Here's today's typical restaurant wine experience: You go in, sit down, you're handed a wine list. Most of the time only one person at the table even sees the list. If it's an expensive restaurant—or an ambitious one—you're confronted with hundreds of wines. Within just 10 or 15 minutes, you have to a) confer on what you and everyone else at the table are going to eat and b) sort through the entire wine genome.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. What I just described is what we all experience in nearly every restaurant.
Is there something wrong with this picture? There sure is. Let's be blunt: It's virtually impossible for the average wine drinker—even for the not-so-average wine enthusiast, really—to make sense of most of today's so-called better wine lists.
Think about this for a minute. Today's "wine list theater" is virtually the same performance as a century ago. The sole difference is the size of the cast. A century ago, wine lists were much shorter and simpler, with a sampling of red Bordeaux, a few red and white Burgundies, some German Rieslings and various Champagnes. Dessert wines would include Sauternes, Port and Tokaji.
Would I prefer to go back to those bygone days? Not a chance. I relish the array of wines available to us today. This is the irony of our era; namely, that the best wine lists in America today (and elsewhere in the world, it should be noted) are fabulous.
America's new breed of sommeliers is pushing American palates in directions that are not even especially commercial. Rather, there's a heartfelt desire to expose restaurant-goers to today's trove of lesser-known wines from seemingly every corner of the planet. This effort cannot be praised too often or too highly.
Yet there's a cloud to this silver lining. Many of these wines are simply so new or so obscure that there is no way—I mean, no way—that even an enthusiast could know about them, much less be likely to land on them in that critical 10 minutes or so of decision making at the beginning of a meal.
We are heaped with a mountain of choices, many of which no normal person could possibly previously know about, presented to us in a way that hasn't changed since the horse-and-buggy days. Yet, we are expected to manfully or womanfully handle this largesse in the same fashion and the same amount of time as our great-grandparents did.
This is, in a word, absurd. It is simultaneously too much (wine choice) and too little (time and consumer knowledge). So what do we do? We look at the prices and make a decision based upon how much or how little we intend to spend. Then we typically choose something familiar in our preferred price category.
Surely there's a better way for wine to be presented in restaurants in the 21st century. And I'm not talking about gimmicks like iPads and the like. Rather, I'm talking about connecting the dots. We need lists that reveal what might be called "new commonalities." What we really need is for restaurants to rearrange their wine choices in ways that allow us insight.
Instead of grouping wines by grape variety or region, a wine list might instead choose to present wines that come from high elevations. A list that showcases "High Elevation Wines" could offer a brief description of what collectively sets apart such wines, citing shared traits such as higher acidity, greater midpalate density, lower yields, mineral notes.
This provides a simple yet essential education and allows adventurous diners the chance to see seemingly disparate wines—never mind the grape variety or area of origin—through a different lens.
It also allows the creator of the wine list to de-emphasize the conventional (and often immaterial) geographical boundaries that often, if unintentionally, create a caste system of greater or lesser prestige. Why shouldn't a high-elevation wine from Argentina, Sicily's Mount Etna or California's Santa Cruz Mountains share the same stage?
Segregating wines by national boundaries—or unfocused appellations—makes less sense today than ever before. Anybody who's tasted Cabernets designated "Oakville" (in Napa Valley) knows there's a world of difference between valley floor Oakville and hillside Oakville represented by the likes of, say, Dalla Valle, high in the eastern hills of the Vaca Range.
Such "commonality" groupings are limited only by one's imagination and insight. Not least, they explode artificial borders and the old, outdated catechism of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Napa Valley, Australia and so on.
You could have commonalities such as Low Yields; Very Old Vines; Very Cool Climate; Lower Alcohol. This approach offers the chance to provide a real, if necessarily brief, education, as well as performing a gentle bit of evangelism by explaining the significance of low-yield wines (and why they often are necessarily more expensive) or the attractiveness of lower-alcohol wines, or the characters of old-vine wines.
Obviously, the possibilities are nearly endless. How about price? In San Francisco, the restaurant Cotogna, which is truffled with well-heeled patrons (it's the more casual sister restaurant to its four-star sibling, Quince, next door), chose a commonality of cost: Everything on the list is $40, period.
You get the picture. Are you tired not just of wrestling with oversized lists, but of struggling to make sense of today's wonderful, exciting but challenging wine abundance? How would you change the wine list experience if you owned a restaurant?
One thing is certain, at least to me. Presenting wines in the same dutiful, color-within-the-lines way laid down a century ago no longer works. The great economist (and wine lover) John Maynard Keynes put it best: "The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones."