Log In / Join Now

Drinking Out Loud

Why Today's Wine Lists Need Radical Change

A mere price sheet is not enough anymore

Matt Kramer
Posted: September 4, 2012

Pity the sommelier. First, there was the push to get respect. So they sought to professionalize their métier by creating credentials such as Master Sommelier. Above all, they made theirs a serious, worthwhile vocation by being long-term professionals in their field, as opposed to out-of-work actors and actresses who offered glib wine patter.

Today's American sommeliers are among the best in the world. They're smart, savvy, deeply knowledgeable, ambitious and even fashionable.

They've effectively dispensed with the cobwebbed hauteur that once characterized (and stigmatized) this line of work. I can't remember the last time I saw an overweight guy in a tuxedo or a black leather apron, the bling of a shiny silver tastevin hanging around his neck on a heavy chain like some wannabe wine rapper.

So bravo to the modern "somm." Now for the sting in the tail: Your wine lists are unusable.

I know, I know. You're killing yourselves finding really interesting wines for us to try. I'm all admiration. Hell, you made Grüner Veltliner. If it wasn't for American somms, Austrian wine producers would still be yodeling to each other in the dark.

But now it's time for you to accept another role, and yet more work. Right now, the typical wine list is about as useful as an old-fashioned newspaper stock market table. Who can really read them? And how are we supposed to know what to invest in?

Today's best wine lists offer multiple hundreds of wines, the great majority of which are utterly unknown to all but a handful of—let's be honest here—wine geeks.

It's simply not enough anymore for wine lists to be just price sheets. Here's the vintage, the wine name, the producer and the price. Good luck!

Sommeliers can—and do—say that clients can inquire about a wine or ask for a suggestion. But who's kidding whom? A diner can't ask for information about even a dozen wines, let alone hundreds.

So let's get practical. We restaurant-goers need discreet help, and you sommeliers are the ones who are supposed to provide it. So what's to be done?

I would like to propose several ideas, recognizing that every restaurant is different and that no single revisionist notion about a 21st-century wine list is appropriate for all restaurants.

That noted, I do think that whatever the presentation of the list, an effective 21st-century somm has to be more of an educator than ever before.

Put simply, it's not enough to pick great wines and serve them deftly. You've now got to be able to write concisely. To educate diplomatically. To inform pithily. So how about these ideas:

The Showcase Short List Solution Let's say yours is an ambitious restaurant with an extensive wine list. A simple short list, which is currently a wine fashion trend, just won't cut it. Fair enough.

In such a situation I would compose a shorter list of, say, 30 wines that are grabbing my sommelier fancy this week, this month, whatever. This showcase short list would be included with the (much larger) regular list. But unlike the regular list, I would give for each wine on the short list an explanation of why it's grabbing my sommelier fancy.

Recently, I visited a tiny producer in southern Oregon called Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden. (They grow vegetable crops as well as grapes.) I've mentioned their wines before—various Rhône grapes such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache and Syrah—but I'd never visited the property until recently.

In the course of chatting with the owners it became clear that in terms of a conventional wine list, they are simply out of luck, because they're "nowhere." (Cowhorn is 9 miles from the California border.) Outside of the area, who has a section on “southern Oregon” wines? No one. Moreover, if you're not growing Pinot Noir, you're not part of the "Oregon club" on a wine list. You get the picture.

So here's a terrific producer—one of hundreds in the world—that absolutely needs to be showcased and explained in order to be sold. And that is simply not going to happen in the format of a conventional name-rank-and-serial-number wine list.

This is why a showcase short list is ideal. The modern sommelier must now educate as well as select. And that education, however brief and concise, must convey both erudition and enthusiasm. It most certainly isn't a matter just of points. Or even of quoting someone else. We need insight, passion and a story we can drink.

The iPad Solution When I've raised this issue of the failure—that's the only word for it—of modern wine lists, several readers have hustled to say that tablet computers, such as Apple's iPad, are the answer. It offers unlimited room, they point out. And it's easily updated to accurately reflect current inventory. (I can't tell you the number of times I've ordered a wine only to be told, "We're so sorry, it just went out of stock.")

To me, these tablet computer wine lists seem gimmicky. But maybe I'm just old-fashioned. I do see their high-tech attraction. (And yes, I do own a tablet.) But I'm looking less for encyclopedic information and more for a concise, compelling enthusiasm. Maybe I'm missing something here. You tell me. Still, it's clearly a viable option.

The Symbol Solution I first saw this simple idea in Venice, at one of that city's greatest restaurants, Al Covo. Cesare Benelli, the chef-owner of Al Covo, is a great wine lover as well as, to use an old-fashioned term, a free thinker.

Mr. Benelli has a fine palate as well as strong opinions. His wine list, which changes weekly, has a couple hundred wines, some of which are annotated with a heart symbol. The list explains that the heart symbol signals “wines that, in our judgment, we appreciate for their uniqueness.”

In conversation, Mr. Benelli amplified his approach. “Those are the wines I really love. They’re really unusual wines, which, I have to say, may not be to the conventional taste.”

I like this simple annotation approach, which of course is something that the Michelin Red Guide long ago raised to a near-hieroglyphic art form.

Sommeliers could choose their preferred symbols and explain what they signify. For example, symbols signifying wines that are, in the sommelier's opinion, cutting edge. Or a new discovery. Or unconventionally made. Or grown at a high elevation, or with an ultra-low yield. Or ideal for a certain type of food. Or a tremendous value. Or oak-free. You could really be creative with this.

One thing is certain, at least to me. Given the vast, bewildering array of wines offered to us today by the best sommeliers in the most ambitious restaurants, using the same kind of price sheet that restaurants gave their guests a century ago (when the wine selection was a simple handful of well-known wines) fails miserably.

Are you satisfied with today's ambitious wine lists? Isn't there a better way for us to navigate a 21st-century restaurant wine list?

Tom Miller
Vestavia Hills, AL —  September 4, 2012 6:13pm ET

Put Mr. Bennelli's great idea of the "heart" wines on an iPad and keep the list short, up to 30 wines. Change the list as often as necessary (weekly, bi-weekly, no more than monthly). The somm could also showcase wines like the Cowhorn with two heart symbols. Problem solved. Now to go quaff a showcase Oregon Pinot with my roast chicken.
Blake Angove
Traverse City, Mi —  September 4, 2012 9:46pm ET
Mr. Kramer does bring up some good points, but as it is with so many things in life, generalization without context is pretty useless. If I go to a restaurant touting a marvelous wine list and find only run-of-the-mill wines then I will feel misled, but if I live in a market where there are few "wine geeks", a list full of esoterics would fall on deaf ears (or palates).

At my restaurant, we have a a clientele that really likes Cabernet and Chardonnay so we carry quite a few of both but what of the folks who like something a little more obscure? Obviously we want there to be something for them as well, right? So we carry something for them that might quench their adventurous natures as well as their thirst. At the end of the day we are in the business of selling wine, not storing it, so the demands of the market weigh heavily on my decisions but I would be lying if there weren't a few things that I brought in for myself and my geeky brethren.
Ranon Balter
Chicago, Il —  September 5, 2012 12:02pm ET
Matt's column certainly points out deficiencies in the voluminous and somewhat voluminous wine lists out there. I agree that there are other solutions to make these lists more user friendly; however, he appears to miss a principle reason for the Sommelier--they are on the floor working to help the customer. Stop being intimidated and let the Sommelier help you. They know the lists they have worked so hard on very well. Ask questions and tell them what you are eating, looking for in a wine, etc. I have held the position and am never happier than when a customer seeks my help.
Robert Johnston
Washington DC —  September 5, 2012 4:52pm ET
I like the i-Pad solution. I recently dined at Etoile Restaurant At Domaine Chandon. The wine list was a tablet and it was easy to navigate, had pictures of the wines, a short description of each wine and was very well organized. I would also add that I am probably as old as you (or close to it) and usually prefer the "old school" style of things. However, the wine list at Etoile made a believer out of me. While I love big thick wine lists with descriptions of the wines, I too hate to find that "we just sold out of" what I chose. At least with the electronic tablet the advantages of ease of real time updating (not to mention the savings of cost in not having to reprint all the time) and the unlimited space make it a very reasonable option for any restaurant that has invested the time and money into an extensive wine cellar.
Gianpaolo Paterlini
San Francisco, CA —  September 5, 2012 6:55pm ET
How about a sommelier actually working the floor? What Mr. Kramer described is a Wine Director, and far too often these days, Wine Directors are nowhere to be found during service. I agree a good list isn't enough, but the answer isn't a better list. It's real service...
Raj Hora
Dublin, OH, USA —  September 5, 2012 10:17pm ET
Nicely put... I have 18-20 wines on my list by the glass w/descriptions... and change it monthly! And folks also have the option to roam the retail side and pick their favorite or ask for suggestions for a minimal corking fee. Works great!
Blake Angove
Traverse City, Mi —  September 6, 2012 11:41am ET
Also, I have to say that notating special wines with hearts or other symbols is something that I am vehemently against. Same with restaurants that put markings by their signature items, shouldn't you be proud of every item on your menu, not just the items you sell the most of? If your service staff isn't able to effectively inform your quests of your more popular items than you have a bigger problem than wine list organization on your hands.

For example, in my town there is a small restaurant with a small but distinguished list with descriptions as you suggest. On this list there is a heart next to wines you "really gotta try" but it is detrimental as much as it is positive. Specifically, there are two Napa Cabs at the same price, right around $100, one has a heart, one doesn't. Why carry the other wine? The "hearted" wine already has the competitive advantage, bearing the MS's endorsement so why would a guest order (or the restaurant carry) the other label if it is clearly inferior?
Federico Berlingeri
NY.NY —  September 6, 2012 1:30pm ET
While i understand the need to discuss the simplifying of wine lists for the general public i do not understand the relation between restaurants with somms and the general dinning public. reality is that the percentage of restaurants in this country that actually have somms is around 10% while 90% have no such person doing the beverage program, furthermore the 10% of these restaurants with somms tend to be in the pricier range of the spectrum attracting a much more well traveled clientel who may have a little bit more knowledge than the patron going to an applebees. what i would have liked is more a discussion on the other 90% of which most have a mediocre wine list with ill trained staff that know absolutely nothing about wines, it would behoove the industry, especially the small producers from non recognized areas to educate the other 90% and the general public about there wines. Most somms I know are always striving to educate but let's face facts, in today's economy most people are shopping from the right side of the menu and not the left.
Thomas Matthews
New York City —  September 7, 2012 10:54am ET
You make a good point that many restaurants that have wine lists, don't have very good wine lists, nor do they have servers trained to help customers choose pleasing wines.

That's one reason Wine Spectator launched our Restaurant Awards program. Our goal is to recognize restaurants, no matter their location or scale, that have made the effort to assemble strong wine programs. We hope readers like you who truly care about the wine portion of their dining experience will use our Dining Guide and patronize these hard-working restaurants.

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
Bernard Kruithof
San Antonio, Texas —  September 7, 2012 12:32pm ET
Note that FLEMINGS PRIME STEAKHOUSE RESTAURANTS have the ipad tablets for their wine by the glass and wine list. It matches wines in several ways for customers including by food, varietal and spin the bottle for a random wine selection. They have 100 wines by the glass and a great selection by the bottle.
I hope more restaurants go this way as I don't like to spend an hour of my dining time ignoring my guests while trying to find a wine to select when there are so many in a big wine list book that has no explanations of what they are or taste like. And expecting servers to be knowledgable about everything is much to hopeful in todays mass market of thousands of wines available that are constantly changing.
Kirsten Acosta
White Castle, LA —  September 14, 2012 1:19pm ET

You make an excellent point. As a small, upscale restaurant, I try to keep a varied list of wines available, both with "big name" producers and more obscure, boutique vineyards. Unfortunately, your assessment of most servers is correct and I would love to be able to provide guests with ample knowledge of the wines that I serve. I think the short list is an excellent idea because it focuses on a particular grouping of wines. By showcasing these wines, I am hopeful that it not only educates the consumer, but also my staff, who will hopefully be selling more of these wines through the use of the list. I hope to implement this in the coming week.
Rockland Foodservice
Rockland Maine —  September 20, 2012 1:21pm ET
You can have the best wine list in the world, but without a trained and knowledgeable staff, you have almost nothing. I've seen wine lists that are put in place by a wine salesman because the owner doesn't have the time or interest. The staff doesn't know the wines, and when a customer asks for assistance, they get the usual, "I don't know" response. The owner complains about the lack of wine sales, and wonders why. A lot of lists are designed without regard to what would actually work for the restaurant. Sometimes the wines are selected by the salesman purely because there is an incentive to get the placement. I've also seen ambitious wine gurus add exotic and esoteric wines on restaurant lists that the staff can't even pronounce, just to be cool. "I don't know what it is, I think it's a white wine. No wait, it's red, I think? Whatever, how about the Chard?" People like trying new and interesting wines, just make sure the staff knows what they are, what they pair well with, and gosh, maybe they've even tried them. Of course, if the food is terrible, then no matter how good the wine list, that will be the least of your worries. What should happen is, the person designing the list needs to work with the staff, the chef, all those who are relevant. Determine what the overall vision is. Do the wines actually pair well with the food? What type of clientele eats here? Then, taste wines, get the staff who actually wait on the customers excited about the wines. That is the key. In turn, your customers will be excited too. More wine will be sold! If you are using symbols, great. Find a system that works, make sure everyone is on board, not bored, make it clear and easy, and if it's not working, ask the question, "Why?"

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.