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Do You Like Them Big or Small?

Selecting a savvy—but concise—wine list for a restaurant is more challenging than you think
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Mar 7, 2012 11:00am ET

Which do you think is harder: building a restaurant wine list with 1,000 bottles, or just 100?

The larger list seems the obvious choice. It would certainly be far more expensive and time consuming. Stocking current vintages would be challenging enough but chances are you would have to buy older vintages on auction or through collectors. Then there's the question of how and where to store all that wine, maintain inventory, etc.

By comparison, a 100-bottle list must be a snap. Maybe, maybe not.

I've been reading a lot of wine lists in the past few months researching a travel guide to Sonoma County and what I've seen only reinforces a trend I've noticed around the country in recent years: Restaurant wine lists are growing smaller and more focused, but putting together a savvy one is not easy.

Picking just any 100 bottles is simple. My 12-year-old could do that, and I've seen a few lists that looked like he did. They come in many styles: too many excessively familiar wineries or just the opposite, lots of obscure bottlings from regions you know all too well. Maybe the Chardonnays are all fossils or the Italian wines won't be ready to drink for years.

But when the lists are small and smartly selected—and backed by a knowledgeable waitstaff—you get a sense of the restaurant's wine karma. The excitement and energy of wine comes at you on a personal level, with a connection between you, the food and the person recommending the wine.

Keeping customers happy with a modest list can be a tightrope, put plenty of restaurants do it. Two in Sonoma County epitomize the best of these focused lists: Terrapin Creek Café in Bodega Bay and Scopa in Healdsburg.

Chef-owners Andrew Truong and Liya Lin of Terrapin Creek have résumés that include Jardiniere and Michael Mina and they've opened an unpretentious café with serious food (one Michelin star) and a sharp list with surprising variety for its size. It's almost exclusively local vino—not unusual for a small restaurant in any wine region—with modest mark-ups. Radio-Coteau Terra Neuma Pinot Noir 2008 sells for $68 and Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel California 2007 is $46.

As an Italian restaurant, Scopa has it somewhat easier. Even in California wine country, people don't mind when the list is half-Italian at an Italian place. Located on Healdsburg Plaza, it's a narrow space that seats 38 snuggly. The superb menu is refined comfort food. Few bottles on the list sell for more than $60 and there are intriguing whites like Abbazia di Novacella Kerner Alto Adige 2009 for $38 and Breggo Pinot Gris Wiley Vineyard Anderson Valley 2009 at $44.

Our table was having pizza with prosciutto, pappardelle with a creamy mushroom sauce and Nonna's tomato-braised chicken, an eye-rollingly good recipe chef-owner Ari Rosen took from his grandmother. I was considering a few Italians reds when Graham Anderson, who oversees the wine list, recommended a bottle of Giacomo Borgogno & Figli Barbera d'Alba Superiore 2009. Not only was it a steal at $38, it was perfect: supple yet structured, crisp and full of fruit.

Drinking wine with both meals seemed so effortless. I love voluminous wine lists as much as anyone, and relish the pomp and circumstance of it all, but sometimes the best food and wine experiences come on a smaller scale.

Peter Vangsness
Springfield, MA —  March 7, 2012 12:24pm ET

Numbers matter little to me - having both fresh and aged wines available that pair well with the chef's offerings is what separates the good spots from the very good/excellent spots.
I recall being in Boston many years ago and having dinner at a new restaurant that happened to be close to our theater location. The menu described each dish and recommended a wine pairing from their relatively limited wine list (70-90 wines). We took the recommendations and still remember that experience with great fondness.
Josh Moser
Sunnyvale, CA —  March 8, 2012 5:17pm ET
Tim - This is a great topic. In my opinion, the biggest problem is that people are overwhelmed by large wine lists, and they end up settling for a wine that they might not otherwise have chosen, because they ask for a recommendation. The last thing people want to do when they go to a restaurant is thumb through a 25 page wine list. The other problem is the wine / food paring conundrum, and I always tell people to order the bottle of wine they want instead of the bottle that will complement the meal. When I go out to eat I want to drink younger wines because I tend to drink older wines at home. Why would I order a 1994 Gruaud Larose in a restaurant and pay $150+, when I can drink it at home at a cost of $35?

I have a blog at www.vinoservant.com where all I do is analyze restaurant wine lists and provide readers with the best values. I won't recommend a wine if the mark-up is above 2.5x over retail. I have reviewed the following restaurants: Kokkari, Boulevard, Wayfare Tavern, Alexander's Steakhouse Cupertino, Harris', House of Prime Rib, Los Altos Grill, Waterfront Restaurant, Village Pub, Spruce, EPIC Roasthouse and La Mar.

Boulevard and Harris' both have huge wine lists (300+), and the vintage depth and prices are exceptional, and the lists are clogged up with 90+ point wines. On the other hand, Wayfare Tavern, Los Altos Grill and the House of Prime Rib have smaller lists (140 bottles) that lack vintage depth, but are full of outstanding values and 90+ point wines.

Josh Moser
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  March 9, 2012 1:39pm ET
"Do you like them big or small?"


David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  March 9, 2012 2:19pm ET
"The last thing people want to do when they go to a restaurant is thumb through a 25 page wine list.".

I bet I speak for a bunch of WS readers when I say thumbing through a 25 page wine list is exactly what I want to do. Why else would I seek out a restaurant that has one? That's my idea of a good time!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection

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