Ever since I attended the Culinary Institute and became a chef, I have always read the New York Times restaurant review. Since becoming a member of the wine industry, I look at each review and wonder why there is so little attention given to restaurants’ wine programs. Based on my memory and a sampling of recent reviews, most don’t mention the wine program at all and if they do it, it’s almost always a short sound-bite, maybe one sentence long.
Readers may have noticed that I always refer to a restaurant’s wine program, rather than wine list. Yet the wine list is all that is ever mentioned in a review. The whole program is what is important. The wine list is just that—a list. A restaurant’s wine program (and all restaurants have one, good or bad) include the following as well as the list itself—glassware, storage, service, a particular focus, staff education and knowledge. I tell the staff of all my clients that the wine program must earn the respect of the wine consumer. If all wines are treated like a $1,500 bottle of Bordeaux or Burgundy regardless of price, the guest will recognize the care and order better wines with each visit. However, if inexpensive wines are treated without respect, then even the wealthiest wine consumer won’t splurge on a pricier wine. So let’s have a look at the typical wine list sentence or paragraph found in a restaurant review.
“The wine list, better than those at older and squarer steakhouses, can nonetheless be frustrating, with too few accessibly priced reds that beckon you.” (Frank Bruni, NY Times, from a review of the Minetta Tavern in May 2009). What about the rest of the wine program? Were the glasses thick tumblers? Did anyone offer to help with recommendations? Did anyone offer to decant a younger red wine? How was the format for the wine list—legible, organized, interesting? And from my experience, a list with “too few accessibly priced reds” will often have a selection of reasonable wines that just need some kind of guidance from a wine savvy staff member. But don’t get me wrong, if a wine list and wine program needs bashing, I’m all for it. So let me take a fictional restaurant and review its wine program.
The wine program has a jumbled list that is quite hard to decipher. However, the selections, though limited, are quite interesting and priced fairly with some real bargains to be found with a bit of due diligence. The sommelier was knowledgeable and affable with smooth service technique, and offered to decant the young Burgundy I selected to increase the bouquet and complexity.
Unfortunately, the glassware was not of the level of the sommelier or the selections on the list. Some bargains included a wonderful 2004 Henri Gouges Nuits St Georges Premier Cru for a very reasonable $90 and a 2000 vintage Chapelle Puligny-Montrachet Champ Gain for $125 a bottle. Naturally, the list is heavy in Burgundy, new world Pinot Noir and Chardonnay given the cuisine. Though the sommelier was apologetic of the glasses and the list format, he did promise changes in the near future. With these exceptions, the wine program seems to fit the concept of the cuisine and restaurant in general.
Now what was so hard about that? If a restaurant reviewer can pull off such a bit, then why don’t they just bring along their own wine consultant? Hint, hint.