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THURSDAY THORNS
05/03/2012
Thursday Thorns
It Is Time for Wine Lists to Serve Me—Not the Sommelier’s Ego

By Stephen Eliot

Say what you will about wine lists. If they are not balanced and fairly priced, I am not interested.

What is the best wine grape? Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir? Chardonnay or Riesling? Maybe Nebbiolo or, perhaps, Zinfandel? I expect that most any serious wine lover would, of course, scoff at the idea that one grape might stand out as superior to all others, so I am a little surprised at the increasing buzz lately that there might be a “best” format for restaurant wine lists.

Putting together a successful restaurant wine list is no easy thing. It takes knowledge of wine, a good culinary sense, a mind for business, a good dose of humility and the ability to really listen to what customers want. There has been a good deal of journalistic chatter on the topic of late, and there are as many opinions as to what a good wine list entails as there are bottles to chose from. And, as always, there seems an abiding need to be new and different.

The big story these days is “downsizing”. Wine lists, we are told, are too long and confusing, that it is simply impossible for the average wine drinker to comprehend a lengthy list. While I would not argue with the notion that there is an enormous amount of very good wine emanating from all over the world, I wonder if this new preoccupation with abridgement is not the result of recessionary economics rather than some sudden insight that was missed by sommeliers and restaurateurs for generations past. It may make good business sense for this or that restaurant, but please quit telling me it is for my own good.

Another complaint is that the usual organization of wine lists is archaic and inadequate to meet the needs and realities of the 21st century consumer. There are those such as the Wine Spectator’s Matt Kramer who argue that categorization by region or varietal or accepted definitions of style are no longer useful. While I do question the helpfulness of Matt’s suggestions that a wine list might be improved if arranged by elevation, vine age, climate or yield, I confess that neither specific organization nor number is my first concern when considering a new list. Categorize as you will, and I, the customer, will decide what works and what does not.

What I look for first from a good list is a balanced selection of wines that drink well with the restaurant’s menu. By balanced, I mean a good mix of well-known wines and those that might be regarded as esoteric. Some nights I am ready for adventure, and on some I would prefer the comfort of a trusted old friend.

I want to see some thought in pricing as well, and that includes wines at a range of price points and prices that are not extravagantly inflated. I remember many years back when restaurant wine prices were ridiculously high, and I remember a subsequent period when prices seemed to ease. Now, maybe it is just me, but it seems that there has been a trend for higher mark-ups for the last half-dozen or so years after a time of more modest profit taking. I always cautioned my culinary students that their customers were a savvy lot and should not be underestimated. Most restaurant patrons who are regular wine drinkers consume wine at home, and they are not fools as to how much something really costs.

I am always on the look for a thoughtful selection of wines by the glass, and I especially like the practice of offering a “flight” of small pours as an affordable way to try several new wines with a dish. I do confess to particular annoyance, by the way, when a wine by the glass is priced such that a single serving has covered the restaurateur’s cost for the bottle.

I recently stumbled across a new website that addresses the concerns of wine-loving restaurant goers. Started last September and still in its adolescence, Josh Moser’s VinoServant* is an ambitious undertaking to review restaurant wine lists with an emphasis on pricing, quality and where and for how much the wines can be found at retail. For now, its focus is limited to restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area, but it is a good start, and it fills a niche in much need of filling. I plan on checking in regularly, and I wish him the best.

* http://vinoservant.com/2011/09/22/hello-world/


 

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Comments

Find yourself a sommelier to hug today!
by Randy Caparoso
Posted on:5/4/2012 10:33:38 AM

Ah, Stephen and Charlie:  unlike the editorial on restaurant wine lists posted on this site two months ago, I can agree with just about all your "wishes."  Very sensible.

What's a little skewed this time around is your title, referring to "the sommelier's ego."  I guess you were looking for a hook, and sommeliers, playing the role of the traditional bad guy, were an easy target.  Needless to say, there are more sommeliers employed than ever in the restaurant industry, and for good reason:  the more sophisticated consumers become about wine and food, the more need there is for people with specialized knowledge of wine.

If that's the case, isn't it time that we put aside our usual knee-jerk, prejudicial judgements of those who hold sommelier positions?  They are, after all, people, like you and I, who serve an increasingly significant function.  Do you prefer, for instance, a kitchen without an "Executive Chef?"  Or a ship without a captain?  If you want things to run well, dedicated leaders are pretty much necessary. 

So please show some love to the trade.  Sommeliers come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are smarter than others, some have huge egos, many have no egos at all -- they only wish to serve, and they're doing the best job they can, given the challenging circumstances (the trade is still largely self-motivated and self-taught -- there are no official "sommelier schools" like there are for chefs and the culinary trade). 

Fact of the matter, the wine lists that fulfill your check list -- the most imaginative, well organized lists, and sometimes with the kindest markups -- are actually driven by sommeliers with enormous egos.  Talented people who have great insight into what guests really need and want.  When it comes to wine (winemakers, growers, distributors, importers, etc.), it's usually like that:  ego drive = higher quality.  That's why wine is always one part "art."

Find yourself a good sommelier to hug today!

Randy Caparoso (Bottom Line Editor, Sommelier Journal)

Hugs?
by Stephen M Eliot
Posted on:5/5/2012 4:12:13 PM

Randy,

"Sommeliers playing the traditional role of the bad guy?" As I said in the piece, putting together and maintaing a good wine list is no easy thing, and those who do so have my thanks and respect. A good sommelier is a genuine asset and important player in the success of any restaurant. Please, understand, I do not, nor have ever, seen them as the "bad guys".

However, there are those, too many I think, whose egos get in the way of listening to their customers, and, I assure you, mine is no "knee jerk" reaction. My thoughts are in no way to be taken as a wholesale dismissal of the sommeliers' profession, but those who would tell me with an air of authority that there are no California sparkling wines good enough to be included on the list, or that a singularly faulty wine is actually complex and that I do not understand wines do not earn my respect.

 I am not enamored by wine lists made up of nothing but esoteric and generally unfamiliar wines that most diners have never heard of, and those whose entries are priced at three-times and more than retail ensure that I will not be back.

Yep, I agree. Sommeliers come in all shapes and sizes and with varied levels of talent and competency, but just because the job comes with challenges and they are "doing the best job that they can" does not mean they should get a free ride. They have it no tougher than anyone else in this business, and performance, not not simple participation, is what determines failure or success.

They have to earn their "hugs" just like everyone else.

 

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