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Something’s Rotten In The Land Of Australia

By Stephen Eliot

“Something has gone very wrong with Australia’s top restaurant wine lists. The rare and trendy dominate, with far too few Australian offerings.”

So begins our pick of last week’s best blogs. Entitled “Restaurant Wine Lists are Too Trendy”1, this thoughtful and at times angry article from clearly frustrated, Australian wine writer Huon Hooke is a surprisingly familiar reiteration of the same observations and complaints expressed by a good many of us who have questioned the usefulness of increasingly esoteric wine lists. Not content to simply serve their clientele with broad and enticing selections, it seems that Australian sommeliers are following their American brethren into the world of wine lists created to compete with the sommelier down the block. Familiar ground? Yes, far too familiar. But it is fascinating to hear the same concerns and complaints from down under that we regularly encounter here at home.

Hooke goes on to say,

“From my viewpoint - and I've been on judging panels of wine-list awards for 20 years - our top restaurant wine lists have lost their way.

This year, one of the leading wine list competitions, Australia's Wine List of the Year Awards, sponsored by Fine Wine Partners, announced dual winners of its top award. The two national award winners are Lake House, of Daylesford in Victoria, and Perth's Rockpool Bar & Grill.

My main beef with the types of wine lists that regularly win these big gongs is that they are unbalanced - far too international, with almost embarrassing small offerings of Australian wines.

My second beef is that they are top-heavy with the same sorts of wines - wines that are deemed desirable by a small coterie of sommeliers centered on Melbourne and Sydney. These are usually micro-boutique wineries, often obscure. No problem if they are excellent: the problem is they're often not. The wines often seem selected on rarity and trendiness rather than quality or value-for-money.”

“Increasingly, these ''top'' lists are choked with allegedly biodynamic or organic wines.”

“Why the obsession with these wines? It doesn't reflect a public obsession or even a significant public demand.” (emphasis added.)

Yes, Mr. Hooke could be sitting here in San Francisco, and we feel his pain.

Now, we do not mean to suggest that every sommelier and wine list is to be looked at askance. We find plenty of wine lists that we like—lists that offer variety, balance, diversity, real choice—but we have experienced Mr. Hooke’s aggravation with more regularity than we would like over the past couple of years. There is an argument, of course, that top-restaurant wine lists are supposed to be daring and are there to open new doors to the consumer, and, while we in fact revel in new discoveries ourselves, we like to see a considered offering of names both obscure and familiar as we peruse the list. When I am paying top dollar, and we all know that restaurant wine prices rarely represent real bargains, I want to see at least a few names that I actually recognize. And, I most assuredly like to see a fair representation of those wines that are grown more or less locally.

The controversy is not new, and Hooke’s arguments only add fuel to the fire, but they cannot be ignored. In recent article in the Washington Post2, several of America’s top sommeliers have suggested that it is the new culture of sommeliers that are, in fact, rightly leading the way as arbiters of consumer taste. James Tidwell points to the supposed decline of the traditional wine critic and argues that people should look to sommeliers for guidance, Indeed, the highly regarded Larry Stone goes so far as to claim that “the replacement for Parker and Laube is the sommelier community.” Never mind that these somms are not paid by their clients but by their restaurants.

I cannot help but wonder if the battle for the hearts and minds of wine lovers has entered a new phase. At least in the minds of the sommelier community.



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