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Big wine lists? Get rid of them

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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.

  1. Steve, giving the restaurant wine managers the benefit of the doubt, and that they wanted to make certain that “whatever their clientele wanted, it was available”, it certainly a thing of the past.

    Almost more importantly, how many restaurants even bother to use different wine glasses for the basic red or white category?

    It is very rare to see a wait staff person decant a wine. Do they even know that most wine lovers would prefer if the wine was uncorked and at least allowed to breath before serving.

    By in large most American restaurants do a very poor job of training their staff even in the basics…let alone understanding a few hundred wines (or the correct pairing of these wines…or what to suggest at the start of a dining experience or what to advice at the close???

  2. I completely agree with you, Steve. I love to try new wines, and if I feel that I can trust that the somm or staff knows the wines they are serving, I especially like to go with their by-the-glass flight selections. These are often a very good value. I need to get this message out there. Thank you!

  3. Jon, I love by the glass programs. They let somms show their knowledge and are often the best way to “get your feet wet” in a restaurant. I just hope the restaurateurs keep those glass prices down!

  4. From a purely business standpoint, I wonder about the value in an 1800 bottle list. I sell fine wines for a distributor in the DC area. My clients, even the high end clients, are very focused on cost and do not like to have much inventory, especially since we deliver twice a week. In order to have 1800 bottles on the list I will make a wild estimate and say that this is around $100,000 in inventory plus hundreds of square feet in temperature controlled storage that needs to be paid for to the tune of around $40.00 per square foot. That is a lot of overhead.

    With respect to the huge wine list. I purposely chose to work for a small distributor with a focused portfolio that is deliberately small (200 or so). Everything in the portfolio is there for a reason and everything in the portfolio belongs on my customers’ wine lists. A client of mine said that he was interested in 100% of my small portfolio but only 7% of one of my competitor’s portfolios that runs in the thousands. One reason my client went with is that he knew that he would not have to sort through products in which he would never have an interest.

  5. Justin, great points.

  6. I wrote about the same topic some time ago. I cannot even picture the consumer who would want to sift through an enormous wine list.

    I’m a bass player, and I get all geeky over all things bass. I love bass solos. But I don’t need to hear one that’s 45 minutes long.

    I think a similar principle applies here.

  7. Dude, what, you didn’t like the 37 minute bass solo from the Amazing Stoned Zombies in 1967? Anyhow, I too was once a bass player although I eventually switched to keyboards.

  8. I wrote about lists the other day, but from a different angle. I guess I’m not rich enough to dine at one of those places with a wine list longer than the menu.

    Actually, I think that is a good place to start, the dining menu. How about you stick to 3-4 wines x the entree portion of your menu. I think that makes for a reasonable list and plenty of room to have some recognizable names, along with great selections designed to match what the chef is cooking.

    I know there is a place in the world for lists like this, but isn’t that place very small and ever shrinking outside the fantasy land that Wall Street and Big Banks live in?

  9. You SWITCHED to keys?!???

    HEATHEN!!!

    :)

  10. The best answer no matter what business you’re in is honesty – ” I don’t know that wine but I’ll bring someone who does” This reflects better than giving an inaccurate description even one base on solid general knowledge.

    Anyplace that is going to catalog 1800 wines better have a head sommelier that does have in depth knowledge of the wines.

    Which wines have a high turn rate?

    Learn the high turners, the ones the chef recommends with various dishes, and several classics and demur on the rest. Stay close enough to hear the sommelier speak with the guest.

    Also given your within an hour of wine country (or 10 minutes to the East Bay via BART http://www.eastbayvintners.com) and a member of the trade visit the wineries (bring friends).

    I do agree that the restaurant management should examine their practices but the again if it’s in the cellar already and age worthy why not list it but do it on a by request list. If these are not age worthy then what are you thinking?

  11. Great article. Entirely agree.

    The other side is that with these wine tomes, you have the increased pressure to quickly read through its chapters because your server will be at your table shortly, waiting for your wine order.

    In truth, it’s fun to look a big wine list when you’re not a customer. Then, you avoid any pain from ordering something, and scanning the wine list after for interest’s sake, only to find – damn! – one wine you might have preferred.

    Too much buyer’s remorse. Keep it simple and small.

  12. As I understand it, part of the reason those by-the-glass programs are often so darned pricey is that they have to build in the cost of fallout for all of the partially drank bottles that get tossed because they’ve sat open for too long. My favorite current trend in the local resto scene is wine-on-tap. Great value, good wines, and every glass is served at the perfect temp and comes from an ideal environment. I now specifically seek out the places that offer it and would encourage any other wine lovers out the to do the same. And let the bar tenders / waiter / somms know you like it.

  13. I have to disagree here. Condemning a list due to size is like bashing a balanced wine @ 15% just because it says 15%…

    Though I sometimes like small lists, it is only if they match my palate- Which with small lists can be hit or miss.

    Would anyone here call the list at Bern’s Steakhouse in Tampa stuffy or “officious”? No, most wine lovers would call the 50,000 label list heaven. Why, because it contains nearly everything you’d ever want to try, at prices that are extremely reasonable.

    The 30 page list at Lotus of Siam in Vegas doesn’t threaten people with stuffy, it surprises them with depth of selection.

    The one thing with both of the spots I mention above– Their lists are well thought out, deep, and they have trained staff that know people go there to drink wine.

  14. Thomas Matthews says:

    I enjoy the Frick Museum, with its small, tightly-curated collection that reflects one man’s taste, but I return more often to the Metropolitan Museum, even though it will take a lifetime to explore it all. It’s the same with wine lists: I can be satisfied with a good, short list, but I really admire the passion and commitment that goes into an encyclopedic one. Besides, where else can most people ever find great and rare wines, when the happy time comes when they can indulge in one?

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  15. Well-spoken from Tom whose magazine gives out the Big Wine List Awards! Only joking, Tom : >

  16. I’d like to point out that in 2008 the average bottle selection for the 35 restaurants on the Enthusiast’s “Restaurants of Ultimate Distinction” was 1511, with the smallest list having 300 bottles.

    You say you can make an amazing wine list with only 30 wines on it, and I agree, but they will never be considered for such an award. I have a retail store with only 415 bottles, all hand selected, that wouldn’t be considered for such distinction either.

    It certainly makes it easier, though. We have a small selection and a knowledgeable staff, and people never run out of things to try. But I’m afraid that in this industry the bigger is better, and will be that way for a long time. The biggest wineries will get the exposure; the biggest, jammiest wines will consistently out score any wine with subtlety and finesse; and the biggest wine lists (that seem to be more of a showy collection than an actual offering) will always win the awards.

  17. I can safely say I’ve never chosen a restaurant based on winning awards for its wine list, first and foremost because the criteria are (a) unknown to me and (b) likely to be irrelevant to my reasons for drinking wine with a meal.

    First and foremost, I want a selection of wines that go with the food.

    I like a list that encourages me to discover new things. Not everyone will. Some people want familiarity, or handholding, or …?

    Not all restaurants are the same, either. A big wine list may serve the needs of the restaurant.

  18. With all the animosity directed at distributors, Steve, how do you expect us to distribute so much great wine if restaurants only have a list of thirty? The holding cost of wine needs to divvied proportionately along the chain.

  19. Steve,
    In this economy the deep collectable wine list can’t be fiscally responsibile. I understand it is a profit center for the trade; but that many selections leaves too much room for wines to get lost in the crowd; i.e. don’t get rotated correctly, become closer to vinegar than wine over time if not properly managed.

    I agree 30 wines is a good round number for any restaurant to manage. And as for knowing these wines from a servers stand point; Honesty is the best policy. As a diner, I appreciate it when someone says, “I don’t know” when asked about anything, especially wine. I couldn’t expect any waiter to know all the answers about these lists and especially when said server is under the age of 30. That may be a bais on my part, but knowing details about vintage, estate, terroir, producer, flavor profile, etc…is a life experience skill set, in my opinion that takes time.

    Are these expansive lists simply ego bound collections for the purpose of getting a Spectator Award? I remember seeing a wine list from the Waldorf in NYC circa 1940′s with less than twenty wines on it. Is this just a sign of the times?

  20. Georgep, I’ve been disappointed in restaurants with gigantic wine lists when I asked the waitperson something and I knew he was faking it.

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