Sharpen your poison pens, sommeliers, because you’re going to hate this column.

When I’m dining in one of the trendy restaurants I love, I often think about how impenetrable the wine list must look to the uninitiated. But all of us reading this, we know what Quincy and Alicante Bouschet and Auslese mean, so it doesn’t bother us. We might not even remember what it’s like to look at a list and be utterly bewildered.

I created this menu to bring that experience home.

wine list 1

So, are you ready to order?

This is EXACTLY like a wine list. It gives the name of the product, in the language of the country that produced it. It gives a price. Some are more expensive than others; we don’t know why.

So, are you ready to order?

Not just for enthusiasts
One of my longtime rants about wine lists is that they look like this: a bunch of mysterious words that only make sense if you know the language. People used to say wine is the only beverage you need a special tool to open. Fortunately we now have screwcaps, but it’s still the only beverage you need special knowledge to order.
And as the wine world has expanded this has gotten worse.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not pining for the old days when our only choices were Cabernet and Chardonnay and maybe a little Pinot Noir. I’m the guy who orders the Croatian Teran because I like that iron-rich flavor, or the intentionally oxidized Alvarinho.

I also know I’m among the scant 12% of American consumers who are “enthusiasts,” according to Constellation Brands’ 2008 “Project Genome” study. I’ll bet that even among that group, I’m in the upper 5% of geekdom. I’m not asking for sommeliers to write wine lists that I like; you’re doing that already. I’m asking you to think about the other 88%.

So, are you ready to order?

Talk to me

Sometimes when I go on this rant, sommeliers say that they want the customers to talk to them. They’re able to answer any questions about the wine. Never mind that it might be their night off, or they might be over at my table comparing notes on our favorite regions in Beaujolais.

But beyond that, when the list reads like the one at the top, where do you start asking questions? What’s the difference between Vasikanliha and Govedina? Is the $90 Govedina really twice as good as the $40 Govedina? What does the $45 Meleagro taste like?

Don’t you have any wines I know, like Jordan or Silver Oak or Cupcake?

So, are you ready to order?

It’s all Japanese to me

When I lived in Tokyo, I learned to read Japanese food menus a little at a time. I learned the characters for raw fish, cooked fish, chicken, pork, beef. Then I learned useful characters for yakitori (grilled chicken) restaurants, like those for heart and liver and gizzard. I could walk into most restaurants in Tokyo with confidence, ignore the few dishes I couldn’t read and order what I wanted.

Then I went to Sapporo with a visiting American friend and walked into a fish restaurant. They have different species of fish there, and a regional dialect. And the restaurant had a stylishly handwritten menu, which made the characters much harder, as I was used to precise computer-printed words.

All of these points are indicators of a good restaurant, including the care put into the menu calligraphy. But I couldn’t read anything except the sake menu, and even on that I could only read the classifications, not the brands. My friend was depending on me to order. I could point at something, but I really had no idea what we would get. I’m an adventurous eater; my friend, not as much. We left and went to a less promising restaurant that had a computer-printed menu.

I’ve never forgotten not only the experience, but the feeling. Flustered. Embarrassed. Helpless. I spoke Japanese well enough at that point to ask about any single item on the menu. But I couldn’t imagine sitting there asking about the entire menu.

Did I mention embarrassed? That menu did more than stymie me; it shamed me.

So, are you ready to order?

Descriptions, please?

Back to that menu above. All of the foods are edible. Some are quite delicious. But there are a few things on there that you might not want to eat. I, being a culinary adventurer, have already tried all of them, though 3 of them I was served without knowing what they were and would not have eaten had I known.

And then there’s the cost. The dog stew I wish I hadn’t ordered in the Philippines cost about $4. If I didn’t like it, I could have just left it on the table. I wouldn’t have felt like, “we paid $60 for this so we better finish it no matter what.”

Sommeliers, would it kill you to put a brief description of the wines on your list, where people can read it before you come to the table? We talk all the time on this site about how people should drink real wines with real stories. Would it kill you to include that story: “Old vines, dry farmed by a 4th generation vintner.” Or “Less ripe than most. Good with the roast pork.” Or whatever. It would be useful information to at least 88% of wine drinkers in America.

So, are you ready to order yet? What are you waiting for?

About The Author

W. Blake Gray
Staff Writer

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to The Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

  • http://www.forkandbottle.com Jack Everitt

    Your examples are too short – just imagine a list filled with wine names like this:

    2001 Fattoria Laila Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi
    2010 Dönnhoff Schloßböckelheimer Felsenberg Riesling Felsentürmchen Großes Gewächs
    1994 Fiorano (Boncompagni Ludovisi) Malvasia di Candia Vino da Tavola Bianco Botte 46
    2005 Hospices de Nuits Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Les Didiers Cuvée Jacques Duret Bouchard Père et Fils
    2008 Domaine d’E Croce (Yves Leccia) Vin de Pays de l’Île de Beauté Blanc Cuvée YL
    2006 Domaine de la Pépière (Marc Ollivier) Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie Vieilles Vignes Clos des Briords
    2001 Roses de Jeanne (Cédric Bouchard) Champagne Inflorescence Blanc de Noirs La Parcelle
    2005 Domaine Tissot Côtes du Jura Spirale Passerillé sur Paille
    2011 Zorah Areni Karasi
    1997 Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Vigna di Pianrosso

    Completely incomprehensible to the 88%.

    • Blake Gray

      Thanks Jack, that’s exactly what I’m talking about.

      And not just the 88%. I’m going to say that there are only 6 wines on that list that I feel confident that I know what they are. And there’s one that was, on first view, a complete stumper to me — but as soon as I googled it, I knew I had heard its story and I wanted to order it.

  • Chuck

    Thanks for writing this!!!

  • http://www.top100wines.com Warren Mason

    This is called preaching to the converted.

    Will it ever reach, let alone be understood, by the people who need your help? Does it help unlock any of the mysteries?

    Restaurant Wine Lists can be greatly simplified by offering wines in Style Categories. eg Lighter Bodied Dry Red Still Table wines.

    But that classification need be done by not just one sole palate’s opinion.

    And the wine list’s entries, particularly the older vintages, of need must be reassessed from time to time.

    “I’ve said it before. and I say it again,
    that wine should be judged at the table.
    And not by its price, and not by its age
    and not by the name on the label.”

    That’s in the words of that 19th Century Blogger. Anon.

    Presumably all the wines on the list will be sound. By presenting the wines in easy to understand Style Categories. in descending price, will make the customer’s selection process so much easier.

    That’s in an ideal world. But “sometimes” the task of the sommelier is to “up sell”. hence the intended confusion, and the customer’s retreat to the comfort zone of the Supermarket’s discount wine aisles.

    As Donny Hathaway would say, “Where is the Love”.

    • Bob Henry

      Warren,

      Your suggestion on grouping wines in “Style Categories” reminds me of the approach championed by WineStyles franchise wine stores.

      [Backgrounder: http://www.winestylesstore.com/aboutus.aspx

      “WineStyles organizes its wine by color and style, instead of by varietals and region, simplifying the wine buying experience for consumers. . . . WineStyles is a unique concept that allows customers to choose wines based on their individual style preferences such as crisp, silky, rich and bubbly or fruity, mellow, bold and nectar.”

      The salient questions are: which descriptors do Somms adopt, and do they reflect the common shared experience with the dining public?

      ~~ Bob

      [On the related subject of the sometimes opaque vocabulary used by wine reviewers and wine professionals, see this Slate article:

      “Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam; Why wine writers talk that way.”

      Link: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/drink/2007/06/cherries_berries_asphalt_and_jam.html ]

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com Arnold Waldstein

    Hi Blake…

    I’m as geeky as they get with wine and certainly you are correct.

    But I guess in my small little town of New York (and I eat out a bit) I just don’t pay attention.

    For one, in many restaurants the lists are getting smaller, black boards even, and the waiters are getting more aware. Buying off a list of 20 where your server knows each wine is a pleasure.

    And buying off a monstrous list like, lets say, Rouge Tomate with Pascaline Lepeltier as your guide is a world class experience of joy.

    My point–yup you are right of course. And buying from a wine label in a wine shop is a near impossibility.

    Unassisted buying of wine generally from label or list is a non starter. Assisted buying is the answer, not the lists (although I’d love to see them get better).

    Can this scale you may ask? Does here with multiple wine shops per neighborhood and tens of thousands of restaurants and bars.

    That’s my take.

    Always a pleasure to see you posts.

    And–until Palate Press pulls itself from the Pleistocene age and gets a comment system like Disqus (its free) that actually tells me you’ve responded to me, you may have to email me your response. (arnold@waldstein.com)

    • http://palatepress.com David Honig

      Arnold,

      What surprises me about your incessant badgering about our comments is that you never seem to even consider the possibility that we took your recommendation into consideration, tried it, and for reasons of our own decided your suggestions, while appreciated, were not best for Palate Press.

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  • Emily H.

    While I do agree with your overall point, it is also taken for granted that the 88% even have a reference point to the general “style categories.” I frequently find that even though we say the same words (i.e. light, fruity, sweet, etc.) we are not speaking the same language. I, for one, also like the fairly traditional geographic organization. For example, if you enjoy Oregon wines, your interest may be piqued by an Oregon Tempranillo or Syrah, which you never would have found had you looked in the light and fruity red category that would probably house most of the Oregon Pinot Noirs.

    • Paula

      As a somm working with an 1000+ wine list, my only logistical problem with a list with even a single sentence description for every wine is a wine list that is going to literally be as thick as the modern day bible.

      If a guest gives us a general idea of what they like (that’s when human interaction comes into play and why somms are relevant in a restaurant that has a reputable wine lits), then we can lead them to 3-5 different wines that fall into that category/wine style. And yes, we do have wines that are mass marketed, but there are also wines that are similar in taste/structure as the recognizable wines, for half the price if they’re willing to ask about our opinions. And no, I don’t mind explaining or interacting with a guest for an extended amount of time – that is my job.

      • Bob Henry

        Paula,

        A preface: I don’t know you, and this not a personal attack on you (as you are just the “bearer of the message” regarding your anonymous employer).

        Unless your restaurant is Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Taillevent in Paris, or Rekondo [*] in San Sebastián (the Basque region of northeast Spain) . . . “why” does your establishment have that many discrete wine offerings?

        “Pride of ownership” ego — and a concerted effort to garner the top tier restaurant wine list award from Wine Spectator?

        That’s more than a diligent Somm like yourself and her “revolving door” wait staff can commit to memory in reciting the drinking experience of the wines — based on first-hand tasting, aided by reading bottle reviews in the wine press.

        (Aside: Can we agree that your establishment is probably not opening up bottles of Screaming Eagle for “staff orientations”?)

        On various wine blogs I have introduced to readers the pioneering management work of Joseph Juran, who gave us the “80:20 Rule.”

        [ Backgrounder: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2008/mar/04/local/me-juran4 ]

        To wit: “80% of your sales revenue comes from 20% of your customer base.”

        But there is a corollary: “80% of your sales revenue comes from 20% of your physical inventory.”

        1,000 wine SKUs in a restaurant by definition creates a wine list approaching the size of a modern day Bible. (Well, at least the little ones found in cheap motels.)

        Your establishment has hundreds of wines that tie up valuable working capital, but turn over so infrequently (or not at all) that they don’t contribute to your cash flow or generate a positive return-on-investment.

        Unsolicited advice: Pare down your list and give yourself and your wait staff an easier time working to generate wine sales revenue for your establishment.

        ~~ Bob

        [* Citing this Wall Street Journal profile, Rekondo boasts a 221-page wine list backed by an 80,000 bottle wine cellar.

        Link: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704188104575083464106950670.html ]

  • TJ

    Let them eat at Cheesecake Factory.

  • Brynna

    I think this brings up a great point that some may or may not consider! Though the Somms do their job of picking out some fantastic wines, if a wine list changes every other month, that’s a lot to keep track of. Where do we place the blame on the consumers for not understanding the language of wine? Luckily for your average person with a smart phone though there are quite a few apps that will actually tell you about a wine or predict if you will like it. A personal favorite of mine is Winequest because I am not as wine savvy as I’d like to be, but HelloVino and Snooth also do a remarkable job (see here http://blogs.phoenixnewtimes.com/bella/2013/01/the_herb_box_and_gertrudes_at.php). There are even some restaurants who list their entire wine lists on these apps so that they don’t have to go through the trouble of writing every description. Just my 2 cents, but I would rather seek to understand something new on my own than just lie in wait and hope someone can explain it to me!

  • gregt

    But the problem of a bible-sized wine list no longer exists, does it? There are tablets that can be used and even better, long, detailed descriptions of the wines can be included and it won’t increase the weight of the tablet.

    Whether it will help or not is a completely separate question.

    The original point of the article is well-taken.

    But matters will NOT be helped by most wine reviews.

    Here’s a quiz – what wine or wines would you expect the 2 descriptions to go with?

    Zin, Pinot Noir, Cab Sauv or Sangiovese?

    And from which regions, Sonoma, Barossa, Burgundy or Tuscany?

    “loads of blueberries, raspberries and vanilla cream aromas that follow through to a full body, with wonderfully polished tannins and a 50-second finish”

    “”Deep ruby. Red and blackcurrant aromas are complemented by black pepper, cured tobacco and vanilla. Nicely concentrated dark berry and bitter cherry flavors become sweeter with air, picking up a smoky licorice note. Finishes sweet, with dusty tannins and firm grip”

    “It is precise in its focus on ripe berries and briary spice, and it is particularly well-balanced with fine energy and a long, very firm finish. It is still on the tight side and we would argue against hasty drinking. . .”

    • Blake Gray

      Gregt: I’m not suggesting putting Robert Parker reviews on the wine list. I prefer to let people time their own finish.

  • gregt

    I mean the 3 descriptions!

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