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Does a Wine List Need a Curator?

Why the word can apply to smart, selective sommeliers
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 9, 2012 2:55pm ET

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.

Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  April 9, 2012 3:55pm ET
The pretentiousness of some people in the wine industry really gets to me. I don't understand why being called a sommelier is inadequate to some in the business. I haven't heard of anyone calling himself a curator of wine yet, and I hope I never do. Methinks some of these people are letting their insecurity show.
Hoyt Hill
Nashville, TN USA —  April 10, 2012 12:52pm ET
I was having dinner at a restaurant which is famous for it's amazing wine cellar a few years ago and asked the wine steward if anyone in the restaurant was pursuing the master sommelier diploma. He responded that they did have one person, but that he was probably not going to work there for very long, because he did not really understand what it meant to be a sommelier in this amazing establishment.
When I asked him to explain what he meant, he said that the ms candidate had recently sold all three bottles of their 1929 Chateau Latour, requiring that it be removed from the wine list.
He further explained that the most important job of the sommeliers in this restaurant was to insure that the collection (which is astonishing) was not depleted by trophy hunters.
I think that attitude qualifies as "curating".
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  April 10, 2012 2:20pm ET
Hoyt, the restaurant that didn't want to sell its trophy wines wasn't curating, it was hoarding. I see curating as an exercise on editing and concision, finding the best wines to offer us. In my view this especially applies to a limited list, not the sort of opulent cellar you described.
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  April 10, 2012 5:29pm ET
Not to be contrary, Richard, but I think many people find the term "sommelier" to be pretentious. It has long associations with the image of a snooty guy with a tastevin hanging from a fancy ribbon around his neck, intimidating dinners with his presence. This image, whether truthful or not, is an extremely common one and is fact a stock element of popular humor
(especially movies, TV and comic strips).

"Curator", while originally from Latin, has been around the English language for a very long time and does not quite have such specific associations in the public's mind. Perhaps these "curators" are trying to re-frame the image of their job. Makes sense to me.

David Clark
for The Wine Connection

Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  April 10, 2012 10:30pm ET
I think 'curator' applies just as easily to someone who actively manages their home cellar. In fact, I have compared my wine collection to my art collection for some time, as it has specific themes, sub-themes and intentional omissions.
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  April 11, 2012 2:26pm ET
Morewine, I get your point about the word sommelier, and the views of the public about those who pretentiously display their position and knowledge, and I have no argument with that. But those who object to the term sommelier seem to do so more because of a francophobic attitude of any word that doesn't seem to be "English" or "American." We keep forgetting (or denying) that English derives from the Indo-European group of languages and think that it just happened to have been invented out of whole cloth by the British. It's ignorance and fear of the other that gets us into these silly arguments.

The French word sommelier actually derives from a Vulgar Latin (same language as curator) word, saumarius. We have English words that have been in use for the past century, or less, that we don't discard because they came from another country, although some idiot politicians tried to discard the term French fries because of their anger at France.

I revel in the beauty of language and what different cultures add to our language. But I have problems with people who try to make themselves seem more important by making their title or profession seem more sophisticated. This is where I am in full agreement with Harvey's argument about the word curator.
Howard G Goldberg
New York, N.Y. —  April 11, 2012 9:59pm ET
As a liberal on language use I readily welcome new ground being broken for meanings of words, but the application of "curator" to the creation and maintenance of wine lists feels undeservedly hifalutin'.

Irrespective of multiple usages listed in dictionaries, in our culture the noun "curator" is experientially linked with the scholarship and sensibility associated with the highest level of museum work.

Le Bernardin is, in some critical minds, a temple of haute cuisine. Does that make Eric Ripert, the kitchen's presiding eminence, a high priest? No, he's the chef. Would you call him a high priest? I wouldn't, no matter how much the world admires his remarkable achievements with seafood. Would you say he curates the
menu? Doesn't the very notion seem silly?

In winedom "curator" is a pinky-fingered overreach. Application of "curating" to the wine world has the feel of pretentiousness, of pomposity. It seem to sprocket into the dumbing-down tendencies forcing American life into second-rateness.

"Sommelier" and "wine director," carrying sufficient denotations and connotations of expertise, convey the Big Idea adequately.
Susan Reading
St. Francis, WI —  April 17, 2012 12:07pm ET
I agree with Mr. Clark. Sommelier sounds pretentious to most people, and can strike fear in the heart of a novice wine consumer. Curator is fine, I haven't heard it yet, but I think the use of this word makes sense and will encourage many consumers to ask about and try different wines, while still giving the sommelier/curator/most informed person in the restaurant a less imposing, but still very respectful title.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  April 17, 2012 12:14pm ET
Maybe that's why they like to call themselves "somm." The whole word sounds too foo-foo?
Domaine Drouhin Oregon
Dayton, OR —  April 18, 2012 10:41am ET
Hi Harvey, great discussion. I like the words curate and curator, but it's interesting that they've been adopted so broadly, in small (boutique? artisanally-focused?) clothing stores, coffee houses, wherever. Not really a surprise, given how many small businesses there are, and that the whole point is that their range of offerings is well-edited. Or curated. By the curator. I'm okay with anything as long as the list is interesting!

- David Millman, DDO.
Pacific Rim Winemakers
Portland, OR —  April 19, 2012 8:35pm ET
Howard, May be instead of "high priest" Chefs could be named "Coquus Primo" (that would be the master chef of course). That might not be enough though to settle this gastronomic title war - the "ator" in "Curator" connotes a deadly aspect to the person holding the title. The guardian against the chicken - I am taking bets!

Lee Hammack
Virginia —  April 22, 2012 1:22pm ET
I echo Howard Goldberg's well-stated sentiments. When I want to drive a nail, I will make sure that Mr. Goldberg wields the hammer.

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