Big wine lists? Get rid of them
I got a private email yesterday from a reader of this blog. She introduced herself as a servor at “a very well regarded fine dining restaurant in the Bay area” which she did not identify. She had a problem. The wine list contains “1800+” wines and “I get a little nervous because I feel like I am not prepared to answer a lot of the questions people throw at me.” She asked my advice: “how would you suggest going about learning the wines, I obviously can’t taste them all.”
It’s a good, honest question that raises a lot of issues that aren’t often talked about concerning restaurant wine service. The fact is, many servors are ignorant about the wine list or large portions of it, even at some top restaurants, where you’d expect the person waiting on you to be an authority. The reason why is obvious: as the young (23-year old) lady pointed out, it’s completely unreasonable to expect her to taste through all 1,800 wines on the list, and even if she could, she’d be unable to remember details about them, much less offer factual background information on them to curious diners.
That’s the problem with these massive wine lists. They seem more like fashion statements than something that’s supposed to be helpful to normal people. How many wine selections do you need when you eat out? I personally am happy with a small (under 30 wines) list that’s been thoughtfully chosen to pair with the chef’s creations. In fact, when I see a small, apparently well-chosen wine list, it gives me confidence that the owners care about me and the experience I have. If the list is manageable, the waitstaff can deal with it professionally and competently. They have the opportunity to taste each wine, remember what it tastes like so they can speak intelligently about it, and also memorize a few tidbits of information to offer to their customers. And don’t forget, a servor who knows her stuff and performs well is apt to get a bigger tip. On the other hand, a massive wine list seems snobby, stuffy and officious. It certainly doesn’t give me any confidence about the food. And if you think about it, a restaurateur who has a wine list so gigantic that his staff (like the woman who wrote me) gets nervous just thinking about it is neither a good restaurateur, a good employer or a good host to his customers.
Here’s what I advised the woman:
I guess you just have to learn 1 or 2 things about each of the wines that you can remember. Other than that you can generalize. For example if the list has a “Heather Vineyard 2007 Pinot Noir” from the Russian River Valley you can talk about the vintage (a great one for Pinot Noir in California) and the region (one of the best places for Pinot Noir). And I don’t think you have to apologize if you haven’t had the actual wine. Tell the customer you haven’t had a chance to try it, and if they order it, you’d appreciate hearing their impressions. They might even offer you a sip. (I would.)
This approach will rescue a harried waitperson, and a pro can easily fake it, in a kind of improvised, thinking-on-your-feet performance. But it’s no substitute for the real thing, which is to be able to describe the wine in some detail, and also to make an informed food recommendation.
I asked my Facebook friends what they considered the ideal wine list size to be and almost everybody suggested keeping it small. Nobody wants to feel like they’re studying for a test just to order a bottle to drink with dinner. The exception was a few people who said they liked thumbing through gigantic wine lists. I do, too, but I’m in the industry. As a diner I much prefer something smaller.
I think the era of massive, telephone book-sized wine lists is coming to an end. It’s so twentieth century, an anachronistic indulgence ill-suited to these times and to people’s temperament.