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Wine and wine lists: the “Wow!” factor

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I woke up this morning thinking about wine lists. Not that I spend a great deal of time thinking about wine lists, but we have a new restaurant that just opened in my Oakland neighborhood. It’s called Lake Chalet, and the restaurant critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, Michael Bauer, recently reviewed it and complained that the wine list wasn’t exciting. That made me wonder: What does it mean for a wine list to be “exciting”? And does this say more about us as people than it does about the actual wine list or wine?

Michael wrote that the wine list contained “boring” brands, such as Silver Oak, Pine Ridge and Sterling. “It’s not that these wines are inferior,” he explained, “but there’s nothing to add excitement.”

It’s strange, isn’t it? A restaurant sells good wine, but because it comes from 25- or 30-year old brands instead of new ones, it’s “boring.” Do we say that Lafite is boring? It’s, like, what? Five hundred years old.

Still, I know exactly what Michael (an acquaintance of many years) means. I have the same reaction when I see a wine list with Pine Ridge, etc. And, just as Michael did, whenever I have that reaction, I frame it into a sort of courtroom trial where I’m plaintiff, defendant, judge and both attorneys. “It’s not as if I don’t like Pine Ridge’s wines,” I testify. “It’s just that, couldn’t the beverage director have found something a little newer?”

Prosecuting attorney: So “newer” is better than “older”?

Witness: Well, no, but…

Prosecutor: But what?

Witness: But…

Judge: Witness will answer the question!

And here my testimony falls completely apart. What is my excuse for being bored by Pine Ridge? (I don’t mean to pick on Pine Ridge, but I’ll use it because Michael did.)

Then I think of my reaction, sometimes, when I note which wines I’m going to taste through on any particular day. I have to admit, there are certain brands (and regions) that don’t excite me (which makes it all the more important that I not know which ones they are at the actual time of tasting). And then there are brands that excite me the way a meaty bone excites a dog. (A low-production Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast usually has that effect; see my above parenthetical remark about not knowing what I’m tasting.)

Can I justify these emotional reactions? No. Can I explain them? I can try to, but as the imaginary courtroom dialogue points out, my explanations fall apart on rigorous cross-examination. And yet, there’s no doubt at all about the “wow” factor in wine. Here’s an example of a wine that excited the heck out of me. It was a brand I was unfamiliar with: Evening Land. It was a 2007 Pinot Noir, with an Occidental Vineyard designation and a Sonoma Coast appellation. I knew absolutely nothing about it, except that I know where the town of Occidental is (southwest of Sebastopol).

How dazzling that wine was! It thrilled me to the bone. So, when I investigated it and discovered the vineyard had been planted by the Duttons for Steve Kistler, who hadn’t renewed his lease on it, which caused the Duttons to sell it to the group that invested in Evening Land; and that the wine was made by the talented Sashi Moorman (Ojai, Stolpman), who had been recommended to Evening Land by Larry Stone, the GM of Rubicon, I wasn’t surprised. There’s usually a reason why a wine is exciting.

Still, that explains why the Evening Land Pinot was so good. It doesn’t explain the ennui that can result from a boring wine list. Ultimately, there’s something irrationally unexplainable concerning our reactions to wines and wine lists. Maybe we Americans just don’t like being bored. We crave constant newness, amusement and distraction. I also suspect that people heavily involved in the wine business, such as Michael Bauer and me, might react differently to a wine list than the average diner, who’s just looking for a good wine at a fair price.

  1. I think wine pros and geeks do look for some excitement factor, exactly as you describe, Steve. I mean, when I see really interesting Italian varietal wines on a wine list, I get all “kid-in-a-candy-shop” and want to try them all!

  2. People like M. Bauer, S. Heimoff and C. Olken may find lists like Lake Chalet to be boring, but my neighbors do not. They find lists that contain only wines they have never heard of to be incomprehensible. See our earlier discussion of Slanted Door.

    Lake Chalet does not try to operate very high up on the food chain and so I am less concerned that its wine list does not operate their either. This is a restaurant that barely rises above a brew pub in terms of its menu choices. It has about twenty wines by the glass, has a few items that are small labels for folks like thee and me and was rated one star out of four for food by Mr. Bauer.

    Sure, it would be interesting to see lists like Bay Wolf (short and thoughtful) or Boulevard (long and thoughtful) at every joint we ever walk into. But, Lake Chalet is a place without “Wow” factor to begin with, and, frankly, its wine list rates higher than its food.

  3. It’s easy to have a “safe” wine program with brands that everyone knows. The problem with a wine list like this is that it is the same as having the same recycled menu items at every “eclectic” restaurant. Dining at a higher level is about discovery, whether that is highlighting specific ingredients or textures on a menu, or finding fascinating wines made by artisans like Moorman. Pine Ridge is good, but stopped being interesting years ago. I respect what they do, but these wines belong in Steakhouses that are stuck in a time warp.

  4. Steve,

    I love that you wake up thinking of wine lists. I usually wake up thinking of jokes, but perhaps that’s the same thing.

    Wine lists are a constant source of amusement for folks in the business. We pick them apart, try to analyze them for which supplier seems to “own” the house, figure out the markup knowing what the wholesale prices are for the wines, then we have them open the bottle we brought and pay the corkage. But ordinary restaurant customers only need one wine to enjoy with their meal, and they usually know exactly how much they want to pay, and so they spend all their time on the right hand column and not the left.

    And you’d be surprised how many people haven’t heard of Pine Ridge. Nearly as many as wish they hadn’t.

    I don’t think of wine lists as exciting or boring. They’re lists of wines for sale. “Boring” says more about the critic than it does about the wine list.

  5. People will generally not order completely foreign and unfamiliar entrees in a restaurant. Why should they experiment with wine (at what 100% to 200% mark up?…)

  6. Great read Steve, it is interesting to try and define what makes an exciting wine list.

    For me, a good wine director has to do his/her research and find these awesome wines with great stories (like the Evening Land) and set up connections to bring them in. The smaller the production and the rarer the supply, the better. It puts a smile on my face to see a smattering of wines I’ve heard about and have been dying to try, mixed in with many labels I’ve never seen, plus a few good value picks that I’ve had before (This is how I felt at the Slanted Door on Wednesday). Furthermore, if I haven’t been for a few weeks and I come back to see the exact same line up….I’m getting bored. When you have someone with real passion for wine making the list, I think it’s obvious.

    Jake
    CherriesAndClay.com

  7. Steve,

    As a rank and file consumer, I agree.

    My wife and I drink a good bit of wine and even have many of the old standbys in our cellar. But when we go out, we’re looking for something new almost without exception. We always take advantage of the wine service and will invariably ask the Sommelier for help in finding something that may be a bit different. Perhaps something that’s not widely available or maybe they have wine made from a varietal or region that we’ve never had before.

    Simply put, we see a restaurant wine list as a learning opportunity, and those wine lists that display only the more well known wines are in fact “boring.”

  8. Nice piece, Steve. Honest, insightful, thought-provoking and entertaining to boot.

  9. Written by someone who gets all his wine for free. Consider the buyer instead of the critic or wine writer who gets bored by the same old, same old. Consider, too, the times. Let’s say the Lake Chalet carried the Land’s End Pinot (it wouldn’t, but it makes a good if unusual example). They would have to price it well over $200 a bottle, since it retails for $150! It damn well better be exciting, beyond exciting. This is three times the price of a Pine Ridge Cab.

    The Lake Chalets of the world most likely won’t have a sommelier whose advice usually adds very little to choice. Given that the purchase is only wine, wouldn’t said buyer be more risk adverse as prices head north of $50, and choose a wine that s/he knows is a proven delight. After all they aren’t there for the “exciting” wine list, but for the setting mostly.

    Michael Bauer is out of touch with the times. His reviews of wine lists largely ignore cost, when cost is a major factor. 5% of the dining population will pay the prices of the wines that excite him and you.

    A truly exciting wine list would have very limited production wines made from less well known appellations, providing excellent bang for the buck. It would offer carafes of house wine, as well as enjoyable wines in the low to mid 20′s. As the prices climb higher on the list, the hard to find wines should have some sort of stamp of approval–just to pick a random example, say, favorable comments on CellarTracker–since the diner is entering terra incognita. And some tried and true wines would be listed for those who want to play it safe.

    This said, I suspect that the owner of the Lake Chalet was approached by a Southern or Young’s rep who emphasized the ease of letting his company design the wine list. This allows the owner to concentrate on far more important matters like trying to get the place open while the rent clock is running. Besides the beverage of choice for Lake/Beach Chalet is beer since they make it and were a founding member of the SF Brewers Guild.

    In short, QPR+small production=exciting

    TOM

  10. I think your last sentence says it all.

  11. I should hasten to add that other “stamps of approval” for unknown wines could come from the reviewer of the ~Wine Enthusiast~ or the ~Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine~ to pick two of the more discerning palates… {8^D

  12. Adam: “Pine Ridge is good, but stopped being interesting years ago.” If you assume that the wine is good, I wonder what would happen if it had been poured into another more “interesting” bottle/label. If you knew it was Pine Ridge, you might say it’s okay but boring. What if you thought it was a hot, new, small producer? Would that make the experience of it more exciting — even though it was the same wine? Just wondering.

  13. Tom Merle–

    Good save. I was already winding up for the easy kill.

    Re: Others. Consider the context. There is more “Wow” on the wine list at Lake Chalet than in the pedestrain menu and incompetent execution of that pedestrian menu.

    Steve’s larger point is that lists in restaurants need “Wow” factor in at least equal proportion to the “Wow” they are trying to create with their food. A list like Lake Chalet’s at Boulevard would be a disgrace. It is not such a disgrace, Mr. Bauer’s criticisms notwithstanding, at Lake Chalet.

    I would tell you to go read the menu, then consider the food ranking–with which I agree, by the way–and you will not feel like this list is so out of order. Frankly, however, Lake Chalet is not really the point here anyhow, and your time is better spent elsewhere.

  14. In my view I do agree with Bauer. The fact is most moderate wine consumers can put together a wine list of 50-60 core wines that hit price points and flavor profiles. But like many people have commented here we pay a solid markup for wine and I have no problem paying that when I believe a somm is creating the wine list by tasting and considering a large mix of wines and putting together a program of interesting new bottling and selections from blue chip producers that are a great fit for the food or are over performing in that vintage. I have no problem seeing Pine Ridge on a list, the question is why it is on the list. Is it just because it is a known brand that fills the cab spot or is it because the 05 PR Oakville cab is great and we have the new hanger steak on the menu that makes it sing. I am paying the extra mark-up not to cover your food cost but because I believe you have tasted, vetted and selected this wine because it is showing well and fits with your menu or program not because it’s easy.

    The excitement comes from seeing that someone put some thought and pride into the list. Great lists are a two way communication between the consumer and the somm. Enough recognizable wines that you do not overwhelm the consumer but some fun and exciting gems for those that want to branch out take some risk or try something new.

  15. “In short, QPR+small production=exciting” – Love that summary!

    Charlie – great point about matching not just the wine with the food, but the wow factors of both.

  16. Tom Merle said:

    “A truly exciting wine list would have very limited production wines made from less well known appellations, providing excellent bang for the buck. It would offer carafes of house wine, as well as enjoyable wines in the low to mid 20’s. As the prices climb higher on the list, the hard to find wines should have some sort of stamp of approval–just to pick a random example, say, favorable comments on CellarTracker–since the diner is entering terra incognita. And some tried and true wines would be listed for those who want to play it safe.”

    Tried my damnedest but couldn’t find anything in that paragraph with which to disagree…spent years selling to restaurants and couldn’t get such a simple idea across to the majority of them, mainly because of what Tom said in the next paragraph:

    “…I suspect that the owner of the Lake Chalet was approached by a Southern or Young’s rep who emphasized the ease of letting his company design the wine list…”

    Steve and Bauer’s take seems like critics and reviewers proving their distance from the way the wine world works.

  17. Tim Heaton says:

    Exciting. What a subjective term.

    “I” have to agree with a previous comment, that generally speaking, “my” road to wine list excitement begins with the simple, aforementioned formula ” A truly exciting wine list would have (very) limited production wines made from less well known appellations (and producers), providing excellent bang for the buck”.

    However, I think we need to consider the many faces at the restaurant table:

    those who are “excited” to see things they already know, instead of having to forgo wine altogether because, in their opinion, the list is just too confusing (i.e. unappealing, “expensive looking”),

    those that care only about price (i.e. those that order a “house white”, not because they know anything about the “house” wine, but because they know, through experience, it’s the lowest-priced offering out there,

    those that will only order wines from a certain region, because it’s what’s comfortable for them. When dining here in the states with my European friends, I’ve noticed all of them prefer wines from the Old World. Generally speaking, the opposite is true of my local friends: wines from California, with the winning formula usually comprised equal parts of the following: whimsical name that’s easy to pronounce, common varietal (e.g. Chard or Cab), and non-threatening price-point, be it by-the-glass or bottle

    etc, etc.

    I’m pretty sure that the consumers mentioned above FAR outnumber those of us that are in the industry (i.e. more demanding palate, more fascinated with “new discoveries”, etc), and sadly, that’s one of the reasons we see so many uninspired winelists/wine programs. But, as many of US know, it’s not just the consumers, it’s often the owners of the restaurants/winebars, many of whom have no business being in the business. Too many see the wine program as fair game for 200%-400% markups – again, because they don’t understand the business. Maybe it’s something someone (trusted, but NOT in the business) told them to do, maybe it’s something they read somewhere, maybe it’s some rule-of-thumb BS, whatever…

    It’s been my experience that great organizations begin at the top, and if the person at the top doesn’t have a clue, most likely that will trickle down in a number of ways (lousy, uninspired menu, poor execution in the kitchen, sour employees, wholesaler-written-wine-list, etc).

    So who do we blame, inexperienced restaurateurs, server-one-day-Sommelier-the-next wine directors, morally bereft wholesalers, non-discriminating consumers?

    Or do we just accept that this is the way it is, and keep our bar very low?

    As someone that’s been in the industry for over a decade (and been collecting even longer), I know that seeing an exciting wine list (e.g. inspired, QPR+low production, food friendly, etc) is going to be a pretty rare event – I’ve conditioned myself what to expect.

    On that note, I can say that I recently found a tremendous wine program (and overall fantastic restaurant experience) at Zimzala, in Huntington Beach, CA. If all hotel “in house” restaurants had this type of imagination, experience and execution, I can seem my T&E budget going through the roof.

    Thanks again, Steve, for a fun topic. As usual, I enjoy the many points of view and experience that your (sic) commenters bring to the table.

  18. Kerry Gardner says:

    Small production and boutique wines are fun but in the end they are not what makes a wine list. I have seen countless sommeliers act so proud of their lists because they are small production or boutique heavy. In reality, the wine should speak for itself, not the label. Americans are constantly trying to define themselves as “unique” often suffering from anti-consummerism. In the end, if the wine is good, that should be merit enough. A mix is best with influences from the minority and from the majority.

  19. Morton Leslie says:

    I eat out a lot, not just special occasions. Exciting to me is being able to afford sustenance. This is my idea of an “exciting” wine list.

    http://www.cindysbackstreetkitchen.com/25wines.pdf

  20. Morton, that is indeed a great list.

  21. While I would never consider really fine wines to be boring, I do understand the excitement of discovering fascinating new wines. A balance would make a great wine list.

  22. Good thing for Morton and me that Cindy was one of the founders of Mustard’s 26 years ago and decided to celebrate the anniversary. Just so readers don’t get the wrong idea, her regular wine list prices epitomize those found on the typical Napa Valley foodie restaurant: http://www.cindysbackstreetkitchen.com/WineList.pdf

  23. …Which is why we all pay the $15 corkage….

  24. In other words, you’re looking for wines/wine lists which are consistently spontaneously good–which, granted, sounds silly at first, but, upon processing, makes sense.

  25. Steve, well written as usual. As others have observed, a very small percentage of the population looks for excitement from the wine list.

    On another note, sorry you and MB are chums, he’s a leech that lives of criticizing others’ work that he himself could never duplicate. The fact he’s criticizing wine now sends chills down my spine. At least you can write.

  26. Tannic, I wouldn’t call MB and me chums. I know him, is all. Besides, he’s got a job, like the rest of us.

  27. Note to Tannic–

    Bauer’s restaurant reviews have always contained comments on wine lists. There is nothing new in that. Secondly, his review of the Lake Chalet list was at least partially on point. It is not a very exciting list. He misses the point that the place is a brew pub modeled after Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park, Sf, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and that the food on offer at Lake Chalet is basically pub food. Finally, he ignores the point that the list is actually better than the food. OK, so Pine Ridge is not new, but for goodness sake, it is also not Turning Leaf or Chalone’s $15 Monterey County bottlings or Woodbridge.

    So, at its lowest level, he is right that the list is not exciting–and he is not criticizable for that.

    Now, here is my real concern. Steve Heimoff, whose blog you read and presumably enjoy, also makes his living criticizing the work of others. That is what critics do. Bauer is honest, pretty good at doing his job and certainly enjoys a reputation among his readers that is the equal of most wine critics.

    So, I don’t get your anger. Do you dislike all critics, including Heimoff?
    Do you disagree with Bauer generally on his food criticism?

    Or are you simply disagreeing with Bauer’s wine list analysis?

    Or perhaps, you know that Bauer does not do his own wine list analysis anyhow? He used to write in Dallas, and he sends the lists to a friend there who does the analysis. I suspect he writes the reviews himself, however.

  28. Charlie, I didn’t know that MB sends the lists to Dallas. Do you know that for a fact?

  29. Steve,
    the thought of the “boring” wine list speaks to the separation between the professional wine advocate and the common joe. Most of us don’t criticize a wine list for its content the way we might the service, the food or the ambience.

    I find it nice on occassion to see “comfort food” in the form of wine brands I know to match the comfort food I may order.

    Good wine (doesn’t have to be culty), good food (the simplier the better) and an evening out with friends and family is why I eat out. In my opinion if one has to be wowed by a wine list there is something greater missing in ones life.

  30. George, couldn’t agree with you more! Thank you.

  31. “Charlie, I didn’t know that MB sends the lists to Dallas. Do you know that for a fact? ”

    Yes. I can’t say that he does that for every list or every wine, but, yes, I know that he does and I know the person from whom he gets comments. The person is a professional with a long list of credits earned over a long career.

    Note to George P. The wine list would not be why I would go to Lake Chalet, but if I went to Boulevard or Chez Panisse or Gary Danko and saw only wines from large wineries and large distributors, I would be disappointed. It pretty much goes back to what we were talking about earlier: wine lists ought to match the menu. “Wow” menus ought, in my opinion, to be accompanied by “wow” lists with interesting choices from lots of places at a variety of price levels. I mention those restaurants because their wine lists do match their cuisine–in my opinion.

  32. Michael Donohue says:

    I would suggest an exciting wine list would largely consist of selections by the glass ( how can one bottle truly succeed with 3 or 4 different courses?), that it be reprinted monthly (to reflect seasonal/menu changes or the depletion of a great buy,) which implies maybe an inexpensive two-sided sheet rather than a leather bound phone book (recalling one Spectator 3 glass winner whose weighty 5700 selections became physically and mentally overwhelming, even to a complete cork dork!), which might contain a core list of 10 or 20 stellar examples (of “Chardonnay” be it Macon or Mekong, etc. for those who refuse to explore the beauteous diversity of wine), maybe even some aged beauties that are fairly priced @ $25 or $250 per bottle. Now as to the likelihood of finding such a list, wow, I must be dreaming in technicolor!

  33. For me, it’s not an issue of ‘new’ versus ‘old’ wine brands. Its more the ubiquitous, commercial wine brands (which I can buy at Kroger) versus more artisanal brands ( I want to make discoveries when dining out).
    Cheers
    Amy

  34. A Cote by far has my favorite wine list in the Bay Area. Definitely esoteric but the staff is well trained and they let you have a little taste of the open wines before you order. Many reasonable bottles in the $30-40 range and they also do 2.5 oz half glasses as well. Lot’s of unique varietals and styles and no “Brands” but the wines are perfectly suited for the food which should be the main point of having wine with food. Pretty much everything “I love” in a wine program.

    http://acoterestaurant.com/menus/wines.shtml

  35. jason carey says:

    I think Amy above is really making a good point..

  36. My response to this dilemma is the same response I give all of my non wine-geek friends and family who consider themselves “experts” at something. If you are a once a year skier, you probably rent the standard equipment and have a blast on the mountain. If, however, you are a ski bum of 30 years, you want to demo all of the latest, fastest, trendiest equipment and try out at least 3 or 4 different pair of skis in a day. It has to do with your skill level as well as an urge to experience something different after many years of doing the same thing. As a daily wine drinker and restaurant professional, I get all excited at the prospect of trying a Muller Thurgau from Oregon or a Tocai from Italy because these are flavors I don’t get bombarded with every day! A smart restauranteur/sommelier has her clientele to consider when selecting wines for the list, and Michael Bauer or Michael Wild most certainly won’t be regulars at Lake Chalet! I imagine that they will cater to tourists from outside the Bay Area who will appreciate the familiarity of the old Napa brands.

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