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Making the List

May 31, 2009

I was recently asked about how to find good values when out at a restaurant.  And as I was thinking about strategies, I realized that some are dependent on the quality of the list itself.

A wine list does not have to be big to be good.

Yes, a lot of fancy restaurants have wine lists that resemble Russian novels.  But in fact a focused wine list can really be a pleasure.  It can mean that someone has put a lot of thought into what wines will be served.  And given the thousands they had to choose from, they determined that these 10 bottles would be the best to complement the chef’s food.

It could also mean that nobody wanted to deal with the storage and organization of dozens of bottles, not to mention training the staff.

So how can you tell the difference?  Most times the clues are there in the list itself to determine the quality of the wine program.

Here are a few things to look for:
–    All the information you might want about the wine should be on the list – its vintage, producer, geography, and if applicable its varietal or bottling.
–    The wine list should be printed on paper.  This allows for changes to be made as one vintage sells out and the next begins, or new wines become available.
–    The wine list should reflect the restaurant, and one should expect more rarefied wines at a temple of fine dining, more Sicilian wines at a southern Italian restaurant, more red wines at a steakhouse, etc.
–    The list should be balanced.  There is no good reason to have the white wine list dominated by a single varietal.  I’m talking to you, chardonnay.
–    There should be some logical structure for how the list is organized.  There are several ways to do this: by geography, by varietal, by the wine’s body, by the wine’s characteristics (i.e. crisp and clean vs. bold and fruity).

The last thing to look for I think may be surprising to some:
–    Many, if not most, of the wines should be unfamiliar to the average diner.

Here is why.  In a good wine program, the beverage director or sommelier has assembled a list of wines that you yourself could not buy anywhere for any price.  Many of the best wineries produce small quantities of wine that never make it to retail shelves because of the complexities and perils of distribution.  Instead it goes directly to restaurants.

At a fine dining restaurant, you should be eating food that you could not reasonably expect to make at home.  Yes, I suppose you could spend the three days, dutifully following all of directions for each stage of preparation, straining and restraining stocks to achieve perfect clarity.  You could.  But I did say reasonably.

The same goes for the wine.  One of the special treats of good wine programs is that they provide access to wine that you just would not be able to get at your local merchant (or supermarket if you are lucky enough to live in a civilized state where you can buy wine where you buy food).

I remember being very impressed with my stepfather at the early stages of my wine journey.  We would go to restaurants, and he would look at the wine list, and be able to find something to order.  Just learning about wine myself, I looked at the list as an academic exercise, and was confounded as to how anyone could make a selection.

So I asked him, how did he know what to choose?  The truth is that you do not need to know about every wine on a wine list.  You don’t even need to know about any of them.  All you need is a broad knowledge about the different types of wine, a general knowledge about the different regions where wine is made, a basic understanding of what wine does over time, and how much you want to spend.

But we will get to all of this in time.

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