Worst Wine List Trends: #DinersChoice Award-Winning Sommeliers Speak

iStock_000022788693SmallThis week, we celebrated the 2014 Diners’ Choice Award winners for the Top 100 Wine Lists in America. Like snowflakes, no wine list is exactly like another. Each is a reflection of a sommelier’s unique perspective on the wines that will shine alongside a restaurant’s menu. Similar to menus, however, wine lists can fall prey to bad trends that diminish a diner’s experience. We asked this year’s award winners to share their thoughts on the worst wine list trends. Read on for their, ahem, juicy responses.

Lack of smaller pours. AIDA Bistro & Wine Bar proprietor Joe Barbera bristles at restaurants offering glass or bottles only with no option to try a taste with a two or three ounce pour, for example. “This also doesn’t provide the customer the ability to create their own flight.”

Too few wines by the glass. “For my personal taste, it is the lack of wine available by the glass. At Amelie, we offer more than 100 wines by the glass and we try to cover many terroirs, geographic areas, and various winemaking techniques. Our prices give our customers a chance to try new wines and see all the differences. Many wine lists have extensive options of wine by the bottle, but the high prices make it difficult for the guests to try these amazing wines. I think a wine list can be made with exceptional wines at affordable prices,” says Germain Michel of Amelie.

Showcasing only large production wines. “Everybody sells wine these days: Amazon, grocery stores, gas stations – you name it. And they all seem to be carrying the same mass-produced wines. This is the trend I am noticing in some restaurants. The wine lists are offering the same wines as a gas station. Maybe it’s because they think people will recognize the wine names,” says Tom Bush, retail wine manager, at Balaban’s.

Poor organization. As Dan Sachs of Bin 36 points out, “It’s difficult for typical diners to know how to navigate a wine list, and, often, lists can be organized by price or regions. While these may make sense from the restaurant’s perspective, if the diner is not familiar with, say, Italian reds, organizing the list by region is not very helpful. In the end, we want our guests to make a selection that will be enjoyed and enhance the rest of the dining experience – and it shouldn’t be stressful.  A wine list can be a tool to reduce or ramp up the stress level.”

Having a big list merely for the sake of having a big list. Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurant winemaker Rob Warren says, “The worst trend that I see is overcomplicating the wine list for the sake of having a big list. Most customers choose wine based on familiarity and price. It is important to have the popular varietals on the wine list, and even some more obscure ones, but within those varietals there are often too many choices at or near the same price point. Pick a $20, $40, and $60 Cabernet Sauvignon that go well with the food you produce. Do the same for the other varietals on your list, and your customers will be much less intimidated.”

High prices and low quality. Amer Hawatmeh, owner of Copia Restaurant and Wine Garden, isn’t a fan of wine lists that feature low quality and high price or high quality with even higher prices and limited choices. “We strive to resolve all of this at Copia by offering a great selection of more than 1,100 varieties of wine that represent the world, at retail prices.”

Tired wines by the glass. “Exploring wines by the glass is a great way to learn more about the endless world of wine. But one of the disturbing trends we see is that of restaurants offering only predictable wines by the glass,” says Domaine Hudson proprietor, Mike Ross. “We offer a range of distinctive wines by the glass. We take pride in helping patrons expand their horizons. Very often, these discoveries become customers’ bottle favorites.”

A lack of cohesion. Elaia wine director and advanced sommelier Andrey Ivanov states, “Too often I find a wine list without a sense of purpose or theme. Whether it is regional, style-driven, whatever the tie that binds, a list should tell a story. It is a look into the creative mind of the person who put it together: what they enjoy, what they are passionate about, and how they choose to communicate that passion to their guests. Guests rely on the beverage professional to guide them through the sometimes-nebulous world of wine; this is our craft, this is our passion, this is our contribution. At the end of the day, without proper context, it is still just rotten grape juice.”

Refusing to evolve. Matt Roberts, wine director for Eno Vino Wine Bar and Bistro, says, “There are wonderful, established wineries, wines, varietals, and producers that have stood the test of time because they are consistent with their quality and are a MUST to be represented on any wine list. One thing that we try to do at Eno Vino is not only have these constants represented on our list, but always save room and space for the unique, the ‘boutiquey,’ and the small producer. It’s essential to always keep your list revolving and evolving! It’s not necessary to change everything; switch a few things up here and there. There is no greater feeling than someone trying something new and loving it!”

Focusing solely on arcane wines. Fearrington House Restaurant wine director Maximilian Kast reveals, “I find it troubling that some wine buyers are creating lists that focus only on esoteric wines. Don’t get me wrong; I love esoteric wines, and we have them on our list, but when a guest comes in to your restaurant and does not recognize a single wine on your wine list, you have set an uncomfortable tone for their evening. Having a list which has some ‘mainstream’ wines from good producers balanced with some more esoteric wines will actually make guests more prone to choose the esoteric wines, because they feel like they have a choice, as opposed to having it forced upon them.”

Lists driven by wine sales reps. “I have seen that, at least in our area, a lot of restaurants pay very little attention to their wine lists and leave it to their ‘liquor’ sales rep — not even a wine sales rep — with total disregard to the link between food and wine, offering what the reps need to sell and not what would be best with the food they are preparing. You can find the very same wines in seafood restaurant, pizzerias, grill, and barbecue places. To us, wine is as important as food to make it a complete experience,” says Griffin Market owner Riccardo Bonino.

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Trending on Restaurant Reviews: Sushi Rolls That Really Rock

Untitled 2It’s National Sushi Day! How fitting that this cuisine has its own day as it has become something of a staple in the diets of most American foodies. It can straddle both sides of the nutritional fence — clean and green (hand rolls packed with veggies and brown rice) or fatty and decadent (Hello, foie gras, mayo, and uni!), meaning there’s something for all comers. We’re celebrating the day by ordering sushi, taking inspiration from what diners are saying about the inventive and delightful sushi rolls that have them raving in recent restaurant reviews. 

Blowfish Sushi, San Francisco, California: “The food was divine. We ordered a vegetarian roll that was served warm and was outstanding. The shishito peppers melt in your mouth, and they are topped with thin sliced caramelized leeks! I have never tasted leeks in a better form.”

 The Bluefish-Greenville Ave., Dallas, Texas: “We drive from OKC to eat dinner at Blue Fish. The service is always the best and we’ve never had a roll there that we didn’t like. Our favorite is the rainforest.”

Hapa Sushi Grill and Sake Bar Lodo, Denver, Colorado: “We loved the multiple orgasm roll and the rock ‘n roll spicy shrimp roll!”

Insignia Prime Steak & Sushi, Smithtown, New York: “You *have* to order some type of special sushi; the insignia roll is a favorite!”

Irori Sushi, Marina Del Ray, California: “The blue crab and salmon roll is the best sushi roll I have ever tasted!”

Katsuya Hollywood SBE, Los Angeles, California: “I had blue fin sashimi, and a version of a spicy California roll with seared ahi on top; my daughter had a roll with shrimp on top — all totally amazing! As a fan of Food Network, you always hear them talk about how in a really good dish, you can taste all the elements without anything overpowering it — this was the first time I have ever had that experience (and I just turned 50!).”

The Olde Pink House Restaurant, Savannah, Georgia: “I tried southern sushi, which was a fried roll filled with shrimp and grits…brilliant.”

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Trending on OpenTable Restaurant Reviews: Sunchokes

sunchoke-blogWhile you may think that the winter months signal a dearth of interesting, fresh ingredients, that isn’t always the case. Consider the sunchoke. Also known as Jerusalem artichokes (even though the plant does not come from Jerusalem and is not related to either the globe or the Chinese artichoke), sunchokes are available from late fall through spring in North America. According to the Oxford Companion to Food, sunchokes are a North American relative of the sunflower. The tubers, which have a flavor similar to that of Brazil nuts, can be enjoyed raw, boiled, fried, roasted, pureed, among other preparations. They are a good source of fiber and thiamine, which is important to muscles, the central nervous system, metabolism, and more. They are also purported to have some, ahem, gaseous qualities. Find out what OpenTable diners are saying about this in-season ingredient. 

Acquerello, San Francisco, California: “The delights that crossed our table are too numerous to mention, but the standout dish was a creamy sunchoke soup with short rib meat. How I wish I’d ordered that instead of just stealing sips from my husband’s bowl!”

Alma, Los Angeles, California: “Our favorite dish was a very unusual starter — a sunchoke dish that ended up being a soup (you couldn’t tell from the description). The broth was sublime and very complex; really remarkable. I would return for just that at the counter if I could and would happily give them ‘soup of the year.'”

Charcoal Restaurant, Denver, Colorado: “The food is always absolutely delicious — love the Cobb and smoked salmon salads and the Sunchoke soup.”

Cowell & Hubbard, Cleveland, Ohio: “The food was outstanding — you must try the sunchoke salad, strip steak, and the out-of-this-world desserts.”

* Craftsman Restaurant, Minneapolis, Minnesota: “My wife had the gnocchi, and I had the roasted steelhead with sauteed sunchokes in a chervil beurre blanc. Both were terrific.”

Daniel, New York, New York: “I simply cannot imagine a dinner anywhere in the world that would exceed the experience we had at Daniel! Foie gras, duo of beef, sunchoke ravioli, and the squab were our choices, and everything was completely amazing.”

The Mildred, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: “Service was attentive and friendly, and the food was absolutely delicious. The hand-spun bucatini ‘cacio e pepe’ was rich and creamy, and the roast sunchoke was perfectly seasoned. An excellent meal all around!”

Outerlands, San Francisco, California: “Caramelized sunchokes were beyond wonderful.”

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OpenTable Diner Reviews Reveal Top 100 Wine Lists

corks-blogAs the grape harvest continues at the nation’s vineyards, we are pleased to announce the 2013 Diners’ Choice Award winners for the Top 100 Restaurants with the Most Notable Wine Lists. These awards reflect the combined opinions of more than 5 million reviews submitted by verified OpenTable diners for more than 15,000 restaurants in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Featuring talented sommeliers and lists to impress any oenophile, the winners span 27 states and include Canlis in Seattle, The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and Veritas in New York City. Home to the nation’s most renowned vineyards, California accounts for 21 honorees, followed by Maryland with eight winners and Florida, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and Washington with five apiece. Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas restaurants each boast four winning restaurants. Michigan and Nevada both claim three winners. Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, and Tennessee each have two winning restaurants. Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin restaurants are also represented. American fare restaurants had the greatest number of winners, followed by those serving Italian and tapas/small plate cuisines.

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