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mixed case: opinion and advice

Do You Serve Hubris by the Glass?

Small wine lists packed with geeky wines serve wine directors' egos over customers
Photo by: Mark Weinberg

Posted: Apr 10, 2014 11:15am ET

By Mitch Frank

"I don't need to hear about wines made with obscure Italian varieties. I love those wines. But my customers want an Italian Chardonnay at a decent price by the glass. That brings people back."

"So Vermentino doesn't work?"

"No."

Call it the sommelier's dilemma. Wine professionals like sommeliers and retailers spend their days tasting the most interesting wines on earth. That is their passion. But the majority of their customers are looking for safe, reliable wines, ones that don't challenge the brain or the palate. Those wines pay the sommelier's salary.

The conversation above was during a lunch I had last week with one of the better sommeliers in New Orleans and a leading wine importer. We enjoyed some shrimp and fresh fish, we drank a lovely bottle (or three) of white wine, and we talked of favorite wine regions and recent trends. Eventually, they started talking shop—something wine pros don't usually do in front of writers, since we tend to repeat everything we hear. But they let me stay, and I agreed not to quote them by name.

The conversation focused on how to get more Italian wines onto New Orleans wine lists. My town is fantastic if you want to find outstanding American or French wines—I suspect we drink more Burgundy per person than anyone else in America, though I can't prove it. But Italian and Spanish wines are trickier.

This importer wants to change that, and he has access to some of the better wines in Italy. And this particular restaurant has a very deep list, with plenty of variety. The sommelier is very knowledgeable and loves discovering wines he hasn't tasted before and introducing them to diners. But he also serves plenty of people who want something comfortable, something safe with their meal. He wants to make sure he has plenty of Merlot and Chardonnay at decent prices on hand.

Personally, give me a glass of Greco di Tufo, Pecorino or Sagrantino. A lot of places in this world grow Chardonnay and Merlot, but the Italians have hundreds of varieties found nowhere else.

I know a lot of sommeliers who feel the same way. America now has a deep pool of talent in the sommelier profession, and when I go to one of their restaurants, I often just ask them, "Which wine have you recently added to your list that really excites you?" They almost always bring me a glass of something that's never touched my lips before and I almost always enjoy it.

But neither the sommelier nor I are the average consumer. We drink wine for a living.

All too often these days, I see wine lists that offer nothing but goodies for geeks, obscure wines with names that scare off customers. (Scariest wine name out there? My money's on Blaufränkisch. I enjoy this vibrant red, but every time I say the name I can hear a horse neighing in distress.)

Now, I'm not saying sommeliers should baby their customers, shying away from the new and unusual. After all, part of a sommelier's job is to teach customers about wine. But recently the fad is for lists that offer nothing but the new. Big wine lists, with hundreds of selections, ranging from classics to value wines to, yes, new discoveries, are considered passé. Many sommeliers would rather offer a list with less than 40 wines that says, "Look at what I know!"

Last time I checked, restaurants were a service industry. Sometimes diners want to learn, and sometimes they just want a burger and a glass of Silver Oak. Know what? They're paying the check. If wine directors turn up their noses at such requests, how are they different from the bad old sommeliers of yesteryear, with their tastevins and their bemused expression when their customers asked for the "Hot Brian?" ("That's Haut-Brion, monsieur.")

Worst of all, those sommeliers have missed the chance to earn something precious: a customer's trust. Some wine drinkers never leave their comfort zone. But many, if helped by an able pro who doesn't look down on them, feel gutsy enough to try something different next time they come for dinner.

"I have had many of those customers—they tend to be very loyal," said the sommelier from my lunch when I asked him about this later. "What's more, the very first wine I ever tasted—and enjoyed—was Jess Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Chardonnay. If I had never experienced the 'safe' wine, who knows? Maybe I would be an astronomer."

Give me a big, old wine list stuffed with reliable fan favorites any day. Yeah, I'll have to flip through a lot of pages to find what I'm looking for. But I'll also know I'm someplace where the wine director cares about his customers.

Louis Shenk
Metairie, LA —  April 10, 2014 1:44pm ET
Many New Orleans wine drinkers are missing out because some of the best, affordable red wines out there are Spanish (garnachas) or Portuguese (douro) or whites like Italian gavi and there are very few on restaurant's wine lists, especially when the lists are small. If they offered these by the glass, customers could try them and find out if they like them before ordering. Surely a 40 bottle wine list could have half devoted to inexpensive but more obscure grapes for those who are willing to experiment?
Peter Hellman
New York, NY, USA —  April 10, 2014 3:01pm ET
Even on a 40, maybe even 30 selection wine list, it ought to be possible to mix up "safe" with adventurous wines. That, too, is what wine directors are paid to finesse. My ideal list is one that boasts some higher priced gems, especially with bottle age, but also I want to see budget wines picked with care--a really juicy Beaujo-Villages, a Chilian Chard fighting above its weight and maybe even, rarest of the rare, an inexpensive pinot noir that delivers gracefully in the glass.
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, California —  April 10, 2014 3:22pm ET
Once I was at a dinner table with a handful of sommeliers who were lamenting what to offer their customers who asked for Silver Oak. One had been stocking up Malbec, another fixating on Italian reds. When I asked them why don't they just have some Silver Oak, they looked at me like I was crazy.
Gerry Ansel
Fullerton, California, USA —  April 10, 2014 6:46pm ET
Hey, any Italian wine other than the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio or Chianti is okay by me. I'm GLAD these Somms are pushing Greco di Tufo, Pecorino and Sagrantino. They're some of the most interesting wines on the planet.
Jason Carey
Oakland, CA, USA —  April 11, 2014 9:50am ET
I totally disagree. Why would you go to a restaurant that serves unique food and then be served a commodity wine. Hey fine you want that mind set get your Kendall Jackson and go to Applebees.. I have no problem with that. but Why shouldn't sommelliers push the limits just like chefs do by serving new and excititng things.
Delia Viader
Napa Valley, CA —  April 11, 2014 3:27pm ET
(Disclaimer: this is Delia's daughter Janet writing)

I laughed out loud at your title, "Do you serve hubris by the glass?" I agree that some sommeliers forget to think about their customers. I have felt the same way many times over the years on my various visits to restaurant accounts. To some we're just "cool" enough to merit a placement on a few of those eccentric wine lists. However, sometimes even I find it intimidating to present to a Riesling/White Burg-obsessed sommelier - and I'm in the industry, so imagine how their customers may feel.

I second the idea that the wine list should match the cuisine and its level of experimentation, but don't go overboard. Know your customer. Lastly, it's so easy to knock the big guys and I hear it all the time, but I actually commend them because their success has a lot to do with their consistency.

There is more to the world of wine of course, but let's just be glad that people are drinking wine!
Mr K D Laroche
Vancouver, Canada —  April 11, 2014 7:28pm ET
Another option would be to check out the wine list online (hoping it is up-to-date) before going to the restaurant.

If you don't like what you see then pay corkage and bring your own.
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  April 12, 2014 10:49am ET
Why can't we have it all? seriously. You don't need a 600 bottle list (imagine all the fun for the rest of the table while the resident wine geek surveys the list for 30 minutes before saying "bring us the ____.") but I would think that the good somm would have some value selections of the geekier grapes available by the glass at a reduced rate and offering it as a value (who can turn down a limited time offer?) and maybe even offering a small taste to expose the patron to the wine. The more the people feel like they are getting a special treat, the happier they will be and the more likely they will be to come back.

Finally, it always kills me to open a list and see wines I know I can get for $15-20 marked up to $50-80, I'll usually just order the craft beer while the rest order by the glass. But if I can find, or be directed to an interesting value (who wants to gamble on an $80 bottle?) . . . I'll always go back.

Bill Stell
Greenville, SC —  April 12, 2014 9:26pm ET
Why not two wine lists, one with your standard wines and then a "Limited Time Only" list of 10 or 12 new wines with a by the glass price. Let the customers decide which ones you add to your main list and which ones to discard. I would bet within a month you could justify adding some new and different wines to the main list and have customers asking for them.
Tim Dwight
Indian Harbour Beach Florida —  April 18, 2014 12:18pm ET
Agree, great title for the article. I'd wager that most all of those wine lists with mainly esoteric selections are with restaurants that won't be around for long (and that's, of course, MOST restaurants). Successful wine lists have a good mixture of across the board selections, and it doesn't hurt to get the advice of some local long-standing wine retailers as to what's moving out there.
Successful retailers (and I'm not referring to those big chain-soul-less operations)that have been around for years have learned what it takes to survive.
Jerold Greenfield
Fort Myers, Florida USA —  April 19, 2014 11:51am ET
The answer to this dilemma is wait staff training... and not by distributors' reps who want only to hype their own selections. I've trained many servers, concentrating on how to explain less well-known wines at table, how to gently recommend selections that pair with food. Two lists is also a good idea, but understanding -- and sales -- happen at tableside. If restaurant owners want to increase wine sales, teach the staff about the selections they offer.
-- The Wine Whisperer --
Jim Mason
St. John's, Canada —  December 31, 2014 11:45am ET
I was luck enough to eat at the Slanted Door in San Francisco recently and they have a very esoteric wine list, the kind of list that make's Geeks salivate. I found two wines I really wanted to try and asked the Somm to choose some dishes that would pair up with the wines. The meal was fantastic! Great food and great pairings. And to challenge the notion that you need familiar wines in order to stay in business, well that's nonsense.

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