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Drinking Out Loud

The Single-Minded Wine List

Do restaurant wine lists really need to roam the world?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer says that at least one unsung wine region has it all.

Matt Kramer
Posted: September 5, 2017

It’s an article of faith—or at least expectation—among wine lovers, especially Americans, that a restaurant wine list be extensive, comprehensive, encyclopedic. I note “especially Americans” because we love choice. Really, it’s the American way in so many things.

Now, there’s no arguing against choice. (I am an American, after all.) Yet I can’t help but think that increasingly we’re drowning in choice, and that far from learning more and better from all wines from everywhere, we might be better served by wine lists with greater focus.

This thought occurred after exhuming a bottle of Catherine & Pierre Breton Bourgueil Les Perrières 2005 from my cellar. It is a spectacularly fine Loire red, composed exclusively of Cabernet Franc. Really, it could take its place among the finest red Burgundies, Napa Cabs or red Bordeaux—in its fashion, of course.

That experience made me think: Outside of the Loire Valley itself, why haven’t I ever seen a restaurant wine list that concentrates exclusively on Loire wines?

Think about it for a minute. The Loire has it all: sparkling wines, dry whites from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet); extraordinary sweet wines from Chenin Blanc; and an array of ever-improving reds from Cabernet Franc, Malbec (called Côt in the Loire Valley), Pinot Noir and highly localized indigenous red grapes such as Grolleau and Pineau d’Aunis. Such an array ought to keep both diners and sommeliers busy for years exploring the riches (and good deals) from the Loire Valley.

Now, obviously we don’t need or want every restaurant we patronize to confine their lists narrowly. That said, do we really want every restaurant we patronize to offer us the world? Is that really necessary to our wining and dining pleasure?

I would submit that if sommeliers insist, as they often do, that their great desire is to educate their clients, they can do so more effectively by creating lists of greater focus than by practicing the currently fashionable wine encyclopedism.

Consider what might occur if you were faced with a wine list of only Loire wines. Or Spanish wines. Or southern Italian wines. Or Australian wines. Or only wines from Washington or Oregon or Hungary or California. Let’s say that one or another of these regions or countries is terroir incognita for you. Now what?

You know the answer as well as I: You’d turn to the sommelier and say, “This is all new to me. What do you recommend?” Why, we might all learn something. And, ironically, broaden our wine world more than we might with a more conventionally comprehensive list.

The point here is not to confine one’s choices such as might be the case with, say, an all-Riesling or an only Napa Cabernet list. The trick is the restaurant finding an emphasis that admits an array of tastes and styles yet still retains a sharp focus and—this is important—reflects a real passion on the part of the restaurant. (We almost see this today with Burgundies; some restaurant lists are now so Burgundy-intensive that if the other wines on the list were omitted altogether you’d hardly miss them.)

I can already hear restaurateurs recoiling from this idea, saying, “We’d lose customers. My clients want to have choices.” I don’t doubt that. Yet with their menus, many restaurants today do precisely what I’m proposing for wine: They focus on a particular cuisine. Does anyone going to a French restaurant expect chicken and waffles? Do you even expect to find French wines at an Italian restaurant—or vice-versa? Of course not.

Strange as it sounds, it’s too easy to offer up a “greatest hits” wine list, with a little of this, that and the other (worldly) thing. Where’s the passion? Where’s the individual insight? Where’s the evangelism? (The one great exception to this that springs to mind is “natural” wines. Like them or not, you do see with natural wines what might be called “wine lists of belief.”)

Anyone who was in the New York wine scene in the 1970s can well remember how radical it was—radical, I tell you—when the then-great Four Seasons restaurant actively spotlighted and promoted California wine to its patrons. It was a beacon of wine adventurism of a sort different than today’s dilettantish pursuit of wine esotericism.

Isn’t a wine list of belief what we should want from our favorite restaurants? And for our part as customers, shouldn’t we welcome being led rather than swaggering in and declaring, “Give me what I want.”

We’re far more willing to be led/instructed/enlightened with the food on our plates, aren’t we? Think of what we all could learn from a well-chosen list of nothing but Loire wines. Sign me up.

Eddie Earles
Kentucky —  September 5, 2017 12:43pm ET
Thomas Bartlett
Ocean Grove NJ —  September 5, 2017 11:22pm ET
Great idea. I actually do NOT enjoy being presented with a wine list of 300 wines, most of which I have not heard of... the winemaker anyway. And with the weakening of the idea that a given wine region should only offer us one kind of wine, it is increasingly feasible to pair most foods with wines from a single region.

But then again there are many people who want to drink only one kind of wine. The Napa Cab-heads first some to mind. A Chilean or Italian cab??? Unthinkable to some.

Stephen Larson
Decorah IA —  September 6, 2017 12:32pm ET
Great premise Matt, as always. I'm sure there are certainly some restaurants out there that do approach their wine lists in that fashion, BUT having been a chef for 35 years (in the Midwest, granted) people more and more do simply swagger in and declare "Give me what I want and if you don't I'm going to raise a huge stink". That goes for food (and wine, and beer, and liquor...). Volumes have been have already been written about the difficulty of restaurant ownership, so I won't add my voice to that, but when EVERY customer holds so much importance to your survival one must consider the "I need to have something for everyone" approach. I've also been around long enough to remember the restaurant scene in the 1970's and what you are talking about now was the norm then. One wouldn't even think about putting French wine on an Italian restaurant's list and vice versa. But then again, the wine and food landscape is vastly different and worlds apart from those early days. One also wouldn't have walked into that same Italian restaurant and said "I'm gluten intolerant, what can you make for me". I personally don't like "greatest hits" wine lists, they are boring. I also don't like to be handed a tome that takes 20 minutes, even to just sift through quickly, in order to choose a wine to go with what I'm ordering. My favorite lists are ones that feature a great variety by the glass so that I can have a couple different wines to go with multiple courses and it's my feeling that is where the chef/owner/sommelier should come together and focus on matching the cuisine. I am newly out of the restaurant biz now and about to open my own small wine shop (w/beer, liquor and cigars). Guess what's keeping me up at night? How am I possibly going stock something for "everyone" to maximize my demographic reach? Or maybe I should throw my concerns out the window, go with my instincts, and stock what I personally like... it's not easy when it is literally your skin in the game. I am genuinely interested in any and all comments on the subject. Sincerely, Stephen Larson, Owner, Backwater Spirits & More.
Alan Gavalya
Hampton VA USA —  September 7, 2017 9:33am ET
I think it a fantastic observation Matt. Not only do I think I would very much enjoy a focused list but would also learn a bit more in the bargain.
Thanks for the insight.
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  September 16, 2017 12:15pm ET
Hi Matt - I love the idea; not as a limiting or simplicity factor, but as an exercise in exploration. Wine is fun and the wine list should reflect the enthusiasm of the restaurant. What I also love are wine lists that not only have a selection but have tiered pricing: Here are all the $25 dollar wines; the $35 dollar wines; $50; $75; 100; etc.

One thing that shocks me, however, as you mention American tastes and the desire for choices, is the exact opposite tendency in Paris!!!

Right now, as I type, I am in the City of Lihhts and am seriously shocked at the crappy selection of many of the bistros you might just wander into. Really! It's shocking. B&G is a big seller!!! How hard would it be to find a few small growers with which to stock such a list?

That said, I also wandered into a very small store & asked about his champagnes and was advised that they were all small production (exception of one large house to satisfy business needs). Needless to say, I walked out with a bottle I have no idea what it will taste like but which I am pretty sure will taste NOTHING like a Veuve. Now THAT is fun. :-)

Speaking of the tiered pricing, tonight we are heated to a restaurant with such pricing - Le Petit Commines - suggested by a friend. I previewed the list & am pretty excited to try something I have never had before.

Vice la difference!!!

Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  September 19, 2017 5:08pm ET
Hi Matt - just a quick follow-up: The wine ended up being a 2015 Marselan, Coteaux Du Pont Du Gard from Mas des Plantades. I had never had a Marselan - loved it; nice bright red fruit with soft tannins & bright but not over-the-top acidity. It was perfect for the meal (& on the 25 Euro section of the list!).

PS - sorry for the typos on prior note, tough to type on the iphone ;-)

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