- Wine Tips
What Makes A Great Wine List?
Ever go out to a restaurant and want a bottle of wine but are given a list so long you forget whether you’re ordering a beverage or studying for a master’s degree? Wine lists are often awarded accolades by various publications like Wine Spectator, but what does any of it really mean? For a lot of magazines and newspapers, wine lists are judged on the scope and depth of the list; meaning how many bottles are carried in house, the range of both classics (French Burgundy) and out-of-the-box options (Spanish Monastrell), as well as verticals (multiple vintage offerings of the same wine). But for you, as the consumer, does this really matter? What does, in fact, make a great wine list? I polled some of my sommelier colleagues to find out.
VARIETY OF PRICE POINTS
As a sommelier, I notice that guests at the restaurant are sometimes scared to talk to me. Other than feeling intimidated about the subject matter, I often find it’s because they are afraid I’m going to only recommend $200 + bottles. This is not the case! While I would love to sell you a rare 1995 Opus One for $900, that is definitely not my go to. I always offer a low, mid, and high-range bottle. I also ask if there is a price point in mind before offering recommendations. A great wine list should have tasty bottles at all levels.
Andrew Pettingell, beverage director at Otium in downtown LA, echoes my sentiment. “I don’t like lists that only have cheap bottles or only expensive bottles,” he says. “You don’t have to have a lot of bottles at every price point, just some.” This gives the guest flexibility. If a high end restaurant only has wines over $200 it can discourage people from coming back or trying a new wine. On the flip side, if a list only has $50 bottles it robs them of the opportunity to try a special occasion wine they may not be able to buy anywhere else.
AVAILABILITY OF WINE
While having a lot of wines on your list is fun (the list I work with at 71 Above showcases 865 bottles), make sure the list is current! There is nothing more frustrating than ordering a bottle of wine only to be told it’s not available, then ordering a second bottle and also not having that one in stock. This is one of the easiest ways to lose repeat patrons. Cristie Norman, wine director at Delilah in Las Vegas says, “I believe that 80% of a wine director’s role is making wines available to the guest, so take the time to add and remove wines ASAP. I’m doing a full reprint once a week, so that I know for sure if a guest orders a wine that we have it.”
Of course, as every sommelier knows, as soon as you print a new list it’s inevitable for someone to order the last bottle. There will always be a couple wines that are out, so a good sommelier should have an alternative ready to suggest at all times. Vintages (the year the wine was made) are also constantly changing, so it’s important to update that as much as possible and communicate to a guest right away if there is a discrepancy. Lack of communication on the list comes off as superior (“They won’t notice anyway.”) or uncaring (“They’ll have to take whatever we have.”).
In my opinion, creativity on a wine list is the most important consideration. It’s what separates the cream of the crop from the rest of the pack. Anyone can carry Caymus or Duckhorn. But what makes a wine experience truly memorable? Rebecca Rose Philips of Vintage Wine + Eats in Sherman Oaks, CA runs a smaller wine bar with an affordable price point for her neighborhood patrons. She says she loves to “give the people what they want but in a way they didn’t know they wanted it.” For example, her clientele loves Napa Cab but she rarely has one on the by-the-glass list because the price point is too expensive. So instead, she offers a local LA red blend by Byron Blatty or an oaked Sangiovese from Los Olivos, CA. “I make sure to have a big, bold red on the list but it’s something completely unexpected,” Philips says. “It keeps guests excited, they learn something new, and allows us to be creative.”
One of the first things I ask guests after white or red and light or full bodied, is if they’re feeling adventurous. If a guest tells me that they want a full bodied white, it’s easy to point them to Chardonnay. But a good list has some out-of-the-box options. I could also offer them a Savagnin from the Jura in France with nutty, oxidative flavors that build on a traditional California Chardonnay’s butter. Or a Palomino from Priorat Spain that is almost sherry like. A good list has both safe and creative options to give guests whichever experience they desire.
While a range of wines is important, a lot of sommeliers get caught up only in wines that speak to their inner geek like orange or natural wines. But having sweet whites and reds are also something that people ask for. If the list uses creative solutions like carrying Lambrusco, a sweet, sparkling red wine, they can both give the people what they want and teach them about a new style. A good list should carry at least one example of all the major varietals of the world. Johnnie Oberg of Maestro’s Ocean Club in Malibu states, “If we serve oysters and don’t have an Albarino by the glass but have nine Chardonnays, it’s a missed opportunity.” Likewise, going to a French restaurant that only serves American wine seems uninspired. Matching wine to food is one of the most special things a sommelier can do.
FOOD AND WINE CONNECTION
Speaking of food and wine pairings, a good wine list always takes its food menu into consideration. This can be obvious in situations like Nathaniel Munoz’s list at Osteria Mozza, where Italian food has ample Italian wine options, or Courtney Kaplan’s vast sake list at Japanese izakaya restaurant Tsubaki. But what about restaurants where the theme is a little less on the nose?
At The Girl and the Goat, an eclectic restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, the food theme is less obvious. Menu items infuse food with unexpected flavors, like Hamachi crudo in browned goat butter or an Asian style duck tartar. Due to the varying flavors and types of food, Wine Director Kristinah Kim curates her list around versatile wines that complement a variety of dishes like a valdigue by Cruse Wine Co. The wine’s light berry fruit has a slight earthy quality that can pair with dishes from the beet salad to the skirt steak.
Kim also focuses on sustainable farming to match the menu’s farmer’s market vibe, noting that, “We highlight biodiverse and outside-the-mold winemakers. The list brings attention to regions of incredible value such as Ribeiro Galicia and Patagonia, and is rounded out with my favorite grower Champagnes, classic producers, and Loire pioneers. I look to bring the question of what exactly does "natural" mean in a vineyard and agricultural setting, and hopefully answer it with some lively, pure expressions that also compliment the food!”
DOES DRC AND VERTICAL VINTAGES MATTER?
DRC stands for Domaine Romanee-Conti, a producer in Burgundy that makes some of the most expensive wine in the world. In fact, they smashed the world record for most expensive bottle of wine when two bottles of 1945 Romanee-Conti sold for $558,000 and $496,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2018! This is because these bottles are incredibly rare and difficult to obtain. They only made 600 bottles of the 1945. Today, the average bottle of the current vintage goes for $23,066.
But when I polled sommeliers about their importance I found a different story. Andrew Pettingell states, “DRC the wine? Definitely not important. I personally don’t like anything where companies make you buy a bunch of other wines to receive it. There’s too much great wine out there.” Pettingell is referring to a phenomenon where wine companies make demands of restaurants so they can be lucky enough to buy one bottle of DRC. For example, a restaurant may have to carry 3-6 of the company’s lesser wines on their by-the-glass list at all times in order to get one bottle of DRC a year. This is a great money maker for the wine companies but sommeliers are often forced to carry wines they don’t love.
The other problem with DRC is that most sommeliers have never tasted it. Beverage directors are definitely not tasting it ahead of purchase like they do with other wine, nor will sommeliers taste the bottle when it is in house. Therefore, guests are buying a wine because it’s a commodity, not because a sommelier is genuinely passionate about it. “I hate when I look at a list and can tell they are buying from the same three reps,” Pettingell continues. “That’s lazy. It shows me that the list is more about supporting the book than trying to find the best wines.”
As for vertical vintages, it’s a fun concept to have if you have a large list and can afford it. I love getting the chance to sell a group two bottles of the same wine with a 20 year age difference, like our 2000 vintage of Spring Mountain Cabernet next to the current release. It’s a unique experience that can’t be created at home. But 71 Above is a large restaurant with a cellar that houses over 4,500 wines and buys from over 130 wine reps. 99% of restaurants can’t work off of that model and that doesn’t mean that they can’t have a great wine list. Nor are the majority of guests buying that kind of experience on the average night out.
A Little Research Makes All the Difference
The good news is that a great wine list can be found in a diverse amount of venues. If a list is current, creative, and food focused then it can shine whether it has 30 wines or 300. But always research the lists before you go! Decide what it is you want on any given occasion. Do you want to try something new? What about that new natural wine bar? Are you looking for an intimate setting with affordable, local wines? Try a smaller wine bar. Are you wanting to impress your date on an anniversary? Check out a fine dining restaurant. Assess the range of prices and styles ahead of time to make sure that they have what you’re looking for.
Also, feel free to call ahead! A restaurant’s beverage director is always happy to chat with you beforehand, especially if you would like to pick out a bottle as a surprise for your party. Personally, my goal as a sommelier is to give you the best drinking experience possible. Because what makes a wine list good to me, is its satisfied patrons.
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