This 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.