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Trials and Tribulations
When Wine Lists Rely On Old Standards

By Charles Olken

I have had a hard time choosing a restaurant for a family gathering of late. It is not that there is a shortage of choices here in the Bay Area, but that I have developed a giant distaste for wine lists that act like the customer is not to be served. There are some pretty good new places, as there always seems to be in this part of the world. It is just that too many of them act like (a) California has no idea how to make wine and (b) if you have heard of the wine, it cannot be on the list regardless of where it is from.

Now, I will admit that I try not to drink California wine in restaurants because I drink so much of it during my working day. Here at Connoisseur’s Guide, we are tasting three or four times a week, and, of course, virtually all the wines are local. It is a treat to try something else like a German Riesling or a Mount Etna Rosso or grower Champagne. But, there are days when even those standards are hard to find on some wine lists locally.

I am certainly not advocating that all wine lists should be tours of the familiar. Rather, I have always wondered how my reasonably well-heeled, wine-drinking neighbors react to lists on which they find absolutely nothing they have ever heard of. Not a Mondavi Fume Blanc or a Beaulieu Rutherford Cabernet or a Dry Creek Vineyard Heritage Zinfandel or a Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs.

Thankfully, there are still a few restaurants that rely on old standards for at least a portion of their offerings. I might not choose them but my neighbors, who like wine but are not the least bit geeky about it, ought to have the opportunity to actually choose wine from the list. They ought not be required to call the sommelier, whose first recommendations are going to be something unheard of anyhow, and they certainly need not be required to drink Ribolla Gialla or Assyrtiko if that makes them uncomfortable.

If this sounds to you like I am wishing for mediocrity, then you have not been reading CGCW or this blog and understanding where I and Steve Eliot are coming from. The argument is not for mediocrity but for putting the customer first at least part of the time.

When I look, for instance, at a San Francisco wine list that proudly proclaims “100 Wines Under $100” and boasts about its locally produced foodstuffs and then has not one California wine on its list, I begin to wonder why the wines listed above and exceptional wines or Good Values like Grgich Hills Essence Sauvignon Blanc, Adelaida Viognier, Rodney Strong Chalk Hill Chardonnay, Easton Amador County Zinfandel, Siduri Sonoma County Pinot Noir or Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Great wines that do not cost and arm and a leg and Good Values from recognized wineries do not make a wine list pedestrian. They make it accessible to the great mass of wine drinkers who are not geeks, collectors, searchers for the “next big thing” or even just for a new experience every time they go out to eat. More power to the insiders. Good on ‘em, but give me a balanced list with California and imported wines, with prices that attract, not repel, with fifty wines under $50, not one hundred under $100 that my neighbors have never heard of.

That is what a good and balanced list will contain. Let’s hear it for the old reliables. They are still what most people drink, and they are very often great values for the money as well.


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No Subject
by George L. Ackerman
Posted on:8/29/2013 3:21:55 PM

Many, if not most, restaurants, from Olive Garden to the Inn at Little Washington, avoid wines that can be commonly found at retail.  This is so that their customers won't see the three fold markup from retail.   It makes sense that the restaurant make a three fold markup on food as they do so much to it.  restaurants do very little to wine and, unlike food, there is little or no waste.

No Subject
by gabe
Posted on:9/1/2013 12:47:09 AM

well said

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