You may have noticed that some sommeliers and wine directors now refer to themselves as “curators” of their wine lists. Occasionally a restaurant or wine critic may compliment a short wine list as “well-curated,” if it brims with fascinating options.
Since the verb “curate” and the noun “curator” can apply to the person in an art museum who is responsible for selecting the art for exhibitions, some observers have bridled at the words’ use for something as quotidian as a restaurant wine list. I think they’re wrong. It might seem fussy or precious, but it makes sense in the context of particularly good wine lists, especially ones that reflect a tightly focused and sharply selective point of view.
One of a curator’s jobs, as I discovered when I looked up the words in several dictionaries and encyclopedias (not just the ubiquitous but sometimes unreliable Wikipedia), is to offer written interpretations of a collection’s contents. Lists that add descriptions of their wines, that try to put them in a taste context, do exactly that.
The first definition of “curate,” by the way, is not as a verb but a noun, a religious post. Some dictionaries don’t even recognize it as verb. Context is everything, isn’t it?
Now, I understand a reluctance to overly fancify wine, which is, after all, a beverage, something to drink with dinner. Despite the emotional effect it can have on some of of us, and without denying the craft that applies to it, a bottle of wine is not a work of art. (This is one reason I disagree with those who argue that rating wines is sacrilege, akin to scoring a Michelangelo sculpture, a Renoir painting or a Picasso drawing. It’s a product, meant to be sold and consumed.)
Despite its allusion to art, “curator” has a more general definition. All my sources pretty much agree that a curator organizes and maintains a cultural collection. It could be for a museum, but not necessarily. In Scotland, a curator routinely describes a nanny. In Australia and New Zealand, the groundskeeper of a cricket pitch is called a curator. Can’t get much more down-to-earth than that.
Besides, it seems to me that we need a word to describe those intrepid souls who edit their wine lists to a manageable size, coming up with a tight array of options that reflects the culture of their restaurants’ regions, cuisines, styles or just a mind-set with a rationale behind it. Though I love to play in the sandbox of big, broad wine lists as much as the next wine boffin, when I sit down to dinner sometimes I just want to find a wine, quickly, that suits the occasion and the meal to come. A list with 75 to 150 wines is just the ticket, if there’s a curator’s mind behind it.