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WINE AND FOOD WEDNESDAY
03/28/2012
Wednesday Warblings
The Disaster In Wine Lists—Out With The Tried and True; In With The Obscure

By Connoisseurs’ Guide

They go too far. The “show off sommelier” set and their sycophant friends in and about the wine biz no longer care about their customers/readers. It is as simple as that.

It just might be that for the last century or two, devotees of fine wine have been too damned stupid to understand what really is good and what is not. Maybe everyone has been blinded and bamboozled into believing that Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay were great wines when, in reality, true greatness has lain with the likes of Tannat, Blaufränkisch, Kerner, Counoise and most every white grape grown in Italy and points east. It is the fault of those arrogant and odious “gatekeepers” we keep hearing about. It has nothing to do with generations of connoisseurship, study and sheer enjoyment.

There is no other conclusion to be reached if one is to heed the words of a small but fairly vocal segment of the wine world these days—a segment that seems all too eager to become the new gatekeepers. I am talking, of course, about the growing group of self-possessed, “cutting edge” restaurant wine directors and their fawning followers. They see themselves as the new liberators and the champions of diversity, but you do not have to look deeply to see another, potentially more troubling side to their posturing. These new order merchants would relegate the “legacy varieties” like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to has-been status and go so far as to omit them from their wine lists.

In applauding a new movement to smaller, more “innovative” restaurant wine lists, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Wine Editor, Jon Bonné opined * that we are suffering, hereabouts at least, from “a communal fatigue with endless choices” and that “by purposely omitting the obvious, wine lists in Bay Area restaurants are arguably more innovative and diverse—and perhaps more radical--than ever”. And, in offering tidbits of wisdom on how to buy wines-by-the glass, he points out with barely disguised satisfaction that “as Bay Area wine directors grow bolder”, those now passé choices of Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot are vanishing entirely.

Has Bonné spotted a significant trend; one likely to profoundly turn the market? I would not worry. The great varietals and the wines they make need no defense from me. I have always believed and still do that the wine consumer will ultimately vote with their dollars and decide where better and best lives.

Wine lovers are not stupid. They know what tastes good and what does not. They know which folks have something useful to say and which are the fatuous gasbags. They share in the joys of discovery and the adventure of finding new and truly delicious wines, but they do not feel obligated to turn their backs on and disavow old favorites for the next pretty face. They will react with alarm and surprise when this small pack of “radicals” are found out to be frauds like the wine director of Commonwealth Restaurant in San Francisco. Still In her first wine job, she has made the astonishing admission that she has no cares for “timid diners” and adds, “I thought, well, I should have something to make these people happy…and then I realized, no, I don’t have to do that at all.”

Yeah, well, I hope that works out for her... and I am glad I am not signing her paycheck. Maybe I am, in fact, a dinosaur and stupid for still finding pleasure in the “clichéd” classics, but I am not so stupid as to patronize those restaurants who believe that I am. One rather concise reader comment to the Bonne article cited above reads simply, “Here's an idea: if you decide you know better what the ‘right’ wine is for my meal and won't offer what I want -- I'm not going to buy wine with my meal.” Amen.

To that, I can only say “Amen”. The great varieties have been around for a very long time for a reason, much longer than what I suspect will be the fifteen minutes of fame enjoyed by restaurants that are blind to their virtues of those grapes.

* http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/03/25/FD0A1NOHNJ.DTL&type=wine


 

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Comments

A Big Tent
by Beau Carufel
Posted on:3/28/2012 2:06:53 PM

A very wise person once told me "Beau, wine is a big tent, there's plenty of room for everyone under it". Seems like that applies here.

quibble
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:3/28/2012 2:22:46 PM

Charlie,

I agree with you in principle.

My only quibble is that in your excitement you make it seem that those "other" varieties haven't been around for as long as the usual suspects.

Many of the others have been around for quite as long, if not longer; they simply lost out to the so-called French varieties in the U.S. where, for generations, to dine and to drink was to be French-centric.

I applaud introduction of the numerous varietal wines found on wine lists and by the glass. I do, however, think that the attitude of the sommeliers (and wine critics) that you cite is astoundingly idiotic, and just another form of snobbery.

 

Quibble...
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:3/28/2012 3:39:06 PM

Thomas,

Sorry. We never meany to impy that the "other" grapes we new; some are ancient. Rather, it is that some classic varietals have been historically recognized as the greats for a very long time.

I also believe that these classics (Cabernet, Pinot, Chardonnay, Riesling, et. al.) have won out, as you say, first in Europe and then in the USA less because of blind fashion and more due to the fact that they make deep and interesting wines that are in a class of their own.

Please understand, we are as excited as ever about tasting new wines and varietals,. but we are not about to ignore the classics because someone with months of experience thinks they are yesterday's news.

Quibble....correction
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:3/28/2012 3:41:56 PM

We never meant to imply that the "other" grapes were new...

Oh, You Had To Know I Would Have Something To Say Here
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:3/28/2012 5:49:37 PM

Yikes. This was one hell of a rant guys. I do thank you for clearing up the fact that Tannat and Counoise aren't new, that part had me baffled as I thought of the regions that have been growing and consuming those wines...for like ever. So that's one less thing for me to comment on here.

 

I have to say that the tone of this post is a little unsettling as well as a tad angry and I cannot for the life of me figure out why. How can you speak to things like "Joy of discovery" and then lamabast and rip apart those that are doing just that? You point out yourself that Cabernet, Pinot and Chard have long been the regular players on nearly every wine list, (regardless of the restaurant's style of food) the US over for as long as many of us have been drinking wine, so what's the problem if a few joints opt to indulge in the "Joy of discovery"? As someone that has had their wine preferences absolutely ignored by 98% of wine lists I find it ironic that you would act as if a handful of places putting wines on their list that service a largely ignored population of wine drinkers is being smug or snobby. "Hello Pot, this is Kettle, you're black". Hey here's an idea, why not do what I've been forced to for over a decade, bring your own wine when the list is not to your liking.

 

I admit that I had to look up the defintion of Sycophant. Figured I must have misunderstood what the word meant. How could people that I know and respect in my industry use such a word to describe people that didn't happen to agree with their wine preferences? Sadly...it was as I thought. Ouch.

A Toast to Diversity
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:3/28/2012 7:19:32 PM

In reading this feature, I don't get the impression that many restaurants are turning their backs on the classic grapes. What they seem to be doing is whittling their cellars but offering some heretofore unheralded styles to better match their cuisine, to trim their overhead and to provide a more manageable and meaningful wine list for their patrons. For decades, too many restaurant wine lists in San Francisco and elsewhere have been absurdly top heavy with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. By narrowing the inventory of those varietals restaurants may actually provide customers with more thoughtfully chosen wines. Granted, the San Francisco culinary scene can come off sounding a bit puffed-up on itself, and there's some of that tone in this article, but overall I think tighter but more creative wine lists is a welcome development for dining out.

The Bonne article
by Doug
Posted on:3/28/2012 8:04:58 PM

This post caused me to read through the Bonne article which in addition to describing the shift to more exotic, edgy wines for lists also mentions the languishing of high end cabs in their wine rooms (victims of the economy and shifting styles in cooking and dining style) Further, it describes the decrease in establishments who use a full-time, on the floor sommelier. Dufault's comment about some lists being 'tomes' that are hard to decide from, as opposed to short, focused lists where everything looks good is healthy. As with the debate regarding alcohol and the 100 point system, I largely choose to ignore them and let others have their opinions.

In the 'global' community of wine, trends come and go, yet resources that service a finite niche, be it sommeliers, winemakers, tasting room staff, educators, authors, or critics have managed to co-exist for a long time. 

 

Sommelier Trophies
by Gerald Weisl
Posted on:3/28/2012 8:05:00 PM

The Bay Area wine scene is magnificent and it's a delight to have so many dining establishments which attempt to offer a memorable culinary experience.
*****
Many of today's Sommeliers or Wine Directors take great pride in assembling a list or phone book-sized tome of enological trophies.  ((Do you know how to determine if a Sommelier is certified?  Don't worry...they'll tell you!))
*****
A guiding principle to many of these wine lists is to feature "wines which can't be found in stores."  The idea is based, in part, on the possibility of charging higher than normal mark-ups if consumers can't find the wine honestly priced in a shop.  ((I saw an $8 wholesale Entre-Deux-Mers on the list of a celebrity sommelier -if that's not redundant- with a $48 price tag!  Ouch!!))

Many vintners and sales companies find "scarcity sells"  and so the more rare the wine, the more desirable it is for a wine list.

This, of course, dovetails in with the idea of featuring wines such as those made of Gros Manseng, Tannat, Pugnitello, Pelaverga and Jacquere...in this instance, obscure wines which are not well known.  The average consumer would not know the pricing or value of such wines.   Similarly, it's frustrating to find a list offering numerous proprietary blends without explanation of the 'theme' of each.
*****
Do you recall when Bonny Doon Vineyards' Randall Grahm played 'sommelier' in a San Francisco seafood restaurant?  He was there one night a week to live out this fantasy.  Randall's wine list had headings and categories of wines.  Dinner guests found the page with the heading of Chardonnay to be blank.  Apparently Chardonnay is not a good match for seafood.  (The restaurent went out of business after a very brief run.  Wonder why?)
*****
I appreciate when a wine list is thoughtfully selected and organized with the consumer in mind.  I don't need thousands of selections, nor do I require verticals of astronomically-priced Grand Cru Bordeaux.   But for some sommeliers, this is their way of "making a statement."
*****
What good are a dozen different Chablis selections from Raveneau when there's not a suitable food partner on the menu?  Similarly, a seafood restaurant with several dozen Cabernets seems misguided, despite the various initials after the sommelier's name on their business card.
*****
Here in the Bay Area, we have numerous restaurants touting the benefits of vegetables and meats which have been locally sourced.  And yet the sommelier, not getting the memo on this philosophy, features solely wines from overseas?
*****
The critieria for selecting wines is often amusing.  Wines which have a UPC bar code are disqualified from consideration.  So are wines made with anything other than indigenous yeasts (yet the bread on the dinner table is made with a cultured yeast).  Others are disqualified if they don't have a cork closure.  And, as noted previously, wines which can be found in shops are bounced from consideration.
*****
But apart from all the ranting and raving I've done here, I will say I do appreciate a list which goes below the radar and does have interesting, well-made wines of either unusual grape varieties or unheralded wineries (or a combination thereof).  I enjoy the discovery of a new vintner and I'm not terribly interested in wines which are made more at the direction of the marketing department instead of a winemaker.
*****

PS  Love the use of the word 'fatuous' in conjuction with the term 'gasbags.'

I'd rather...
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:3/29/2012 9:32:40 AM

...that restaurants completely stop the wine list habit. Instead, it would be nice if they produced a changeable menu that includes wine choices beside the dinners.

The choices? Well, that would mean a little work, wouldn't it?

Three or four varietal wines simply cannot pair with a complete menu, unless of course the menu is limited as well as stagnant--and the same way that I love to have a choice regarding type of dishes and preparation when I dine out, I love having a variety of wine choices that exceed the tried and soemtimes, but not always, true.

PS: Gerald, when i was a wine salesman I used to hear another wonderful reason for rejecting our wines: "I don't need to see another monthly invoice."

 

A Good Wine List
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/29/2012 9:59:35 AM

Good wine lists, whether populated by multiple hundred choices or limited to thirty to sixty wines, will have a couple of things in common.

The choices will include wines that people recognize because not all diners are wine geeks.

The choices will have geographic diversity.

The choices will be reasonably priced and the overall pricing of the list will be commensurate with the pricing of the food. I do not expect a bistro south of Market to have a pricey list worthy of The French Laundry, but I do expect The French Laundry, Gary Danko and the like to have offerings that are good values for the money, including some that are relatively less expensive.

There will be a bunch of obscure wines chosen not for their obscurity but for their quality.

The wine buyer/sommelier will ultimately prove that he or she loves wine and loves the customer. Any wine list built only in obscurity is an insult to the general public of food-conscious diners who like wine but are not geeks and want qualtiy choices that they recognize.

Know Your Customers
by Alana Gentry
Posted on:3/29/2012 10:03:09 AM

I live and dine and drink in Marin, smack in the middle of San Francisco, Napa and Sonoma. I never bring my own wine to restaurants because I want to see what they're doing with their list. If they have a lousy list, I have a cocktail and I don't become a regular. When in North Carolina recently with a fine group of Connoisseurs, everyone brought wine for 4 nights that we went out to eat. They aren't in the industry, they are wine lovers. Something is wrong with lists that don't sell wine.

wine geeks
by Catosiamese
Posted on:3/29/2012 10:22:08 AM

I welcome the ability to taste wines other than California wines in the City. I have a cellar full of California wines that I drink on a regular basis. I love to have wines from all over pointed out to me....I am sure they are still drinking Chardonney in Texasss.....

Who pissed in your Cabernet?
by Alder Yarrow
Posted on:3/29/2012 10:34:38 AM

Wow,

I know Charlie Olken as a reasoned and well spoken guy, not an old crank who would seeminly condemn an entire city's wine scene with innacurate generalizations. How many restaurants do we have in San Francisco with wine lists?  And what percentage of them are so "cutting edge"  I'd personally guess the number might be as high as 10%, which is probably a gross over statement.

I can't remember, but are you on record complaining about the fact that Acquerello decided to make their wine list completely Italian?  What about the Slanted Door and their Gruner Veltliners? If it's OK for an italian restaurant to drop the Cabernet, why isn't it OK for some other restaurant to do the same?  Especially when there are hundreds of restaurants in this town.

Part of the magic in the wine world is the incredible array of wines out there.  Part of the job of wine directors and sommeliers is to help guide people through this amazing panoply of variety. Some decide to feature this aspect of their jobs more than others.

But at the end of the day, if what they think is good doesn't work for consumers, people will vote with their feet and pocketbooks.  Isn't that really all these folks deserve, rather than your scorn and derision?

Respectfully, this was uncalled for.

Alder

Wine Geeks
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/29/2012 10:37:17 AM

Wine aficionados come in all stripes from unrequited geeks who want to taste only new wines to folks who love wine but are not actively involved in studying the subject and would be more likely to be wine in a restaurant if they found wines that had a familiar ring to them.

A good wine list, as I said above, serves many masters. And it can do so in forty to sixty choices. But when all the choices follow the absurd Bonne dictum of throw out the Chard, Cab and Pinot Noir and treat your clientel with utter disregard as Commonwealth has done, then they go too far.

I suppose your Texasss comment was meant to be a joke. Or were you insulting Chardonnay drinkers everywhere just as Mr. Bonne has done in his column a week ago Sunday?

No Subject
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:3/29/2012 10:46:50 AM

Here's where we have to differ, Charlie.  If you're wondering why things are the way they are across the country in fine dining restaurants, the reasons really are not difficult to understand.  Speaking as a 30 year veteran in the industry:  the evolution of restaurant wine lists away from emphasis on familiarity is actually great news because it means restaurant wine programs are finally catching up with their culinary programs.

You see, when restaurants compete at higher levels, the name of the game is differentiation:  you *have* to offer interesting, fun, unique and individualized things to eat.  Otherwise, why go to a restaurant, if they offer the exact same thing you can find in other restaurants?  As you know, chefs have been pulling out the stops going on 20 years now, and Americans have been eating it up.  The only surprise is that it's taken sommeliers and wine program managers to finally catch on to the same need, and attacking their jobs with as much creativity and individuality. 

Wines and foods, after all, do go together, and when they're put together in unique ways, it's extremely appealing.

The justification, of course, is the bottom line.  Clearly, many of the most successful restaurants today -- in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, LA, etc. -- owe that to the fact that they have differentiated themselves.  In New York, for instance, Gramercy Tavern has been voted

Note To Alder
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/29/2012 10:53:39 AM

Alder, thanks for dropping by. And, it is refreshing to know that despite being old, I am not a crank--most of the time.

Let me make one clarification. Nothing in the editorial above judges all wine lists in San Francisco.

What it does judge is, first of all, the Bonne article last Sunday in the SF Chron wihich defines good lists as those that toss out all the Cabs, Chards and PNs.

Secondly, it does not judge Acquerello or even Slanted Door (whose bias against CA wine has been documented here in the past). While I am no fan of Gruner, Slanted Door and its other outposts in the City have very good wine lists generally, and I happily drink the German Rieslings on them. I do wish they would put on wines like Eroica or Poet's Leap from Washington, and perhaps seek out the occasional CA offering, but Slanted Door and Acquerello have not resorted to the arcane and do not have a hint of a "who cares about the clientel" attitude of the type we find at Commonwealth.

Thus, the editorial was far more pinpointed in its direction than you have suggested. On the whole, I agree with your comments and I would ask that you have a look at my suggestions for the makeup of wine lists above. We absolutely agree that diversity and new experiences are part and parcel of our deep passion for the subject and the product.

As for "uncalled for", I have to respectfully disagree.

Continuation of comment...
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:3/29/2012 10:56:47 AM

... Gramercy Tavern has been voted

Note To Randy
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/29/2012 10:59:39 AM

Hi Randy--

Please read my comments to Alder and my comments on what a good wine list might contain.

There is nothing wrong with differentiation. There is nothing wrong with diversitiy.

There is everything wrong with wine lists that essentially say the diners are wrong for not wanting to try something totally arcane every time they set foot in a fine dining establishment. Some folks do still really like Chardonnay. And even in the fanciest places, the majority of the well-heeled diners are wine geeks.

At Commonwealth, for instance, the attitude is, if you like Chardonnay, go elsewhere. Okay, I get it, and I will. But, this all goes back to the Bonne article. A good wine list can have plenty of interesting and experience-expanding choices without treating the greater majority of the diners as unimportant.

Yarrow is way off
by George Davenport
Posted on:3/29/2012 12:17:52 PM

Yarrow's 10% estimate is much too low.  For restaurants of quality in San Francisco the percentage of these esoteric for esoteric's sake wine lists is much higher.

Re Commonwealth, their wine list,to be frank, sucks.  I went once and loved the food (frozen fois and chocolate bon bons were especially memorable) as well as the history of the location.  Wine list however was terrible and as a result have never gone back.

In Defense of balance and diversity
by Roger
Posted on:3/29/2012 2:51:04 PM

I agree that sommeliers and critics lately have gone off the deep end in seeking the "esoteric" and the "new" star in the world of wine just as many of them have pronounced that only "lower alcohol" wines are worthy of their attention and drinking with food. 

What I don't see from many of the posts is a recognition that many consumers cannot afford the "tried and true" favorites or the big names that restaurants load up on their wine lists.  What I look for in a wine list is a variety of wines, wines that are balanced, go well with the food on the menu and wines that are affordable to drink with a meal.  They can be gruner or riesling (riesling is what I drink at the Slanted Door usually) or they can be a soft, fruity aromatic pinot noir or pinot blanc or an opaque syrah depending on the food I am consuming.  And this is what I find consumers looking for when they purchase wines for the most part.  No need to rant and rave or be one-sided in this argument.  It reminds me of the politics too much for such and enjoyable commodity as wine and food!

No Subject
by Kyle W.
Posted on:3/29/2012 8:11:09 PM

Wine Director checking in here.  Not in SF, but I'm finding the discussion really interesting.

 

The lady saying that she doesn't have to supply wines she doesn't like is just silly.  I mean, she's right, she is not obligated to provide any certain kinds of wine.  But not to do so is just silly, egotistical, and unprofessional.  My job as a Wine Director is pretty clear cut: Write a beverage program that creates a profitable revenue stream for the establishment.  Do I like all the wines I sell?  Hell no.  But guess what?  I'm not the one paying for them and drinking them!  I'm just the guy selling them.

 

Now don't get me wrong, because when I very first started this job, I did let my ego get a hold of me.  It's hard not to, honestly.  "White Zinfandel?  In MY restaurant?  Get the hell out of here!" That's probably a phrase I uttered several times in my early time here.  But my job isn't to dictate tastes to my clientele.  It isn't about ME.  It's about them.  That's why this is called the hospitality industry.  My job isn't to make my ego even more overgrown than it already is.  My job is to make sure that my guests have as enjoyable a time as they can when they enter my restaurant.  It's to offer them a variety of choices.  Variety of choices in varietal, price points, geographical sources, and a multitude of other things.  It all comes back to balance.  Wine, work, life, food, everything should be about balance.  I can't, in good conscience, write a list that is full of orange wine and Gattinara, regardless of how fascinating those wines may be to me.  I would be alienating my guests.  That is the polar opposite of my job.

 

I do have many sommelier or WD friends, and for the most part, they all agree.  Some of them are still in the early stages of egotism ("Ughh, not another guest ordering big Napa cab!"), but for the most part, we all realize that our job is to make people happy, not to make ourselves happy.  I can geek out on Jura wine all I want at home.  The job is a different story.

Bravo
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/29/2012 8:40:43 PM

Kyle, if this were a bullfight, you would  be awarded two ears and the tail for such an honest and inarguable portrayal of the role of the wine buyer/sommelier.

Thanks. Not every restaurant needs to find balance the same way. But with a hundred thousand wines or more available in the U. S. coming from all parts of the world in all kinds of styles, there is every reason for restaurants to look for their own sense of balance.

My fellow writer, Alder Yarrow of the excellent blog, Vinography, asks if the wine list at Acquerello in SF, made up only of Italian wines, in objectionable. In the context of your comments, it is a balanced list with wines that range from light, crisp to fragrant to rich in whites and from pert to heavy in reds. And because Acquerello is, to my way of thinking, the finest Italian restaurant in the Bay Area, I have no objection to its broad, well-chosen, Italian only list.

But that said, I would like it better if its fragrant whites were also German, its bubbles were also French and Californian, its reds included French, CA and Oregon PN (all of which chosen correctly would go with its cuisine) and if it had Zins like those of Storybook Mountain and Ravenswood. These latter comments are not a criticism but a personal preference even though I would and do happily drink Italian wines when I dine there.

What this editorial set out to do was to decry the trend towards wine lists driven by the need of some people in the hospitality business to forget who they were serving.

Commonwealth Restaurant
by Urban DK
Posted on:3/30/2012 10:10:59 PM

Caught this article from an Eric Asimov tweet. Great subject. While I also like the "cliche" wines, there's nothing wrong with also branching out and challenging one's palate. Thanks to this article, I will make a point to dine at Commonwealth restaurant. Sounds like it has a sommelier who doesn't shy away from taking the road less traveled. We need to respect those members of the wine community who challenge the status quo. Here's to the crazy ones...

Challenging The Status Quo
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/30/2012 11:34:30 PM

No argument with challenging the status quo. The argument is with the attitude Cab Sv, PN and Chard are to be henceforth dismissed.

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