By Rick Riozza
I love the radio ads for Kitchen-86 on El Paseo where the announcer speaks in a wise guy Brooklyn tone and is quite quippy with his phases. One thing he mentions in the script is that “the restaurant has a friendly wine list.”
I thought about that little line and found it amusing. What indeed is a “friendly wine list”? Well—of course one can run with the usual considerations. Everyone likes a friendly person: they make you smile, feel comfortable, and have pleasant things to say.
Thus a friendly wine list would make you smile. But back in the day, those heavy wine menus sort of made most folks wince a bit when they opened the tome. In the old style fancy restaurant, one thing we expected to see was how high the wine prices would be. That doesn’t sound like a friendly start.
A friendly wine list puts one at ease immediately. It’s not a serious read but it actually coaxes one to read on. The choices are clear and an easy read; hopefully it keeps your interest to the last glass of wine. And of course the wine list is very pleasant when the reader finds some pretty good deals on some good and interesting wine. That part is very subjective depending on your lifestyle. What’s a good deal when it comes to good wine? An easy answer is that the wine is not over-priced, is tasty and satisfying. Most people these days have a pretty good sense on what’s fair.
Another concern (if there’s such a thing these days) for you, perhaps, as the wine maven in the group, is that your choice of the wines may well affect the entire dining experience. Most of us relish the opportunity—it’s fun, unless we’re spending beaucoup bucks on the wines and then they disappoint. But that doesn’t happen to our readership.
Putting together a lively wine list, whether it be for a small wine bar or a full course restaurant is a big subject when studying for the sommelier exam. Thus, every somm worth their weight, will weigh in with their opinion.
“Curation is an enormous part of work as sommeliers,” says Morgan Harris, head sommelier at New York’s famed Aureole “Making a wine list that makes people happy, harmonizes cogently with chef’s cooking and the overall ambitions and the atmosphere of the restaurant is the backbone of a wine buyer’s work.”
Here’s what you want to look for in the ideal restaurant wine list, according to people who work in wine:
We like to see a good selection of wines by the glass; even better, a robust selection of wines by the glass. And having an international line-up of interesting bubblies, whites, roses, and reds keep everything fun for the vino foodies around town. Adding a little info on the wines keep things exciting. And if they can be priced between 8 to 15 dollars a glass, that’s reasonable these days.
Everyone expects a reasonable mark-up on the bottle. We like to support restaurants and bars in order to keep their business viable. A 100 percent mark-up is doable; a 300 percent mark-up (the old standard) is out of place these days. If it’s a rare wine—and the consumer knows it, then price isn’t the issue. But for us simple folk who have a decent idea of what that certain bottle costs at the store—keep the customer happy so he continues to buy without regret.
Next, how about showcasing wine with the vision of the restaurant. If there’s a bunch of Napa Cab at a restaurant that celebrates the cuisine of Southern Italy, what’s up with that? I know it’s Southern California where the wine guests enjoy an oaky Cab, but there’s a bunch of oaky ripe extracted Montepulciano d’Abbruzzo or Primativo from Apulia to keep things real with the Italian dishes.
And it doesn’t necessarily require actual regional stuff. I’ve always argued for a good chilled Italian Moscato d”Asti to be on the wine list at an Indonesian or Thai restaurant. It’s one of the best wines to pair with the hot & spicy foods. The guest gets to experience something novel, it certainly works with the meal, and the restaurant can be proud of serving a product that makes more sense with their food.
A local somm who I know said, “Pairing notes—both as to appetizers and the full meal can be helpful for the consumer, even educated ones. Restaurants that offer recommendations with entire courses or specific food items remove the hassle of going through the whole wine list for consumers, which can be overwhelming. It shows that the restaurant is knowledgeable, which is an initial good sign of quality of not only the wine, but also the food.”
The best commentary on restaurant/wine bar wine lists is probably: “The moment wine isn’t fun … is a bad moment.” Should a wine list be somewhat entertaining? Why not!
Seeing that the businesses are opening up, I’d love to hear from you readers on the good and the bad of our valley’s restaurant/wine bar wine lists. And we’ll bring this info to share in this column. Send over your comments and/or a copy of the wine list @ firstname.lastname@example.org.