The Wine Wise Guy weighs in on fiction vs reality on restaurant wine lists.
Here’s a question I’d like to send out to the wine directors of the world: Why is there a page in your wine list called “Sommelier’s Selections” when it’s really the “let’s unload these losers” page? I’ve seen these pages showing up on more and more wine lists lately, and I take the time to read each and every one of them, hoping to glean the point of view of the sommelier who picked the wines. And all too often, that’s not so easy, especially when what you see are bottles for $45 that you can find easily in your local wine shop for $15. Did the somm in question buy this plonk as part of a multi-case discount, in order to get access to higher-end wines that appear a few pages ahead in the book? Or do the wines just not fit into any other section of the list? After all, it can be hard to slot in that one bottle of Tribidrag from Croatia the former wine director took a flyer on. And sometimes the “sommelier selections” page is, as far as anyone sane can tell, just a list of random wines, sans any description as to why they were chosen.
All of this drives me to the point of bending my Zalto universal wine glass until it snaps in half. Now, I do have to admit that I have seen the opposite as well: “sommelier selections” that highlight a region, a producer or even a variety. In this case, it’s obvious that the person who put the list together actually took the time to find the tie that binds the wines, and to offer the diner an opportunity to learn something outside the box, whether it’s about a well-known grape like Chardonnay, or a more obscure region such as Sardinia. I’d like to see more of these, please! “As sommeliers who taste and talk about wine every day, we can forget that what seems like an everyday, no-brainer wine to us may be more confusing to our guests,” says Jennifer Knowles, wine director at the Jefferson in Washington, DC. “A heading like ‘sommelier’s selections’ on the list can offer us the chance to showcase things we care deeply about—if they’re wines that live up to the title we’ve bestowed on them.” I admit, Knowles’s response to my queries does calm my frustration somewhat. At least now when I see a page of wines that lacks a clear message, I ask to speak to the sommelier to find out if there is, in fact, any logic behind this grouping. Often there is, which is gratifying. And if there isn’t, well, it’s always fun to watch someone try to make sense out of nonsense at a moment’s notice.