front is pouring in the glass, someone is really falling down on the job.

A decent wine list should offer one or two wines that would really work well with each food item offered on the menu.  An excellent list should offer even more than that, and should offer both white and red choices for every dish that is medium-bodied and moderate in terms of robustness.  And since subjectivity is a big part of the marriage of foods and wines, these white and red choices should include some different flavor profiles.  These are reasonable expectations for the simple reason that fulfilling them is a pretty simple matter.

2) Since Style Flows from Place, a Geographically Diverse List:

Different flavor profiles are inherently valuable in a restaurant with a quality menu that involves some complexity, due to the range of flavors coming from the kitchen and the natural diversity of customers' tastes.  To some extent, assembling a wine list with different flavor profiles can be achieved simply by compiling a selection with lots of different grape varieties involved.  But this will only yield a good wine list, not a great one.

Achieving true diversity of style (meaning, flavor, structure, weight and texture) requires different places of origin--not just different grapes.  Try 15 different white wines from 15 different grapes sourced from California, and you'll probably find that they taste somewhat different, but are all pretty ripe and rich.  Are any of them truly light-bodied?  Probably not.  If you want to offer some wines that are really lean and taut, you need selections from places like New Zealand and northern Italy.  If you want wines that feature mineral notes rather than fruit-based ones, you need selections from countries like France and Germany.

It is obviously easier to build an All-American list than to buy wines from all over the world, and likewise easier to train an American restaurant's staff to sell them.  But this is only easier--not better.  As long as there are enough wines on a list that aren't so obscure that novice customers will be put off, and as long as obscurity hasn't become an end in itself, geographic inclusiveness is a hallmark of an excellent list.  Conversely, geographic narrowness is a sign of laziness, parochialism, or a failure of imagination.

3) Diversity Should be Balanced Against Manageability:

Some wine lists look as though obscurity has become an end in itself, with the wine buyer apparently wishing to show everybody how much he knows.  (And that personal pronoun wasn't used thoughtlessly; the odds are good that a list comprised largely of obscure wines will have been written by a guy.)

Similarly, many wine lists are far longer than they need to be in order to offer a healthy range of choices.  At some point, adding selections to a wine list yields duplication rather than really augmenting diversity.  And at that point, the customer is being disserved, as the gains in variety are being outweighed by a loss of manageability.  Do California Cabernets or bottlings from Chianti Classico really differ so much from one another that a list is improved by having 8 of them, as opposed to 2 or 3 at different price points?

Most customers do not regard it as a blessing to have a big, fat tome of a list dropped on them when sitting down at a table.  Most want a good wine, not a research project.  Most want to talk to their friends rather than wade through pages of deadening detail.  The balance point between diversity and ease-of-use will be a little different for each restaurant based on the style of food and level of training of the staff, but diversity must have reasonable limits.

Although I taste thousands of wines each year, and never tire of finding new wines from new producers or places, I am not impressed by massive wine lists, nor do I enjoy using them when dining out.  What I really admire is a list that I can read in three minutes that offers a lot of variety and a mix of things familiar and exotic.  This sort of list shows thoughtfulness, restraint, respect for customers, and simple good taste.

4) Pricing that is Fair and Suited to Menu Prices:

Those of us who know what wines cost at the wholesale or retail level have all had restaurant experiences spoiled by the feeling that we are being gouged.

Restaurants are entitled to a reasonable profit on wine sales.  Most consumers (and some wine writers) aren't well informed about the true costs of maintaining wine inventories or furnishing glassware or training staff to sell wine.  As a result, restaurant wine prices offer inviting targets in some cases when they aren't really deserving targets.

Yet it does not make sense for wine to be made to subsidize everything else in a restaurant enterprise.  Markups that are consistent with financial viability while still offering enticing value are crucial to the quality of any wine list.  Moreover, pricing schemes shouldn't only work to the advantage of wealthy buyers by making trophy wines seem more approachable than they would look if priced by an inflexible formula.  It may make sense to reduce markups at the upper end to induce a customer to trade up from a standard-issue Cabernet to Mondavi Reserve.  But it also makes sense to entice novice customers ordering steak to trade up from a beer to a Chilean Cabernet.

Finally, there should clearly be some correspondence between the general price level of a wine list and the level of fanciness and expense of the food.  Very ambitious restaurants would be--and should be--faulted if they fail to assemble wine lists that ascend to a level of seriousness commensurate with the food.  Nobody should have to drink plonk with a beautiful rack of lamb.  However, the flip side of this is no less important, and selling $250 trophy wines with $9 cheeseburgers is just as disproportionate and inappropriate.  Remember the scene in "Sideways" where Miles has a cheeseburger while drinking his treasured bottle of Cheval Blanc out of a styrofoam cup?  I found that even harder to take than when he drank the spit bucket in the winery tasting room….

5) Structure that is Easy to Understand in the Context of Food:

A great wine list is easily employed by customers to make wine selections that will enhance their enjoyment of a restaurant's food.  This characteristic is so important that, if it isn't achieved somehow, all the other virtues of a list can be undermined.

For example, if the wine buyer has done a great job of picking wines that enhance particular menu items, but the list doesn't help customers make the optimal connections, then all of the savvy buying work will be wasted.

Yes, perhaps a sommelier or a server can make the connection for the customer at the table.  But anyone who thinks this is an adequate substitute for a list that helps make connections is ill-informed.  Sommeliers or Wine Directors remain relatively rare, even though their influence has never been stronger, and even where they have been employed, they can't work every moment or make it to every table.  Moreover, given the turnover of servers in the restaurant business, there's little plausibility to the notion that all (or even most) members of a restaurant's wait staff will know all the wines on a serious list and make consistently strong connections to menu items.

Even if a restaurant has an exemplary staff training program, many customers will simply be too intimidated even to ask for help, preferring to take their chances on their own with the wine list.  I believe that this is a very common outcome, and of course it has the practical effect of rendering superfluous the pairing skills of the staff.

And yet, these same intimidated customers are usually perfectly willing to read suggestions on a wine list or menu that will alert them to particularly strong pairings.  Pointers toward particular wines that are included in a menu entry can be very powerful, helping the restaurant sell more wine and helping customers order it with confidence and without having to expose their possible lack of knowledge.

With certain popular food items like grilled salmon that can work well with several different wines, there's very good reason to recommend more than one wine choice.  If I see both a Pinot Noir and a Semillon recommended with salmon on a menu, I know that the list's author has wisely anticipated the different desires of those who prefer white or red.  If I see two Pinots at different price points, I know that the list's author respects the fact that different customers have differing budgets for wine.  Since customers are often more comfortable with menus than wine lists, wine recommendations on menus are especially effective, but pairing suggestions on wine lists that point back to menu items can also be quite helpful.

Finally, at the risk of belaboring the obvious, wine lists can be especially useful as customer guides to food pairing when they follow a "progressive" format, listing wines as they progress from lighter, more delicate profiles to richer, more robust ones.  Fairly few restaurant patrons are really familiar with the hundreds of different wine regions of the world, so listing by geography isn't very helpful for food pairing purposes.  By the same token, since few patrons know anything about the terroir in particular parts of France or Australia, listing wines by grape variety isn't helpful for pairing purposes either.  Lumping a wine from the Hunter Valley with a Chablis under the heading of "Chardonnay" is not a good way to synchronize wines with the chef's recipe, but rather a recipe for disaster.