Wine list basics
Don’t be impressed by sheer volume
ess is more when it comes to wine lists.
There was a time when the quality of a restaurant
wine list was judged primarily by the number of countries
and regions represented, and therefore, the larger the
wine list, the better the rating. I recall lists that were encyclopedic in stature that went on for pages and pages, invariably starting with the classic regions of France –
Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhone etc., and end-ing with a smattering of ”New World“ offerings that were
added as an afterthought.
The days when a restaurant could afford to maintain an
inventory of that size have long been over, and the best
lists in my view, are the ones that work on a “less is
more” philosophy where the skill lies in creating a selection based more on stylistic considerations than trying to
encompass every region of the wine world.
Recently, I have seen some excellent examples of short
lists that exemplify brevity in creative ways. A hotel
restaurant I visited in Chicagoland has an all-American list
that breaks out of the mold of offering only Napa cabs
and chardonnays. The list is divided into sections based
on styles and grape varieties and states such as Virginia,
New York, Michigan, Arizona and New Mexico are included alongside the usual representations of California,
Oregon and Washington. Cabernet Sauvignons are intermingled with Bordeaux blends and Meritage blends
within a section called “Powerful Reds,” and there is a
delightful section of “Alsace grapes” within the whites,
representing wines made from the likes of Pinot Gris,
Gewurtztraminer, Riesling, Muscat and Pinot Blanc. There
are recommendations for which styles pair best with certain items on the menu and a large number are available
by the glass or 500ml carafe (two-thirds of a bottle, which
is a very good size for a couple wanting a little more than
a glass each but not needing a whole bottle). This
method of presenting wines to the consumer does a
wonderful job of combining the familiarity of grapes and
styles with a modern and accessible way of encouraging
experimentation. And the whole list is but a few pages
There is really no excuse for a wine list to ever be out of
date these days, with the ability to print beautiful full-color pages on word processors and desktop publishing
programs from any computer. Restaurants can keep their
lists fresh and vibrant by frequently changing the selections, perhaps buying small quantities and gauging customer reaction before committing to purchasing more.
Restaurant managers and sommeliers can experiment
with different ways to present the wines and engage the
customer by requesting feedback. They can monitor what
sells and encourage experimentation by offering a large
selection of wine by the glass. The best wines are not always the most expensive, a fact that consumers and
restaurateurs are becoming more aware of in these hard
Wine lists should be accessible, informative and fun to
read. If they have a focused theme, so much the better as
nobody has the time or inclination to wade through 100
pages, and few of us are impressed by the gargantuan
choices of yesteryear.
Before going to a restaurant, check out its wine list online. Small lists are actually harder to put together than
long ones. If there is a fairly short, well thought out selection that is presented intelligently, it means the restaurant
truly cares about its wines and you won’t be disappointed.
Originally from England, Stephen Beaumont has lived in Wisconsin
for the last 10 years. He is a Certified Wine Educator, a designation
that requires extensive knowledge and tasting skills.