Last week, my good friend, W. Blake Gray, penned an article in which he accused some folks of (a) being old and (b) not liking wine lists that are filled with unheard of wines. Why he had to diminish a perfectly good discussion of the manner in which restaurant wine lists do or do not serve their customers and why by bashing those with whom he disagrees is something for which Blake will have to answer.

But, the whole issue of what restaurant wine lists consists is a useful discussion topic in the wine world. There is controversy aplenty and has been for some years now, and thus discussions, evaluations, conclusions have all been part of the fabric by which we examine issues—and will continue to be. That boat sailed a long time ago, and objections to criticism just blur the real issues.

The nub of the matter, of course, is that many observers feel like there is a “look-down your nose trend” toward established wine brands and varieties on the parts of some restaurants, and, especially here in San Francisco, an ABC trend (Anything But California) that belies the outspoken locavore look to the cuisine. And while it is not anyone’s place to insist on a given formula for wine list content, even when some of the most interesting place are going out of their ways to pat themselves on the backside for their locally sourced foodstuffs, that should not prevent folks who care to comment from commenting.

There are several points that really need to be made about the topic. I have chosen a salient few lest this article turn into a short story.

  • Tastes come and go and what is “in” at one point can be out in the next. Only rich guys buy the top Bordeaux any more. The rest of us, who used to pay $5 for our Lynch-Bages and $15 for our Lafite, now cannot afford them. That has led to a rise in substitutes at lower prices. Whether those substitutes are better wines is not the issue here. A good many of them are enjoyable to drink and are affordable.
  • The need for substitutes and a rising tide of quality around the world are not to be dismissed as factors in the rise of obscure wine lists. But neither can adequately explain the wave after wave of such lists in restaurants both progressive and pedestrian in nature.
  • Any restaurant can serve what it wants and construct its wine list any way it wants. Still, in a world that freely and actively evaluates food, it is only to be expected that wine lists would also come under scrutiny. To think otherwise is naïve at best.
  • While Mr. Gray insists that “arrogant hipster somms do not exist”, it is clear that they do. He may not like that I have cited a list at a restaurant he frequents, but that cannot change the fact that a now-departed somm at said restaurant is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle  dismissing the wants of her customers when she constructed her list. Maybe his buddy, the new somm, is less arrogant, but her wine list is still “obscure” according to Mr. Gray’s recent comments. Needless to say, he also did not like the three obscure wines he tasted—and that compounds the sin.
  • There is a larger issue here that goes beyond anecdotal recitations by Charlie Olken and Blake Gray or anyone else. The question is whether any wine critic has the right to judge obscure list after obscure list after obscure list in a negative light—and to do so without having those opinions called out as bullshit. Opinions make interesting journalism. Too bad they cannot be offered without insult.
  •  It does not matter whether you want to recognize some of the wines on the wine list or whether you want lists that require a Wikipedia search to find a wine’s identity. That is your preference. Just do not let your preference get in the way of my expressing my preferences for more balanced lists.
  • It does not matter if you are so hip that any wine that “was” is no longer is of any interest to you. Forget Chardonnay, ignore local wines, put Savagnin on your list but not Sauvignon Blanc. That is between you and your employer. But do not expect me to sing your praises.
  • What does matter to me is one simple standard. The wines on any list should not be chosen by formula but by flavor. Challenge me with interesting character. Taste and research new ideas. But if you choose to limit yourself to the obscure, to the unheard of, to the rarely seen to the total exclusion of all else, then expect that some people will find that practice to be more geared to your needs than to those of the wider wine-drinking audience.
  •  Wine is wine. It is a drink meant to be enjoyed. It invites study and learning, and it encourages diversity in wine lists. Does a restaurant have an obligation to offer wines that its patrons know and like. Not in the least. My publication does exactly what I want it to do because it is my publication. But folks are always free to comment on what we taste, how we taste and whether we are doing a good job or not. By the same token, restaurant wine lists are fair game.
  • It is not always easy to define balance whether in wine or on wine lists, and certainly some restaurants are going to want more abstruse lists than others. But, when I go to a pleasant neighborhood restaurant and order my $20 braised chicken, I would like to at least have a chance to choose a tasty, mid-volume Chardonnay and not have my white wine choices limited to wines that need to be looked up on my iPhone. It is not that I want to pick the better known wine. It is that I believe that customers, that I should have balanced choices.

My ideal list would have wines, well-chosen wines based on tastings and on usefulness with the foods being served. Some would come from producers whose names have been heard before and from varieties that people like. Some would be made from varieties that are not often seen. And some would be from places not often seen. But, all would be based on quality, not on difference. It’s as simple as that.

About The Author

Charles Olken

Charles Olken is the publisher of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, a monthly newsletter available by subscription to wine enthusiasts and the trade. You can view a copy of the Guide at www.cgcw.com, and, if you mention Palate Press in an email to the publication, you will be provided with a free two-month introductory subscription at absolutely no obligation.

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  • Christopher Miller

    One thing that I believe is continually missed in the restaurant wine list debate is sales and marketing. A wine list is one of the marketing tools used in a restaurant’s wine program. If it is not doing it’s job, it makes either the sales lower or the rest of the wine program needs to make up for the marketing job the wine list isn’t doing.

    I also believe that wine programs are often run by managers that do other important jobs at the restaurant and therefore aren’t always held accountable for how the wine program (and list) is effecting sales and therefore profit.

    As a consultant, I know that every month I send my invoice to the restaurant’s executives at a moment that is also close to when the inventory and COGS (cost of goods sold) is done. There is a correlation, if that gives the restaurant exec’s a bad feeling then I may not continue to be a consultant for that client. If the font & print size on the wine list is too small for older, more affluent clients to read, sales will suffer. If the wine list is too trendy & esoteric, my sales could suffer. Many restaurants don’t analyze wine sales & marketing & profitability monthly… this allows wine buyers with their own selfish agenda’s to remain employed far longer than makes fiscal sense.

  • Peter Morrell

    Wise thoughts, eloquently expressed from a voice of reason.

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