Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Wine List

I've often written in reviews about a wine list being "good" or "bad." Actually, I don't think I wrote about a wine list being "bad," but I could if I want to. I swear. I think I did call Stokes' wine list lackluster or some such. I could check the archives of my own blog, but that would involve opening a new window or tab. That would be an abuse of technology.

So, do I determine the quality of a wine list? What should you look for if you want to be like me?

Here's what I look at, in this order:

1. Breadth
2. Price
3. Appropriateness for the cuisine
4. Recognizability

What's breadth? It's just that. How many different varietals, how many different countries, regions, and to a lesser extent, vintages. A lot of bad wine lists, mostly found at moderately expensive restaurants in the suburbs and tourist destinations, are heavily loaded with chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and zinfandel. At some you're unlikely to find even a handful of wines that aren't from California's Big Five.

Sure, throw in the obligatory California chardonnays but also give me a breadth of white burgundies. But then there's that whole issue: wine lists at some of the finest restaurants will be limited entirely to California, French, and Italian varietals. This is not so much a bad thing, because these three regions obviously offer a huge variety of flavor profiles. But, that doesn't mean that wines from Spain, Austria, Germany, and South America are somehow unworthy of such lists. A selection of wines from outside the world's Big Three is another indication of a list's quality.

Moving on to price. It's not the lowest priced wine or the highest priced, but the mode of prices. The largest percentage of a wine list's selections should be within a range of 1.5-2 times the average price of a menu's entrees. So we're basically talking $30-$40 bottles at most restaurants. And then 80% (inclusive) of the total list should be within 20%-30% of that mode ($25-$52, roughly). You then have a nice chunk of space to work with ultrapremium wines. Be wary of a wine list with a lot of statistical outliers, too. If most of a wine list is sub $40 and the only oddballs are super-priced cult wines or well-known champagnes, we're dealing with a fairly inadequately developed list. Point is, offer a nice moderately priced selection, throw in a couple bargain wines and a premium selection smoothly increasing in price. It's a front-loaded curve, not a bell curve.

So then, what about appropriateness for the cuisine. This is a given on most lists, it's also a bit difficult to determine at a cursory glance. Just look for general clues--is it a seafood-focused place? Then there should be a lot of higher acidity wines (think Italian and Spanish). Is it spicy Asian or fusion-y food? Look for aromatic and off-dry selections (Alsatian varietals, for instance). Basically look for glaring absences from wine list to cuisine.

And then there's recognizability. I think poorly of wine lists that both pander to the big names of a region and to those lists that deliberately don't. Every wine list should have some wines from wineries, winemakers, or negociants that would be recognizable to the modestly savvy diner and winetaster. This goes for varietals too--a wine list should have a wide selection of varietals and styles but should also offer a significant selection of the most popular varietals and styles. Think populism without pandering.

There you have it, answers to a question you never asked.


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