I have written a number of times in past blog articles on the pros and cons of restaurant wine lists. Having looked at number of restaurant wine lists lately, I thought it might be time to revisit the topic.
I continue to be intrigued by wine lists both big and small. I have been privileged to travel the globe over the years and I have looked at many wine lists from ones with ten wines on the side of the food menu to lists in very large three-ring binders with hundreds of wine selections. As I have gotten older and my wine knowledge has grown, I find my tastes and purchasing habits have changed in recent years.
I have gone from enjoying looking at the large lists with bottles of wine listed that costs thousands of dollars to lists that are shorter with good selections that pair well with the restaurant’s food menu.
In today’s blog I am going to give you my thoughts on wine lists and then next week I will share with you conversations I had with three good friends about their respective restaurant’s wine lists.
A Little Review on the use of Wine Lists:
Most people are intimidated by wine lists. Frankly, at times, I would include myself in that category. I get flustered when I am with a number of people for dinner and I get handed the wine list (because I’m the wine guy) to make wine selections for everyone. This is made even worse when the list is very long and the server walks away saying “I’ll return to get your drink order shortly.”
My response to a situation like this is to take a deep breath, lay the wine list down and start asking pertinent questions of my dinner partners and myself. Listed below are the general questions I normally start out with:
- Does anyone not like wine? I have a number of friends who don’t drink wine (including Mrs. Tiedemann). The answer to this question helps determine how much wine you will need to order.
- Does anyone dislike either white or red wine? Does anyone have a preference as to the type of wine they want to drink tonight? Some people prefer one type, or only drink certain types of white wine or red wine. I have friends who only drink Chardonnay and don’t care for Sauvignon Blanc. Others only drink Pinot Noir or just Cabernet. Some, including me, can drink about any wine, regardless of what food you might be eating. I can drink bold Cabernets with any food. You should always drink the wine you enjoy.
- What types of food are people going to order? With answers to this question you can start looking at specific wines to pair with the food being ordered. I always revert to the old pairing rule of white wines with white meat or seafood, and red wine for red or heavier meats.
Once you are ready to start making wine decisions there are a couple more questions you’ll need to answer, such as:
- If you are selecting white wines what type goes best with what is being ordered?
- What flavor profile do you want: Something Old World (lighter) or New World (more robust)?
- The same question applies for red wine: Does the pairing need to be with a big, bold Cabernet or will something lighter like a Pinot Noir or Merlot satisfy everyone’s palate?
Once you decide what types of whites or reds you are considering it is time to start looking in the list for those types of wines and forget about everything else listed. For example: if you are having Italian food then you’ll want to look at Italian wines listed. If you have decided on Cabernet, then there is no need to confuse yourself by looking at French Bordeaux or Pinot Noir.
Depending on the list you are selecting from and the season this might be the time to get some guidance from someone from the restaurant staff who is knowledgeable about the wines on the wine list. Hopefully they can direct you toward wines that will pair well with the food everyone is ordering.
The next big issue is price range. Generally, people spend between $50 and $100 on a bottle of wine at dinner. It certainly isn’t true the more you spend the better the wine. You might also want some input from your dinner partners on this topic. I have been in situations where I know from past experience that one of the others at the table has a certain price range they don’t want to exceed when they order wine. Or they might prefer a brand of wine that I don’t care for. In those situations, I offer to have the wine billed separately and I pick up the cost of the evening’s wine. I also usually say if someone will buy my dinner, I’ll buy the wine. That gives you a little more freedom on what wines you can order.
What Makes a Good Restaurant Wine List?
How the restaurant’s wine list is put together from organization to wine choices is of the upmost importance. What follows are my thoughts on what makes today’s wine lists good or bad.
- How many selections of wines are they pouring by the glass? There are any number of reasons you might want to select wines by the glass for your dinner:
- The ability to switch types of wines from one course to another
- To limit the amount of wine you want to consume
- To watch price and dollars spent
- To find different wines to challenge your palate
A couple new items are coming into play in some restaurants. Wine dispensing machines are becoming popular. These allow the restaurant to get more precise pours, sell more expensive wines by the glass and preserve the open bottle up to as much as 30 days. Typically you are given a machine card that allows you to select the wine you desire and sometimes the size of the pour, such as a four-ounce or six-ounce pour. Once you make your selection the wine is dispensed right into your glass. Dispensing machines are great as they allow you the opportunity to taste a wine that you otherwise might not get to because of pricing. The problem: you have to be careful what you are drinking and how much. I know of situations where wine bills far exceeded dinner costs.
The next new thing is referred to as the “Coravin List.” I’m sure many of you have seen or heard about the Coravin Wine Preservation System (I wrote about it back in 2016 – read the story here). A Coravin wine system gives you the ability to pour any amount of wine without removing the cork from the bottle: If you want a small sip or a six ounce pour (or more), you can have it. The Coravin is a handheld unit that works under the same theory as a wine Dispensing Machine. We will talk more about this later in the article.
- Wines must pair well with food on the menu. This is a very important aspect of the restaurant’s wine lists. As an example: if the menu is heavy with seafood then it should have an ample selection of white wines to pair with the seafood. If you are eating at a steakhouse, you’ll want to see a number of red wines that pair well with red meat or big steaks. If the list is small, say less than 75 wines, the restaurant needs to pay very close attention to the wine list and pairings. Larger lists can offer a much larger selection of wines but can be overwhelming to the person selecting a red wine to pair with his filet.
- Wine List Diversity: If you find a list where you see diversity, you’ll most likely have a lot more wine options to choose from. It may be Old World and New World wines, or it could be Napa Valley wines listed with Washington or Oregon State wines.
- Good wine lists should be fun. Good wine lists should make ordering a bottle of wine fun and enjoyable. It might have a smaller selection of “adventurous choices.” If the food menu is interesting and challenging, the wine selections should be the same. These selections will make you want to try something new and rewarding to your palate. Maybe change from a Chardonnay (which is available on every wine list) to a Chablis or a Viognier?
The restaurant needs to care enough to avoid wine boredom. You as the customer need to step out of your normal wine area and try something new and different to increase your wine knowledge.
Personally, I like going to a restaurant that put their wine lists on iPads. This generally means they can add and subtract wines easily and offer different wine selections more often as it is very simple to make changes.
Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of this series.
June Wine Dinner
Uptown Kitchen in Granger, Ind., will host a wine dinner on Friday, June 21, 2019. The theme is Chicago Style Steakhouse and the cost is $155 per person (less expensive if you are a member of our LEX 530 Wine & Dinner Club). The dinner will feature Carl’s Glenwood Cellars and Tiedemann wines. Click here to see the food and wine pairings. Call 574-968-3030 to reserve your spot at this dinner.
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Until next week,
Calendar of Events
- June 8 – National Rosé Wine Day
- June 21 – Lambrusco Day
- August 1 – International Albariño Day
- August 4 – National White Wine Day
- August 18 – International Pinot Noir Day
- August 29 – International Cabernet Day
- September 20 – International Grenache Day
- November 7 – International Merlot Day
- November 14 – International Tempranillo Day
- November 20 – International Zinfandel Day
- December 4 – Cabernet Franc Day
- December 20 – National Sangria Day
- December 31 – National Champagne Day