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.