The dirty little secret of many -- most, I'd say -- restaurant wine lists is that they're worthless to the majority of their audience.
Sommeliers go to expensive lengths to construct ever longer, more elaborate lists. Yet I'm sure most of their clients look at these lists and say (if only to themselves), "What am I supposed to do with this?" Even those of us who can speak "wine" don't have time to reasonably peruse such lists.
Recently, my wife and I had lunch with another couple; the hubby, like me, is wine-crazed. The two women convulsed in laughter over how they would have to sit numbly across the table from their respective husbands while we, like Talmud students, tried to absorb these gonzo wine lists.
Today's wine lists are based on a model that's more than a century old.
"In the meantime, I'm starving!" declared our friend. "The least the restaurant could do is serve me something -- say, the first five courses -- while my husband sits there sorting out the entire wine genome."
That said, wine lists fail today not because of length. In the end, more choice is better, even if the profusion is confusing. Rather, it's how they are put together that's causing the trouble.
Today's wine lists are -- with a few admirable exceptions -- based on a model that's more than a century old. Back in the late 1800s, restaurants served only a few wines from a few places. You had Bordeaux, above all. You saw Burgundy, Champagne and German wines. And that was about it, give or take the odd Tokay, Rhône or Chianti.
Above all, there was no differentiation about how wines were made -- and no need to make any. You didn't look at a wine and wonder whether it was a new-style Barolo or a traditional version. Or whether a wine had oak or no oak; malolactic fermentation or no malo; filtered or unfiltered, etc. Wines were made in traditional and largely uniform ways, so once you knew the region, the wine style was predictable.
Today, of course, there's really no way to know what you're getting.
Let's say you want a Chianti. Now, short of actually knowing the specific wine on the list, what can you divine about it? Today's Chianti could be new-wave oaky or made in large old vats. It could be 100 percent Sangiovese or plumped with Cabernet. Indeed, it may not even be "Chianti" but instead some goofy fantasia bottling or a super Tuscan. In short, you're lost.
Does the wine list itself help you? It does not. Because all the list does, as it did 100 years ago, is categorize the wine under "Chianti" or "Tuscany" or even just "Italy." This is worthless.
It's time instead for wine list creators -- whether they style themselves as sommeliers or not -- to restructure modern restaurant wine lists to insightfully reveal the true underlying linkages of today's wines.
Grape variety or even districts are fast becoming unrevealing of what's in the bottle. Elio Altare's oaky, suave, almost tannin-free Nebbiolo "Vigna Arborina" stylistically has more in common with many Merlot-based garagiste Bordeaux bottlings than it does with what you would traditionally think of as Nebbiolo. But how would you know that?
It's time for wine lists to show us what might be called "new commonalities." Think of it as wine hyperlinks, as in: "If you like this, then you'll also like ... ."
I'll give you an example. An insightful wine list today could have a category called "High-Elevation Artisanal." It could note: "These are producers making fewer than 5,000 cases a year whose grapes are grown at relatively high elevations, which typically results in lower yields, more intense flavors and refreshing acidity."
All of a sudden, all sorts of wines, both red and white, that previously were confined to unrevealing, straightjacket designations such as "Napa Valley" or "Piedmont" are reunited with their true family members.
Or you could have a category called "Extremely Low Yields." Mayacamas Vineyard's stunning ton-to-the-acre Sauvignon Blanc and Domaine Leroy's ultralow-yield Burgundies have more in common with each other than either producer has with its ostensible "relations" of Napa Valley or Burgundy, respectively.
The dots need to be connected differently today. And the only people who can do it are the ones who are paid to do it: the best sommeliers. If their lists simply plow the same old furrows laid down long ago, then they're no help to us.
It's time to create 21st century wine lists.
Matt Kramer has contributed regularly to Wine Spectator since 1985.