IMBIBE: Wine List Anatomy 101

By on July 19, 2017

Deconstructing restaurant wine selections, from minuscule to massive.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Depending on your wine knowledge and comfort level in selecting wines in restaurants, being presented with the wine list can be a humbling experience,
or it can be the beginning of a joyous
oenology exploration. Much depends on 1) the wine list itself, and 2) the wine service in the restaurant.

The very first thing I do when I’m seated in a restaurant is ask for the wine list. That’s not because I immediately want to begin boozing it up, but because much depends on wine. If I’m in a restaurant with unique and especially interesting or hard-to-find wines, my food selections will often be based on choosing the wine first and then ordering food to pair with it, not vice versa. So, I want to get a head start on planning my meal by first perusing the wine list. I’ll usually order a glass of white wine or bubbly, in part just to make the server go away so I can get to know the wine list without having someone hovering.

Frankly, I don’t care if a restaurant’s list is massive or minuscule; bigger is not necessarily better. What I do want is an intelligent wine list and a selection that makes sense for the restaurant I’m visiting. It doesn’t make much sense, for example, for a small, independent restaurant to tie up a lot of money with expensive first-growth Bordeaux in its inventory. On the other hand, if I’m in an upscale steakhouse, I do expect to find Château Margaux and Mouton Rothschild on the menu. One size does not fit all.

Order, too, is also important. It drives me nuts to have to page through a wine list to find by-the-glass wines on page 17. Wines by the glass should be followed by sparkling wines.

Most customer-friendly wine lists move from white wines to reds and, typically, from lighter-bodied wines to heavier. So, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling choices should precede Chardonnay and White Burgundy, Pinot Noir and Merlot before Zinfandel. And, ideally, within each varietal category, I like to see the wines again listed from lightest to heaviest—light, un-oaked Chardonnays, for example, preceding big, oaky, full-bodied ones. However, many restaurant lists order their wines in each category according to price, from lowest to highest, which also has its merits, particularly in bigger lists.

I think commentary, explanations and food-pairing suggestions on wine lists are very helpful, too. I like seeing categories like “bright and refreshing,” “juicier and bolder,” “light and lively” and so on, which is especially helpful for customers who might not be familiar with different wine varietals.

Of course, any restaurant with a wine list worth its salt will also have staff who know and can intelligently communicate about wines, wine/food pairings and so on. This could be a well-trained server or a sommelier.

Next week, I’ll get into what to expect from a restaurant sommelier or wine manager.

What about you? What do you look for in a wine list? PJH

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