Wine consultant and internationally respected
wine broker Judy Beardsall
SIZE MATTERS! (We're talking Wine Lists, of course)
No matter how big or small their lists, many of the better restaurants have big bound books where the sheets can be pulled out and updated as their cellars change. In the old days, the wine list was handwritten on paper. Upgraded technology led to typewritten or computer-generated wine lists. Whether the wine list is big or small is not the issue. A huge list is not necessarily a good list. Instead, what you want is as many details as possible about the wine. You want to see written down - for every wine listed - the producer, the vintage, and the country of origin or region and any other relevant details. I particularly dislike the wine list as presented in hardbound book form. These days it's common for many restaurants to hand you about five to ten pages, constituting what I consider a big wine list. I don't mind the size, but I do mind the too few minutes I'm given to choose the wine. It's impossible to read through such a list in a minute or two, which is the amount of time that lapses between their dropping off the wine list at the table and a hovering waiter with his pen poised asking for a decision.
Wine listing is a minor art form that, unfortunately, can be made into a pretentious exercise in sales. The original concept of the wine list can't be faulted: A place of business serving food lets its customers know what wine they can buy by the bottle. Since most people eat out for the food experience, not the wine, it's really up to the restaurateur to stock the cellar with wines that complement the food and the prices. It's good business, too, since as with bars or nightclubs, bigger profits are made on alcohol drinks than on anything else.
Each restaurant will organize its wine in its own way, but in general you'll find about a handful of universal variations. Some restaurants believe it's more sophisticated to organize the list by grape varietal. This is hopeless. Unless you are familiar with the wide range of flavors those grapes can taste like in an wide variety of wines, you're stumped. For example, how would you know what "The Nebbiolo" section means in terms of ordering, unless you're familiar with a very specific maker's wine? The Nebbiolo is a grape from the Piedmont region of Italy where wines are made from the simple to the extraordinary. So, this organization is really no help to you at all.
Some restaurants organize the list by country. This isn't a bad idea. You'll see under France, for example, wines from all over the country, such as a Macon-Villages, or Sancerre. One of the benefits of the list by country is finding a match for your dinner. If you're in an Italian restaurant you might say. "Let's go with an Italian wine," rounding out a certain experience. But I bet most Italian restaurants that have cared enough to have a wine list will give you other options in French, American, Portuguese, and other wines. They know what goes with their food. There is no rule that says you have to drink Italian wine with Italian food. Other restaurants will organize the wine list by regions within countries. They'll put "France" as the overall category, then under it, list the wine-making regions like Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire Valley, Provence, and Champagne and tell you what they have. You won't know what grape it is unless it says so.
No matter how the list is organized, be wary of these tell-tale signs of an expensive wine list designed to separate you from your good sense:
a) Wine lists that are vague and leave out specifics, such as the vintage.
b) Lists that feature one producer for each region or country. You know the restaurant has made a deal with the distributor of the wines, which may not be the best wines for the price on the list. I know this from my experience of having worked in the wholesale wine business.
c) Lists that promise more than they deliver. These lists feature wines that are not worth the wine-list price. I tend to find this especially true with red Burgundies, which I avoid ordering in a restaurant.
When people I have dinner with order red Burgundy, it is usually way too expensive for the experience and often doesn't taste quite right. Half the time you're not told the vintage or what vineyard the wine is from. Vintage really matters with Burgundy because it's a difficult terrain with difficult weather for growing grapes. As a result, there aren't that many great vintages, but the producers make wine every year anyway and they bottle it and sell it. If the restaurant gives the vintages within a time frame, such as '95-'96, ask which year they intend to give you. If they don't know, ask to see the bottle.
My tip is: Look under what some restaurants call the "New World" in wine, referring to Australia's and New Zealand's great contributions. You'll also get value for your money with wines from the south of France and southern Italy...and Oregon , Idaho and Washington
...You have a right to get your money's worth.
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