After a long 15 months, the time has finally come when we can return (with a few restrictions) to our favorite restaurants and enjoy dining out. During the COVID-19 shut-downs and restricted service requirements, many changes were made on the presentation side of the restaurant experience. Menus went electronic or to single-use paper to avoid reuse by multiple diners with the possibility of contamination. However, many of these changes were not necessarily adapted to the wine list.
For some diners, the presentation of the wine list still brings a sense of intimidation often exacerbated by a “looming” presence of the sommelier and a feeling of trepidation for looking foolish by seeking assistance in making a selection.
Any feeling of pressure is unfortunate, because a properly structured wine list is designed to appeal to a broad range of diners with a variety of choices and price categories. It is intended to instruct, inform and entice us in making a gratifying decision. And the sommelier is there to help, not to overpower or coerce the customer.
Many years ago, I was researching the role of the somm for a book I was writing about uncorking the myths surrounding wine. I contacted Larry Stone, one of the most prominent and respected sommeliers of the day and current founder and CEO of Lingua Franca Wines in Oregon’s Eola-Amity Hills.
When I asked Larry about the perceived intimidation factor from his sommelier perspective, his response was short and quite direct. “If I intimidate the customer, I’m not doing my job.”
In today’s world of computers and printers, the sight of the leather-bound and beautifully calligraphed tome is more or less a thing of the past. Yet, unfortunately, the wine list can still be intimidating to some regardless if it was printed that day (to better ensure the availability of your selection) or penned by hand as many were years ago.
The construction of an informative list has much to do with making you comfortable in navigating through its content. Most lists are first arranged by wine type — sparkling, rosé, white, red, and dessert — and that’s easy enough to understand. Although, how the wines are listed under these general categories may be challenging. Is it by variety (Cabernets, Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays...), country (U.S., France, Spain...), region (Napa, Bordeaux, Rioja…) or even price?
To deconstruct and simplify any wine list you encounter, simply narrow your selection process as you would with the menu or other “shopping” experiences. If you know you want fish, you don’t have to spend time perusing the beef and fowl dishes. If you walk into a department store to buy a sweater, you don’t have to visit the fragrance, shoe or casual sportswear displays.
By the same token, if you want a white wine, don’t worry about the daunting list of reds and others. If Cabernet is your choice, you can skip the Pinot and Zin sections. And if you can’t pronounce it, ask the sommelier for help or just point to your selection on the list. Getting any easier?
Price is often a determining factor in making your final selection. So here’s another way to better focus your exploration. If your limit is $75, you can ignore those wines that are more expensive. Nowhere is it said that a great wine list must be intimidating or that great wine must be expensive. Thankfully, in today’s expansive market there are many good selections in a broad range of prices.
There’s an old adage that the wine carrying the highest mark-up on a list is the second least expensive (think second cheapest) for several unfounded reasons. I’ve heard this theory expressed for years but could never find evidence to justify it.
This month, Decanter Magazine and others published the results of an English study. “Experts at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the University of Sussex business school analyzed hundreds of wine lists at London restaurants and found no evidence of the ‘rip-off’ theory.” So, don’t dismiss that “second cheapest” wine if it makes sense with your meal.
Let’s also not forget the advantages of a restaurant’s by-the-glass program. This is an ideal place to explore if a bottle seems too much or if you just want to sample something new. For years, by-the-glass choices were limited to a handful of generic wines but that has changed considerably since the advent of wine preservation systems and a restaurant’s desire to give the diner additional affordable choices. Somms and beverage managers put considerable effort into these programs and the search is often worthwhile.
Especially during these challenging times, it’s important to support our local restaurants and embrace the professional efforts of restaurateurs, servers and sommeliers in providing us the finest possible dining experience. A well-constructed wine list is there to help enhance the meal and should not deter your enjoyment of the company you’re with or the tasty cuisine coming your way.
I received several reader comments on my last column — “Winespeak and tasting notes” — and would like to share a few with you. It’s obviously a topic of interest and consternation among wine lovers who appreciate what’s in the glass more than the rambling comments often made by marketing directors and seen or heard in the critical press. Most comments were rather direct.
Anonymous taster: This was a fun and interesting column. It always amuses me in a group tasting, how much a group can be influenced by the opinions of other tasters. You could practically invent any flavor or aroma you wanted, and if you have a respected palate, others would immediately agree… Much “winespeak” is a bit of science and a whole lot of “theatre.”
Steve: It seems to me that your thoughts on balance, structure and textural appeal, often missing in tasting notes, should be the "meat" of any wine note. Anything else being the writer's embellishment and attempt to "impress" the reader.
David: Your recent article on "Winespeak" laid it out clearly [and] thank you for quoting Dr. Lovelace. To quote the great Sly Stone: "Different strokes for different folks." I can't stand these dear blessed ass----s who pontificate and proclaim that their point of view is the correct one.