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Drinking Out Loud

Never Mind Fantasy Football. What About Your Fantasy Wine List?

If you owned a restaurant, what would you choose?

Matt Kramer
Posted: December 3, 2013

Is there a wine lover alive—and by that I mean alive to wine—who has not fantasized about what he or she would serve as a restaurant owner? A lot of folks have a restaurant fantasy, but we wine lovers zero-in on that one component that so fascinates us.

Now, I know perfectly well, and so do you, that the hard-knocks reality of restaurant ownership precludes the sort of self-indulgence I'm about to describe. The mantra of all restaurateurs is (or should be): Give them what they want.

That said, I've never forgotten this declaration made by Terence Conran, an owner of numerous successful restaurants as well as an international chain of retail stores: "I've always been guided by the principle that people don't necessarily know what they want until it's offered to them."

I've thought of Mr. Conran's assertion many times over the years. Nowhere is it more true than with wine. There are so many magnificent wines on offer today. No one, no matter how assiduous or passionate, can know them all. Indeed, most of us aren’t even aware of the existence of some of them. I mean, how familiar are you with the wines of, say, the Canary Islands? (They can be compelling, as well as highly original.) There are Swiss wines, which only trickle in to international markets. How about German red wines? Forget those thin, pale little Spätburgunders of the past; modern German Pinot Noir is an invigorating new creature, thanks to climate change and astute clonal selection.

The list of such "people don't necessarily know what they want until it's offered to them" wines is almost endless. And such wines are not just esoteric or oddball. Instead, they are genuinely fine and very much worth knowing and enjoying.

This is where restaurants come in. More than ever before, restaurants are now ground zero for wine exposure. Partly this is due to the explosion of attractive, engaging sommeliers, most of them young and enthusiastic about the new and the different.

They, in turn, are empowered by a structural shift in how "unknown" wines are revealed to everyday wine drinkers. Previously, that role was performed by local newspaper wine writers whose platform allowed them to reach a general public and gave credibility to their recommendations.

These local newspaper wine columnists have all but disappeared, for reasons you already know. Sommeliers now perform the try-this role for a general public. They are now the local validators and popularizers for wine drinkers who are not actively involved in seeking new or different wines.

So here you are, the owner of your fantasy restaurant. Let's say that it's a reasonably profitable restaurant, whose success allows you a certain latitude in creating your fantasy wine list. (It's hard to be daring or innovative when every nickel counts.)

Do you agree with Terence Conran? I do, absolutely. For example, in my fantasy restaurant I would have a wine list that is frankly evangelical. This, of course, is consonant with my personality. We wine writers are—or should be, I think—evangelical. So mine would be, well, a "wordy" list, filled with explanations about why this or that wine is worthy of your attention. (It's also obviously why it would have to be a short list. After all, diners are there to eat, not to read a vast wine tract.)

My fantasy list would change frequently and would brim with enthusiasms. For example, I would bang the drum for the great Hungarian wine Tokaji.

Certainly I would offer the modern dry Furmint whites from the Tokaj zone. But my passion would be for the fabled, classic sweet Tokaji wines, so much so that I would build into the price of the meal the automatic service of a glass of Tokaji Aszú at meal’s end. (We're paying an automatic surcharge for bread these days, and often a cover charge, so why not for a concluding glass of dessert wine?)

Most people have never tasted Tokaji Aszú and would never think to order it. They likely wouldn't know that these wines rarely top 11 percent alcohol, making them easy to sip at the end of a meal. Above all they are a wonderment, filled with a flavor unlike that of any other wine from anywhere in the world, even other wines also transformed by botrytis, such as Sauternes.

My fantasy list would change so frequently that I would dare to offer, for a week or two, only wines from a certain region. This would mean, for me, a list composed exclusively of wines from France's Loire Valley. Think of the possibilities: sparkling, dry whites and reds, great sweet wines. A list populated exclusively by Loire wines would be a snap—as well as a bargain.

On other occasions, my list would offer nothing but high-elevation wines. You can imagine my (hopefully not too tedious) wine-list verbiage on that subject. But think of what could be offered, such as Malbecs from Argentina and some of California's most fascinating reds and whites from Napa, Sonoma, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Sierra Foothills, among many others.

Then there's the idea of "Alpine wines," all those high-elevation reds and whites from eastern France (Jura, Savoie), Switzerland, northern Italy and Austria.

You could, of course, emphasize winemaking technique. How about nothing but sparkling wines? (Now that would be daring, wouldn't it?) But when you think about it, such an adventure would embrace the likes of Lambrusco, Champagnes made entirely from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, sparkling Shiraz from Australia, Moscato d'Asti and, of course, all sorts of blends. Really, you could effectively have sparkling wines from soup to nuts, as they say.

And what about the "give them what they want" admonition, you ask? Well, I would think that anyone coming to my restaurant would already want just what I'm offering. After all, we already "ask" for what we want simply by choosing one restaurant over another.

So, here's the challenge: What would your fantasy wine list embrace? More magnums? Only wines by the glass? A declared flat percentage profit over cost? I look forward to hearing about your, er, fantasies.

Rick Jones
Mesquite Texas USA —  December 3, 2013 1:55pm ET
First Section: every Pinot Noir the Willamette Vally has to offer
Second Section:
Barollo,Barollo,Barollo,Barollo,Barollo,Barollo,Brunello, Barollo, Barollo, Barollo,Barollo,
Third Section: every Shiraz the Barossa vally has to offer
Ok Ok you can through in 2 Chenin Blancs, one Anjou and one South Africa
Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  December 4, 2013 12:53am ET
Wines BTG that are great! So many restaurants fall into the trap of pouring wines BTG that they got "a deal". How about DRC or Insignia or Masseto BTG?

I love a good, dry Furmint too, or an aged Hunter Valley Semillon?

How about "themes" like 2010 Meursaults or 2009 Sonoma Chardonnays BTG again

My point is mainly BTG makes these artisanal wines possible for those willing to just have a glass or two than investing in a whole bottle.
Mike Olszewski
Newcastle, WA —  December 5, 2013 1:13am ET
In my fantasy restaurant there would be no single glass pours, which in too many places these days are pedestrian, all the same, and over-priced. Instead, I would offer a geographically-wide and varietal-deep assortment of 375 liter sized bottles.

The 375 size has distinct advantages, if priced right. Beyond being the perfect size for lunch, a very interesting half bottle (~12oz) can often be found for little more than the cost of two glasses off the WBTG list.

Fortunately, more establishments seem to be embracing 375s. On a recent visit to a noted Seattle steakhouse, which offers over 90 unique 375 labels, we drank a beautiful bottle of 2010 Domaine Romain Collet, Chablis, Les Parques for $33. A glass of a ubiquitous CA chardonnay was $15.

May be this fantasy is well on to becoming a reality. Hope so.
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  December 5, 2013 11:17am ET
My fantasy is a better selection of wines by the glass. Most wines offered by the glass are either plonk or just the very low end wines from the wine list. My wife cannot drink for health reasons, so now I am limited to just ordering from the by-glass-list. So sad.
Brian Duffin
Avon Lake, Ohio —  December 5, 2013 4:28pm ET
I understand your point about an adventurous list and trying something that I would not typically drink at home. The case can also be made, however, that when a restaurant asks me to pay 5-6 times their cost, from a list which far too often seems to me made from wines the local distributors wish to get rid of, they're asking too much. I prefer a list that has familiar names or at least familiar AVAs. Experimentation at restaurants should be limited to wine tastings, wine dinners and discounted promotions.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  December 6, 2013 3:07pm ET
Yes, yes, yes to all you've said! Toss in some great German wines like Raumland Cuvee Marie-Luise Blanc de Noir for the sparklers and a few of those modern Spatburgunders from the likes of Meyer-Nakel or Schnaitmann and I'm there!

David Clark
for The Wine Connection
Peter Steinke
Redmond, WA, USA —  December 13, 2013 5:37pm ET
As long as we're talking fantasy I'd like to be outlandish (Sorry Matt, I missed the part about "reasonably profitable"). My restaurant would be named the "Daily Rotation" where each day of the week the cuisine as well as the wine list would be from a different region of the world. California could be Monday, France Tuesday, etc. Each daily list would have a couple of high priced trophies as well as a number of obscure unknown values to get people to try new things. There would be a raffle each day where each diner that day would receive a ticket and the daily winner got a free bottle of wine on their next visit. Can you tell I can't narrow it down at all? Wait a minute someone is waking me up ........
Austin Beeman
Maumee, Ohio —  December 18, 2013 12:28pm ET
Two restaurants:

One pours nothing but great bubby. From humble Proseccos, Cavas, and the amazing Michigan sparkling wine, to the most elite bottles of Grower Champagne available.

The other is all pink wine all the time!
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  February 12, 2014 11:00pm ET
I'm all on the affordable bottle. If you price it right, they will come (and drink it). I would sucker people into buying bottles by making them affordable. the list would be largely populated by reasonably priced bottles with archetype examples from the great regions available just because. A bottle's price would never exceed 1.5 times retail (given that I'd buy them at wholesale . . .).

I also loved the 375 ml idea. there would be bunches of those.

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