Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What makes up a good wine list?

I just paid a visit to a newly reopened wine bar in Ojai. Clearly, a lot of thought had gone into putting the menu together and creating ambiance in the dining room. Anticipation ran high for a great experience. And then I asked for the wine list. Looking it over, I could only sigh in disappointment.

Sadly, this restaurant’s list was not balanced, and lacked imagination. An example was it had 3 Zinfandels, all from the same winery, but different vineyards. The list had 11 Pinot Noirs, and 10 Cabernet Sauvignons, but only ONE blend, Justin Isosceles and one Syrah. No Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Grenache blends, or old world wines.

I talked this over with the waitress and the owner, two different points of view. The owner felt that these were all good wines, yes most were, and that he liked them and this is what he wanted to offer. My point to him was, people come into a wine bar to experience new things, not the same old things. He had nothing new.

So what makes a list good?
In a word: Balance. Balance of flavors, styles, and price points.
  • Flavor refers to different grape varieties or blends. Pinot noir is a single varietal; Bordeaux wine is produced from a blend of grapes. Each offers a different flavor profile and a solid wine list will feature a variety of flavors.
  • Style includes a multitude of factors such as growing region, winemaking technique, the presence of bubbles, or residual sugar. But on a very practical level, style can generally be equated with weight: full, medium, or light.
  • Price points are just that, and a range is desirable.

These are the pieces of the puzzle. Putting them together, with a nod to the nearby winemakers, a modest wine-by-the-glass template might look something like this:
* Sparkling: Champagne or similar $14
* Light-Bodied White: S.B. County Sauvignon Blanc $7
* Full-Bodied White: Sonoma Chardonnay $12
* Off-Dry White: German Riesling $8
* Light-Bodied Red: Italian Chianti $8
* Medium-Bodied Red: S.B. County Pinot Noir $14
* Full-Bodied Red: S.B. County Syrah $10
* Full-Bodied Red: Napa Cabernet Sauvignon $14

It’s not rocket science, but considering all the work that goes into creating a menu, an indifferent wine list seems an affront to the food! To restaurant owners, I implore you not to treat your wine list as an afterthought—it is an extension of your menu and an important source of revenue. Be prepared to work with multiple vendors and take advantage of their knowledge. You should also consider developing parings of the wines on your list to complement your menu. To wine-loving diners, I invite you to speak up and ask for better. Your food deserves it.



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