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What makes a wine list great?

from Grapes, by Thor Iverson

There’s a restaurant in Girona, Spain where the wine lists (yes, plural) are delivered on a rolling cart, because they’re too heavy to carry and too bulky to peruse on the table. Most of the world’s great wines are represented, they’re all reasonably priced, and they’re served flawlessly. It is, by any measure, a truly great list. Lists. Whatever.

There’s a restaurant in Berkeley, California where the wine list fits on a single sheet of paper, with plenty of room to spare at the margins. Paper printed that day by someone who loves playing with fonts, but doesn’t much care what they actually look like on the page. And it is also, by any measure, a truly great list.

How can this be? Aren’t all the world’s great wine lists like that first example? Giant cloth-bound tomes that kick up centuries of dust as they’re dropped on your table? Forty vintages each of the grapey greats, with their names engraved on vellum by some poor quill-and-ink scribe in a dank cellar? You peruse, the sommelier hovers, “monsieur makes an excellent choice,” and the ceremony proceeds apace?


Defining a great wine list is a little like defining pornography: we know it when we see it (though wine lists that actually involve pornography don’t usually contend for the title).

Length doesn’t matter. (Hmm. I can’t seem to get off this subject.) Wine novels can be excellent, but they can also just be long. Some of the best lists are short, focused bursts of creativity from a wine buyer who actually cared about quality over quantity. And yes, some of them are photocopied.

Along those lines, focus does matter. “Five Napa cabs? Check. Ten Bordeaux? Check. One Argentinean malbec? Check.” Too many wine lists are done that way, and most of them are boring; the buffet lines of the wine world. Fine dining or corner diner, it doesn’t matter…a good wine list is cooked to order. The wines match the philosophy, the style, the clientele, and most importantly the food, not some external and unrelated notion of what most people drink. Think about that the next time you’re at a glorified lobster shack and there are five pages of cabernet.

Great wine lists are also up-to-date. I don’t mean trendy, though some of them surely are; the current hipster thing is “natural” wine, which covers a vague universe of organic, biodynamic, and/or low-sulfur bottlings mostly coming from Europe (though that’s sure to change). I mean that given modern computers and printers, there’s no excuse for a wine list rife with sold-out stock and out-of-date vintages. Whether one-sheet or Tolstoy-length, a restaurant that can’t afford to print a few dozen copies of a page as they sell through their bottles isn’t a restaurant that cares much about their wine.*

Though rare in the States, for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me, a variety of formats is also a hallmark of a great wine list. Magnums are fun and look impressive, but what about half-bottles? A by-the-glass selection that’s as interesting and wide-ranging as the full-bottle list? The best lists have them.

And then there’s the organizational issue. Are wines categorized in a way that makes sense only to those who’ve studied the subject (that is, does the average diner know or care about the difference between a Pomerol and a Pauillac)? Or are they listed by ascending price? Neither is particularly helpful. Grouping by style (light, fruity reds, or full-bodied, powerful whites) is helpful, as are indications of the sort of food a given wine might enhance. This doesn’t have to take place on the wine list, however; it can be shifted to the menu, which means a kitchen and a wine director that work together (which, if the wines on the list are any good with the food, already happens).

Finally, there’s the issue of support. The greatest wine list in the world is useless without the people and technology to back it up. This means a temperature-controlled storage area (not open racking up against a hot ceiling). This means a cellaring scheme that saves staff from twenty-minute scavenger hunts while diners’ appetizers are icing over. And this means employees that can speak knowledgably about the list, whether that be a dedicated on-call wine expert or a well-trained waitstaff, and who know how to serve the wine. No overfilling glasses, no dripping in the diner’s soup, no mindless use of ice buckets for wines that are already ice-cold.

And rolling carts? Not necessary. But, I’ll admit, cool as hell.

*I received an email from a local wine director who offered a counterpoint: given that a high-turnover, dynamic list features small quantities of wines that can sell out quickly, and given that prices are sensitive to the highly volatile currency markets, a lot of reprinting would be necessary. A sensitivity to environmental issues (shared by many in the restaurant business) would seem to argue against such a waste of paper. I can sympathize with this. But in reality, restaurants with outages are rarely saddled with just a few zero-quantity wines. It’s usually symptomatic of a greater problem: a general inattention to the wine list. My wine director correspondent doesn’t have that problem, and I’m sure he reprints his wine list as often as is justified, though perhaps not every day. But I still think it’s good advice, generally speaking. Then again, maybe the solution is to do away with the paper list. The Jetsons, anyone?

(First published in stuff@night, 2008.)


Copyright © Thor Iverson.