In a perfect world, sophisticated ladies and gentlemen easily digest the most complicated wine list with, at most, the briefest discussion with their server. We don’t live on that alien planet, especially when it comes to restaurant wine selections.
But what is the alternative? Wine lists filled as far as the eye can see with chardonnays and cabernets from expected winemakers from easy-to-pronounce wine regions?
That is not the answer either.
Many restaurant wine directors go to great lengths cobbling together wine offerings made from nearly forgotten varieties found in surprising locations. This amazes and amuses wine geeks (myself included). Mostly, however, these lists depress and distress the other 99 percent of restaurant patrons, who want to order a wine simply and get on with their meal.
A deftly crafted wine list surely can set a restaurant apart. When a sommelier unleashes such a list, it comes with the responsibility of thoroughly training the service staff. With the exception of the busboy, everyone on the payroll who works in the dining room must be able to earnestly and honestly answer fundamental questions about the wines offered. Otherwise, a dense, voluminous wine list is merely a merit badge for an overinflated ego.
Putting a thoughtful wine list together is no small task; but it pales in comparison to getting information across to the servers on the front line. And it’s not just the facts. The spirit in which the information is conveyed is perhaps more important. If you have servers sophomorically lording their education over their guests, that’s just being smug…and it is a direct reflection of the wine director/educator.This was just the point that Ryan Turner of Muss & Turner’s and The Local Three recently made to his staff. In a memo that’s no longer confidential, he said, in part:
“When we use [our passion for wine] as a toll booth instead of a bridge, we jeopardize our trust with others and our viability as a business. Trying to establish significance over another via the knowledge of fermented grape juice or a type of pasta is ridiculous and warrants the justified resentment it breeds.”
And that comes from a guy who has the Itsasmendi, Hondarrabi Zuri, Bizkaiko Txakolina on his list. (It’s crisp white wine from Spain’s Basque region.) An eclectic list? You bettcha. Would the average diner be able easily navigate the wine list (or the beer list for that matter)? Let’s just say there are scant few (and no run-of-the-mill) chardonnays on Turner’s list.
What you will find at Local Three and a number of other Atlanta restaurants with way-out or imposingly long lists (Iberian Pig, Kyma, 246, Aria and Canoe come to mind) are capable servers who put guests at ease. These servers ratchet down the intimidation because they themselves are comfortable on the topic of wine. So if a guest desires to know more about old-vine verdejos from Rueda, Spain, (or just wants an inexpensive pinot grigio from anywhere), well-trained servers deliver without pretense. Unfortunately, too many restaurants dare to compose the wine list equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but employ only air guitarists to pour the wine.
As my colleague Eric Asimov of the New York Times ended his recent column on esoteric wine lists (and I will, too, as I can’t put any better): “The enemy isn’t obscure wines or challenging lists. It’s fear of wine.”
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.