In several hours of conversation with Thomas Keller for my current Wine Spectator cover story on the renowned chef, he constantly surprised me with well thought-out opinions and points of view that did not always follow conventional wisdom.
At one point, for example, as we discussed wine, he suggested that wine lists are too big. That caught my attention, as his Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry, possesses a Wine Spectator Grand Award. It is a big list, with 2,705 selections and nearly 20,000 bottles in the cellar. He seemed uncomfortable with that, so I asked him why, and that led to one of his more pungent comments, that he thinks of a big wine list as “a pissing contest.”
Too often, he said, he sees several wine buffs at a table, each with a wine list in hand, competing over who can order the most impressive wine. On the other hand, when he goes out to dine, he said, “I let the sommelier choose something for me."
He understands why an ambitious restaurant like the French Laundry or his New York outpost, Per Se, should have a deep cellar. But in the end, he believes (and this comment did not make it into the story): “Luxury is not about choices. Our culture has defined it as having all these choices. But to me, luxury is not having any choices at all.”
He went on to add, “Creating an anxiety with too many choices is not luxury.”
Those of us who love the idea of a big selection may disagree, but he is absolutely right that a restaurant must do something to make the choices easier for those who may be intimidated by a huge wine list. As a gadget guy, I like those little tablet computers (pioneered by Aureole in Las Vegas) that let you search by region, variety, price or other criteria, but those have not found widespread acceptance. Many big cellars also offer a shorter, sort of “executive summary” list, for those who don’t want to delve.
At his restaurants, if the guest is comfortable with it, Keller wants his sommeliers to relieve that apprehensiveness by offering their own suggestions, essentially making the choices for diners. Most are happy to let them. I have yielded to their vinous ministrations myself at those restaurants, and these guys are really good at homing in on great picks. They know their cellar, and the kitchen's style, better than I do. And they did not soak me by picking the most expensive wines on the list either.
But I wonder. How many readers of this blog would rather commune with a wine list and make their own choices? Or is Keller right, that the most luxurious thing of all is to leave the choices to someone you can trust?
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