Whew! We’re finished. The last of the entries to our 2009 Restaurant Awards Program have been judged. It’s a process that takes a handful of us several weeks to work through (with kudos to Nathan Wesley, who administers the program) as we comb through the several hundred new entries we receive each year.
[Note: Exact numbers, a complete listing of all winners, including new Grand Award winners and more will be released in the annual Dining Guide in the upcoming Aug. 31 issue of Wine Spectator.]
It’s obvious that the state of wine in restaurants has come a long way since the program’s inception in 1981. But each year, after we get through the final stack of lists, there are always some recurring themes—pet peeves, really—that seem stubbornly ingrained in the world of wine lists.
Among the smaller pet peeves are what I call "throw-away sections." These are typically wines from less heralded or emerging regions that already struggle for respect from retailers and consumers (think Loire, South Africa, etc). But on wine lists, that struggle is often magnified. I don’t understand an otherwise solid, 200-selection wine list with a strong, overriding regional focus that puts three weak South African wines on the list. I’m glad to see when a restaurant shows an interest in representing South Africa, but why don’t they do the research and make sure they’re offering good choices, rather than throw-aways? I know a place with a database of hundreds of new South African wines each year. It’s easy to use, too.
"Vintages are subject to change" is another one. I cringe whenever I see this printed on a list. Yes, vintages change, once a year for most wines if my math is correct. With laser printers in every office in America though, it should be easy to reprint a list as needed so that customers know they’re going to get what they order. Have you ever seen a menu that reads "ingredients subject to change"?
Dead wood. All too often there's a listing of a rosé from two vintages prior. An off-vintage Côtes du Rhône. A cheap Cali Chard that should've been dumped out a while ago. Past-their-prime wines that languish on a wine list don't do anybody any good. Blow them out by the glass before you're stuck with them for good, or put them in the sauce.
Repetitive producers. Nothing against Souverain, but does a list really need to offer the Merlot, Cab, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc? Jadot is a good producer, but if you only have five Burgundies on the list, do they all need to be Jadot? A little diversity never hurt anyone.
There are other little pet peeves for me as well. The small but steady trend of some wine lists to put the selections together in "cute" named groups: "zippy whites" or "bold and spicy reds," rather than simply by variety or geography. Listing all wines by ascending price order (rather than alphabetical) also drives me nuts.
But the killer, without a doubt, is spelling. Spelling mistakes on a wine list are as bad as a typo in a résumé. It shows a lack of attention to detail and makes you wonder what’s really going on with the wine program. Bad spelling can sink an entry of modest size, and it can hold back a larger list from getting a higher level award. In particular this year, one 500-selection wine list offered these doozies: "Sancere," "Vouray" "Stellenboech," "Cote-Rottie" and "Mertiage" among others. Ouch.
Maybe it’s a function of looking through a few hundred lists every year—I see more mistakes so they seem more prevalent. So I’m curious, what are some of the things about restaurant wine lists that drive you nuts?