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Lowbrow Lists

Restaurant wine lists with categories like "soft and juicy" and "lush and creamy" are all the rage. A traditionalist decries the trend.

I'm all in favor of anything designed to demystify wine. Whether that means books that come embellished with cartoon characters, for readers who are dummies, or magazines that cater to the presumably dis-affected Generation X drinker, I don't think there are many ways to go wrong in trying to get a wider audience for the grape.

Except in the case of certain kinds of restaurant wine lists. These tutti-frutti lists, as I call them, eschew traditional categories like Bordeaux and Burgundy in favor of flavor roundups such as "soft and juicy" or "lush and creamy" or "crisp and refreshing"--resulting in restaurant wine lists that sound more like restaurant menus.

While proponents of such lists claim these groupings are simply a device to help make wine more friendly and accessible, I'd argue they actually accomplish the opposite. Aside from an implicit assumption that the patrons' intellectual gifts are pretty much on a par with those of Forrest Gump (these descriptors rarely run to more than one syllable), such lists don't offer much that's useful when it comes to making wine and food matches. After all, a "lush and creamy" wine sounds like something that should be served with dessert, preferably one topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

These lists also run contrary to the trend among today's winemakers that stresses the importance of place in the creation of a great wine. More and more American winemakers are rejecting wines that simply show good fruit (i.e., that are soft and juicy) in favor of wines that express the character of a particular vineyard, its terroir. The proliferation of vineyard-designated wines from California in the past several years is ample evidence of this. The Clos du Val winery in Napa has even introduced a special terroir line of wines. (Terroir,by the way, is a $10 French word that has no exact translation in English but refers to the combination of circumstances, such as weather, soil quality and elevation, that affect a particular location and help to give the wine a particular character.)

European winemakers have thought about terroir for centuries, valuing the place where a wine is made over the grape it's made from. Indeed, one early hurdle for any budding oenophile is knowing that Burgundy is the home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, though neither of those grapes is named on the labels, which give instead the names of the villages where they're grown.

Tutti-frutti wine lists are also in conflict with today's restaurant menus, many of which emphasize the importance of terroir in food. There are, for example, fewer generic Italian restaurants in the United States and more trattorias that flaunt their regional roots, touting Piedmontese, Roman or Calabrian cooking. And yet such restaurant menus, no matter how unfamiliar their dishes or obscure their ingredients, never seem to group appetizers and entrées under headings like "soft and yummy" and "rich and juicy." The chef seems perfectly willing to grant the diner a degree of knowledge or at least access to a well-versed waiter. Why is it that restaurant sommeliers don't seem willing to do the same?

Some restaurants employ a twist on the tutti-frutti list, grouping their offerings under the usual geographic headings (Bordeaux, Piedmont) but following each wine with a purportedly helpful adjective or two. Unfortunately, this too does more to confuse than to clarify. What, after all, should one expect from (let alone pair with) a bottle that tastes like "a rich red berry with a touch of cinnamon" or "peach and almond," one that's "aromatic with dry hay" or, for that matter, one that is "robust with cedar smoke"? This last descriptor seems more appropriate for a label on an artificial fireplace log than for one on a bottle of wine. But perhaps my favorite of all of these well-meaning adjective assists is the one-word accompaniment "complex." The wine it describes? A rather commonplace Chilean Merlot.

Other restaurants trust that their clientele has grasped a few basic flavors and has graduated to learning the name of a grape varietal or two. Sadly, this is not an altogether successful supposition, as these wine lists tend to lump together all the wines made from Merlot or Chardonnay, regardless of the country they come from. It's another method, however well-intentioned, that does the diner an ultimate disservice. How much, after all, does a big, fat, tropical-fruit Chardonnay from Santa Barbara have in common with a flinty, high-acid Chablis from France? Both are made from the Chardonnay grape, but they couldn't be more different in character. And, of course, these kinds of grape lists are always somewhat limited, as they may put all the world's Chardonnays together, but still seem to end up with a big miscellaneous section of less common grapes. Wines made from Grüner Veltliner, Sémillon and Muscat seem to get shoved together in a section titled anything from the frivolous "fun wines" to the rather off-putting "other." However, my favorite roundup-style wine list of all is divided like an auto dealer's showroom into "heavy-bodied domestics" and "light-bodied imports."

There is a reason why wine lists have long been arranged according to the places where the wines were made. It's not just because the sommelier lacks imagination or access to a thesaurus. It's because a geographic grouping makes sense. First of all, it's easier to get the kind of wine that will go well with a particular food this way. A Tuscan wine such as Chianti, for example, usually has a good balance of fruit and acidity, and it's a pretty reliable partner for traditional Tuscan dishes, such as pasta with meat sauce. You'll also stand a better chance of being able to order that same Chianti somewhere else, be it another restaurant or a retail store. If you order a Chianti Classico from a wine list one night, you are more likely to find it or a wine similar to it if you ask for a Chianti than if you say you want a "fruity, high-acid red" or, for that matter, even if you know enough to order a "predominantly Sangiovese-based wine."

Basically, the bottom line is this: Wine is hard. It's not a subject that can be summed up by a few tasty or fragrant adjectives. It's something that requires a bit of application to understand and to appreciate fully. And, yes, even study. Which, I have to confess, I consider one of its joys. I like the fact that you need to apply yourself, that you can never know all there is to know about wine and that it is an enormous and ever changing subject.

Of course, that doesn't mean you can't open a bottle and polish off a glass or two without even bothering to note if the wine is white or red. But, then, you can also read Cliffs Notes instead of novels and play miniature golf instead of the full 18 holes. And you can eat the same five or six dishes for the rest of your life. But most people presumably want something that's a little more interesting, something that's a bit more challenging. And, personally, I'd always rather a restaurant assumed I knew a little more than I do than began with the premise that I'm no more than a rube.

Published July 2000
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