Restaurant wine lists come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Knowing how to navigate through one is key to successful wining rather than fumbling your way without a compass. Fortunately, I do have experience with wine lists: creating, writing, designing, and reorganizing them. Even though my experience as a fine wine consultant bodes confidence in this task, sometimes even those in the know, don’t. I’ve been overwhelmed many times by wine lists. Long-story-short -- My husband and I and our close friends were at a swanky Italian restaurant in New York City.
As usual, I am responsible for the wine list reconnaissance and plucking the perfect bottle from the plethora of offerings. I knew we’d be starting with white (we usually start with white and end with red) – it sets the mood, elevates conversation, and preps the palate for the wonderful Italian delicacies that awaited us. I gingerly sifted my way through the list. Everything offered was Italian and by region. Hmm. Gavi from Piedmont, Muller Thurgau from Trentino Alto Adige, Vernaccia from Tuscany, Tocai from Friuli, Vermentino from Liguria, Orvieto Classico from Umbria. My journey through this comprehensive wine list of hard-to-find and undiscovered bottles and vintages was posing quite a challenge for this wine diva. Like a pig trying to sniff out truffles in Central Park, I was lost and needed wine G.P.S!
It was obvious that the restaurateur definitely expected me – Joe Customer – to be fluent in Italian geography. I did indeed travel to Italy on my honeymoon (interpreting maps was not the first thing on my mind) and I have sold some fabulous Italian wines over the years, but that didn’t make me an expert on Italian wines, at least not the ones on this list. I began to feel more and more American and less international than I did when I first walked into this cool joint. So I put my pride on the bread plate and summoned the sommelier for navigational assistance. We settled on a fruity, clean, light white with almond accents….a Tocai Fruiliano, of course. And it was yummy.
Wine list presentation is important. It can overwhelm or educate. I prefer the later because learning about wine is life long. A wine list is essential. And a good one will sell you wine without much intervention. That’s why it’s important to know the many styles that are offered in restaurants how to navigate through them. Before I pontificate, however, first and foremost, it is critical to know your wine palate and those at your table. If everyone likes something different, then each can experiment with the by the glass selections, they offer variety throughout the entire meal. If your group is on the same page, then the selection will be easier.
Wine lists can be designed in many ways: regionally, varietally, by progression, color coded, or by price. Some restaurants provide no wine list, but a menu of foods already paired with wine.
One style of wine list presentation is region, country of origin, or appellation. Wines are categorized by where they are produced: California, Italy, Spain, Argentina… you get the point. Often, lists go further and express specific appellation (Napa) or village (Chianti) where the grapes are grown. Wines are usually listed white to red, driest to sweetest.
The second style is the varietal wine list. Wines are categorized by what is on the label or what grape is in the bottle (Chardonnay, Shiraz, or Pinot Noir). Again, like the former, the wines are usually listed white to red, driest to sweetest. Listing a Chateauneuf-du-Pape from the southern Rhone region of France is difficult, however. This rich, spicy, full-bodied red boasts a host of varietals such as Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Cinsaut, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Picpoul, Terret Noir and Counoise. Wines like this are either not listed or placed under the “blends” category.
The progressive wine list categorizes wines by body or weight (in the mouth) or style such as full-bodied, medium-bodied, light and fruity, semi-dry/semi-sweet, sweet or dessert, and sparkling. I refer to this style as the “Equal Opportunity Exposure List.” It gives all wines equal exposure and doesn’t corral by region or varietal. A serious California Chardonnay drinker who does not think they like white burgundy from France might entertain one because of its familiar style on the progressive list, have an “ah ha!” moment, and become a Francophile after such an epiphany. By listing wines stylistically, people get a well-rounded wine experience and more opportunities to explore different styles of wines.
Some lists are color-coded. Wines are offered by color: red, white, or blush. No explanation needed. This style is simple, generic, and gets the job done.
I’ve been to a few restaurants that offer wines by price – from the lavishly expensive to the budget conscious. If you have deep pockets, you’ll start at the top. If you are a fifth- year college co-ed on an austerity budget, you might want to start at the bottom. Word to the wise; don’t be fooled to think that the best wines are always the most expensive. There are gems in every price point.
Another style of wine list is no list at all, but a pre-determined, suggestive selling technique of pairing the food with the wine. Case in point: a filet mignon with Cabernet Sauvignon. No thinking required; it’s already been done for you. Some find this list attractive. I find it a little predictable. I’d much prefer one entrée paired with three different wine choices: obvious, experimental, and price sensitive. After all, variety is the spice of life.
My favorite wine list would be one that offers all things to all people -- wines by the “taste.” First three tastes are complimentary. You taste it, you like it, you order it. Let’s face it; ordering wine from a list can be risky. Try before you buy eliminates the uncertainty and fosters curiosity for wine experimentation.
Good, bad, or indifferent, each style of wine list has the same objective: to successfully sell wine to its customer resulting in the ultimate dining experience. No doubt, the more you venture the more you’ll come to know. And when in doubt of your path, don’t be afraid to stop and ask for directions. Your server or, in finer establishments, the sommelier – a wine steward or certified trained wine expert -- is there to help you steer your way to wine euphoria!
Oh, by the way, back to my original story. So after we drank the Tocai, I felt more comfortable with the list and traveled to Piedmont where we enjoyed a lovely, robust Nebbiolo. This baby Barolo went perfectly with my husband’s fungi porcini risotto, my girlfriend’s gnocchi with spicy tomato sauce, her husband’s saltimbocca, and my orchiette pasta with basil and sweet sausage. We couldn’t have asked for better service, more delicious food, and a more impressive display of unique Italian wines. I just needed a little help plotting the course.