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From Stellenboech to Cote-Rottie: Wine List Pet Peeves

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 20, 2009 10:27am ET

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?

Mark Warren
Biloxi, Ms —  April 20, 2009 12:36pm ET
It's good to know you're paying attention! As a sommelier I would be thankful is someone pointed out a mistake, or questioned a spelling.
Matthew Lo
Zurich, Switzerland —  April 20, 2009 1:17pm ET
One of the things I hate on the wine list is that it mixes whites and reds together. For example: it lists the regions as a main heading then the producers as sub-headings. Within the sub-headings, it lists both whites and reds of the same producer. It is hell to go through the whole list just to find an interesting white to start the meal. Then you do the same thing again to find the reds later. This is confusing to me.
James Molesworth
April 20, 2009 1:28pm ET
Matthew: That is a weird one - can't say I've ever seen a list with whites and reds mixed together. Yikes!
Glenn S Lucash
April 20, 2009 1:31pm ET
Bruce Edwards
Fredericksburg, Tx —  April 20, 2009 1:59pm ET
Going into a restaurant, perusing the list and seeing that every wine is from the same wholesaler, whether the wines are good or bad. Restaurants seem to take the easy way out, and just tells the wholesaler to put what they want on the list, which is usually wines the wholesaler wants to get out of their inventory.Bruce Edwards, Fredericksburg, Tx
Eric Yates
Geneve, Switzerland —  April 20, 2009 3:11pm ET
James - I find more often than not European wine lists which tell you everything but the year. I almost prefer the "subject to change", at least I know what vintage they are starting with. The assumption seems to be if you like the wine you will be willing to have what is available. Cheers!
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  April 20, 2009 3:32pm ET
Inexpensive wine sold at 3-4x the retail price. Steakhouses are famous for this (i.e. I've seen the Segeshio Sonoma Zin at Mortons for $60 -- this retails for
David Greenstein
Phila,Pq —  April 20, 2009 3:36pm ET
Can't stand tasting notes, like aromas of licorice and flavors of anise and blackberry. Nothing against the spectator review descriptors, but there is no reason to cut and paste them on a wine list.
Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  April 20, 2009 3:41pm ET
Following on Bruce's comment above, my pet peeve is a wine list that is straight out of the wholesaler's catalog -- nothing but high-volume American producers with industrialized product in the top-selling varietals. I just ate at an Italian restaurant where the only Italians they offered was Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio and Ruffino Chianti with the rest being American Chardonnay, Cabernet, and "Shiraz." Geez, can't we try a little harder?
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  April 20, 2009 3:46pm ET
James.....The pet peeves are many but I won't let most of them detract from my dining experience, EXCEPT for the pricing issue. I've heard every lame excuse why a restaurant must charge so much over retail but none of them hold water !! I feel insulted when I see a wine that I pay $20 for listed at $60. A $30 btl for $90 and so on, right up the price scale. I have a brother in the restaurant business and I know that no restaurant pays retail for any wine they carry. They get their juice at wholesale or even below in many cases.....that makes what they are charging not just 2.5 or 3 times retail but actually 3 to 6 times what they are actually paying. When I feel I'm being financially raped I don't patronize the elitist joint. The few restaurants that charge 2 x cost will usually move 100 btls to 1 over the places that exploit their patrons. The restaurants with the fairest pricing policies will at the end of the year see a greater NET profit over the others that move far fewer btls but at an obscene markup. Diners wake up !!!! You don't have to be a CPA or an industry insider to see you're getting screwed.
John Shuey
Carrollton, TX —  April 20, 2009 3:50pm ET
No James...the "killer" is when the restaurant...and I know of at least two in the Dallas area...refuse to include the vintage at all!One is a Northern Italian place with very good food. but when I questioned the owner about the lack of vintages he said it was just too much work to keep the list up. I haven't been back.
Claude Kaber
Luxemburg —  April 20, 2009 3:57pm ET
What drives me nuts ? When asking the waiter what exactly the house wine is and hearing the answer: 'It's a red wine'
Dennis Graul
April 20, 2009 3:58pm ET
Having worked in both retail and restaurant settings, the mark-ups seen in many restaurants still bogle my mind. Paying $40 for a bottle that would cost less than $20 in a retail setting is borderline ridiculous. On the other hand, an establishment that has a great list with reasonable markups is always a keeper. I hope the trend towards lower markups continues.
James Molesworth
April 20, 2009 4:06pm ET
John: That's the way to do it though - vote with your wallet. I'm always surprised when one of those old fashioned restaurants you describe manages to survive these days, with so many people now counting wine in the equation when they dine out...

Claude: That's better than the old line asking 'what's the soup de jour?'...
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  April 20, 2009 4:38pm ET
Not having the correct vintage really drives me nuts (and I disagree with Eric's assertion above that, if one likes a wine, vintage shouldn't matter). Keeping a wine list current should be of high importance in a restaurant. Not doing so comes off as sloppy, unprofessional and lazy.
Trevor Morris
Laguna Hills, CA —  April 20, 2009 4:52pm ET
Some other pet peeves:1. Not removing wines from the list that are no longer stocked.2. A different price charged on the bill vs. the list. Explained by "oops, the computer has not been updated..."3. Rieslings from every region other than Germany!
Mark Antonio
Tokyo —  April 20, 2009 6:40pm ET
Hi James. Great blog as always. I agree with you fully except for one point. I like to see varietals separated and sequenced by price. Price/QPR is my main criteria these days, and when typically there may only be 15-20 wines per type, I don't see that it's going to be tough to pick out what you need.
Jeffrey R Davis
MSP, MN —  April 20, 2009 8:47pm ET
I tend to get really fired up when a vintage is offered on the wine list, but when ordered, a DIFFERENT vintage is delivered to the table and presented as if it IS the wine you ordered. No explanation whatsoever. Happens way too often...
Michael Bonanno
April 21, 2009 12:01am ET
How about a place that doesn't care at all behind your back and pours something close, but not the exact wine you thought you ordered. . . You know it happens.
Bill Knuth
April 21, 2009 12:29am ET
What I find interesting is that no one ever harps about the return restaurants get on spirits. For every bottle of Absolut or Captain Morgan, they get 5 to 6 times their initial investment. yet, when a wine is marked up 3 to 4 times everyone screams that they are being ripped off. A glass of ice tea normally runs me $2.50 - $3.00 and I'm sure it doesn't cost more than a quarter to make. Very few people get rich in the restaurant business. Most work hard to get by and most eventually go under. To compare what you pay at a grocery store as to a restaurant is irrelevant. Go ahead and dine in the frozen food section at Vons if you want to save a buck. Most restaurants don't gross $250,000/week like grocery stores so they can't run at minimal margins. If the ambience is terrible, the food is terrible and the service is terrible - don't go back. Otherwise, enjoy it all, leave an appropriate tip and be happy that you're boosting the economy or helping a kid through college. And no, I've never owned a restaurant but have worked at a few.
George Sanders
Atlanta, GA —  April 21, 2009 9:52am ET
My pet peeves include bad stemware and improperly stored wine. Nothing grosses me out more than drinking a bottle of good juice served at 75 degrees out of a one of those industrial glasses. Would a restaurant be able to survive selling room temperature beer out of a paper cup?
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  April 21, 2009 11:08am ET
Wine lists themselves usually don't bother me all that much. It would be nice if the servers could have a good understanding of what the wines are and recommend something nice. An educated waitstaff can really help sell those higher end bottles.
Marc Robillard
Montreal,Canada —  April 21, 2009 1:46pm ET
Predictable, average to below avarage wines in the lower end price bracket.I will spend $80-$120 on a bottle in a restaurant but I don't always want to spend that. I always look at the lower end of the price scale to see what is available and if anyone will ever surprise me by actually putting some effort into the "value" range of the wine list.It blows me away that there is little to no effort put into providing customers the quality and devesity of "value" wines of which there are plenty available.
Matthew Balk
April 21, 2009 10:29pm ET
Most lists don't have enough quality wines by the glass. It's always $7-20 bottles that they are charging $7-20 per glass. Most are 80-85 point wines that are not inspiring.
Harry Graham
Solon, OH, USA —  April 22, 2009 11:23am ET
Mistakes occur on wine lists. When my wife and/or I find them and point them out we generally are looked at as if we came from some other planet. Then, the error is dismissed as meaningless, e.g., sautern for sauternes. The other source of irritation is wines being served too warm or too cold. Again, no one seems to care. We do not eat out much anymore due to the lack of care on restaurant wine lists.
Jody Smith
April 22, 2009 3:46pm ET
Vintage discrepancies are my main pet peeve, followed by an impressive list that has been cherry picked clean to my (often) 2nd or 3rd choice. Also bothersome, wine lists loaded with wines a year or two from vintage and not even remotely close approachable.
William Thomen
San Francisco —  April 22, 2009 5:31pm ET
My pet peeves are the wrong glass for the wine - pinot served in a cabernet glass or worse yet, a small tumbler that is supposed to be casual. Also poor quality in wine by the glass. I'm not talking about chain restaurants that sell only mass produced brands. I don't understand why casual bistros can't search out wine with a great QPR and sell that by the glass instead of selling one dimensional wine.
Jonathon Wagner
San Francisco, CA —  April 23, 2009 12:42am ET
Poor stemware. Terrible wine service...make that service in general. Ridiculous pricing. Low grade/quality selections. That about sums up my pet peeves for wine and dining out. Spelling, alphabetizing, wrong vintages etc....I can work around that. The others...I cannot.
Michael Goldberg
Boca Raton, FL —  April 23, 2009 2:02am ET
My BIGGEST pet peeve is pricing. I bring my own juice to 90% of the better restaurants I dine in. If they do not have a byo policy, or they charge more than $25 corkage, there is a very good chance that I'm not eating there. There are too many good places here in Fla that let you bring your own wine.Most of the wines I tend to drink are in the $40-$75 retail range, so that means the restaurants are charging $120-$225/bottle. No way I'm paying that knowing what I can buy the wine for retail. And if you're savvy enough, you can buy most wines today for less than retail.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  April 23, 2009 5:41am ET
I've been really struggling about this...I'm going to NYC to celebrate my graduation and the start of grad school. Part of that is a reservation at Eleven Madison Park. I'm getting the eleven course meal for myself, my significant other, and her 13 year old daughter. That's $525 before the wine...with a $35 corkage I can ensure that I will get a special wine with my meal too. Yet as a wine lover I want to try something new from their list...without paying through the nose for an outstanding wine. It's been tough as I paw over my cellartracker and think about what wines will travel well (mostly whites or young reds) and what I really want to do...it's very tough when I see wines I like with a $200+ price tag on them and I know I can bring something close to that for the cost of corkage
James Molesworth
April 23, 2009 9:25am ET
Kirk: Special occasions are just that - special. So now is a good time for you to reach out to the sommelier. Call ahead even. Tell them you're doing to full tasting menu, but your wine is on a budget. A good sommelier will help you find the right wine.

While I'm not surprised to hear the frustration with pricing and service among many folks posting here - these are still problem spots at many restaurants when it comes to wine - I am surprised more people don't reach out to sommeliers. Good sommeliers at wine-centric restaurants are a wealth of info. They also want repeat customers, so they have your interests at heart...
Alan Vinci
springfield, n.j. —  April 23, 2009 1:30pm ET
PRICE...Both on the markups and the small amount of wines listed at less than 100 or even 50 dollars. Nothing bothers me more than when a restaurant puts so little attention in to finding good quality wines at reasonable prices or quality in all price points.
Jack Stiefel
NY/NY —  April 23, 2009 3:21pm ET
Hi James,My wife and I are traveling to the Rhone region in July. Do you have any recommendations of wineries that are open to public tastings? Thanks.Jack
James Molesworth
April 23, 2009 4:01pm ET
Jack: You're not the first person to ask me that ;-).

I can't play favorites by giving specifics...also, keep in mind that the Rhone is decidedly un-Napa like, so there are very few places that have formal tasting rooms that are open to the public - Domaine de Beaurenard and Roger Sabon in Chateauneuf, Yves Cuilleron in Condrieu, Chapoutier in Tain among the few that do.

Your best plan of attack is to contact the domaines whose wines you like, let them know you're a customer in the states, and ask if you can come in and taste.

And be careful driving - doing 52 in a 50 zone there is considered speeding by the gendarmerie. They are not friendly people...
John Hannon
April 23, 2009 6:01pm ET
Bad stemware and excessive mark-up are of course, always a turn-off. But, I will have to agree with the other who point out the lack of effort and imagination to offer a variety at the low price range. Especially if those wines are what I call "adventure" wines for most diners, good quality wines from Chile, Argentina, Spain, Portugal, South Africa, etc.
Phil Roberts
Palatine, IL —  April 23, 2009 8:03pm ET
1) Too many wines that are really too young/not enough wines with a few years on them. Not that the young ones are not drinkable, it's just that they would be so much better with a few years on them. 2) Mark-ups.
Lisa Dahl
April 24, 2009 3:00am ET
Being a restauranteur, two points come to mind. 1.We can only afford (due to space)buying a case at a time. That price is different than a retail outlet that buys multiple cases or even by the pallet. The cost to us is much more than the cost to a retailer. 2. Wine distributors will send us one vintage one week, and a different vintage the next. Then back to the previous vintage the week after that. It is harder to keep up with wine list changes than you might think.
James Molesworth
April 24, 2009 9:25am ET
Lisa: With all due respect - you can't fob the responsibility off. If the distributor is sending the wrong vintage, refuse it and tell them t send the correct one. Get tough with them. Look at the consumers here and what they are complaining about - listing the incorrect vintage on your wine list reflects upon you (not on the distributor) in the eyes of the customer,

If your food vendor delivers the wrong food, do you just accept it and serve that instead without telling the customer? In today's restaurant world, the consumer is looking at wine just as seriously as food. It needs the same attention from your end...
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  April 25, 2009 3:11am ET
Tried hard to bite my tongue. Can't do it. To all of you complaining about pricing - what line of business are YOU in? What is your profit margin? What are your fees? Obviously, you have no clue what it takes to make a profit and keep a restaurant open. And that ridiculous comment about selling 100 - 1 btls if you price 2x...oh, heck, why bother...how many of those great "wine price" places stay open. Maybe a handful in the country- good luck with that strategy.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  April 25, 2009 3:30am ET
James: with due respect to the great work WS does. I feel the Awards program adds to the cost of many wine lists. The theory goes: as you try to build a big, award-winning list with 250 to over a 1000 choices (most tbls have 2-3 btls max), budgets go out the window, mark-ups have to increase to cover costs and maintain inventory, 86'd lists get long (adding to another pet peeve above). I could go on. While it is a lofty goal, is it a wise business move? How about shorter, more meaningful lists that fit the cuisine. I thought I would dare throw that out there for discussion
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  April 25, 2009 3:43am ET
Final comment: QOTD: To all the haters above, IF you were the wine buyer in a hypothetical restaurant in TX, what would you charge for a btl of Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet 2004 if it cost you $50 a btl? Remember, most of bloggers do not want bad stemware or warm wine, and they want knowledgeable service. Don't forget the TX 14% state tax charged to you, the owner, on wine sales.
Kirk R Grant
Bangor, Maine —  April 25, 2009 3:00pm ET
As a former wine director for a two glass restaurant I don't think that there is much backing Lisa's statement. The difference in cost that her restaurant gets is minimal...when small local wine stores are buying wines by the case as well. There is not more than a dollars difference in price for a restaurant vs. Retail.

Thanks for the reminder that I can and should be calling the Sommilier for this.
James Molesworth
April 26, 2009 3:56pm ET
Apj: I enjoy short, well thought out lists. But I can't see how competition among restaurants to create larger wine programs results in higher costs to consumers. Sure, maybe you carry more inventory, but ultimately you'll be moving more wine...
Kenneth J Kriz
Las Vegas —  April 26, 2009 9:03pm ET
Regarding Bill's post above: He is very correct. Following the logic of complaining about wine prices, no one would EVER go out to eat if they realized the markup on everything.

Your $18 pizza cost them $1.50 to make. Your $8 caesar salad cost $1.00 to make. Your $26 strip steak with veggies and potatoes cost $5 to make. Your $12 martini cost $2.00 to make. Your $7 cheesecake cost $1.50 to make. Your $3 iced tea, soda or coffee cost .25 cents, at the most.

You are paying for the atmosphere, the decor, the service and hopefully, a good time. If you do not get all of those things, then it truly is not worth the markup.

The only way to avoid all these markups is to eat and drink at home.
A Graham Bailey
April 26, 2009 9:30pm ET
2 pet peeves for me ... echoing many comments above. Mark-ups in many restaurants are crazy. I can understand a 2x markup on a 20-40$ bottle, but as the price goes up, the markup should drop to some value over current retail. Seeing wines for 200-500 that are marked up 2-3 times makes me want to order a cocktail or a beer and skip the list. I guess that is why i seek out corkage restaurants these days and skip any risk of gouging. I also can't stand either failing to include vintage or replacing a vintage with another. Both make it look like the restaurant doesn't care about the list or a knowledgable clientele.
Craig Plainfield
portland oregon —  April 27, 2009 5:51pm ET
I have had my restaurant for 31 years. We have recieved WS best of award of excellence. We have verticles of wines from many regions going back in some cases to the 1960's. We serve in fine glassware with appropriate shapes for different varietals. I mark up my wines 2.25X. As the cost to me of the wine increases I lower the markup. My bottom markup is 1.5X. On Mondays I offer a list of about 100 wines in all price ranges that are half price off the regular list. This just covers my cost in order to fill seats on a traditionaly slow day.My point is that I am not rich. I am keeping the business going in a bad economy. My restaurant is not packed every night. Margins are low in the restaurant business. Restaurants like mine do exsist. Please, please if you find one tell others. Dine there as often as you can. If every thing is fantastic on 10 visits but on the 11th there is some slip up please tell the manager so he can make it right for you. We need your business to survive. If the owner/chef restaurants that do everything right don't survive then in the future plan on dinning at chain restaurants who will gouge you on formula fare.
St. Louis —  April 27, 2009 7:38pm ET
Regarding Mr. Kriz' comments: he's dead on. That $8 Grey Goose and Tonic is a 6x markup!!!! Think about that when whining about restaurant wine prices.3x the mark up on an expensive bottle is ridiculous. A $15 bottle wholesale should be around $35-$37 at most (or cheaper!) on a restaurant list--not $45-$50. A $50 wholesale bottle should be around $100. A restaurant can charge whatever they like but you can decide if you want to take your business there or byo.Also, remember that wine prices would be a hell of a lot cheaper if the wineries charged less and the distributors did not add their mark up!!!!
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  April 28, 2009 3:03am ET
Disappointed that I did not get more replies on my QOTD (question of the day). think of it as a job interview. Also, I really do want to know what a non-wine trade person thinks is a fair price. Silver Oak is a popular wine so I used that as the example. Craig from OR, I appreciate your comment. I do not know how many new wine guys have told me about the place they are opening in dallas that is going to have the best wine prices in town. Only to see them close in less than 2 years. I am not trying to be a jerk but you have to be a businessman as well as a wine lover to make it work. Most did not even make it a year. I have been at my place for 9 of the 16 years. I am very sensitive to pricing. I check the competition & grocery & high-end market prices. Auction prices. K.J Kris is more on track. Good service, atmosphere, decor, etc make a successful restaurant! Don't gouge but don't give away bottles at the door either.

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