"Great wine lists, simply put, should make wine feel fun, like the bacchanalian celebratory beverage it is," says Aureole's head sommelier, Morgan Harris
Interpreting a restaurant wine list can be a daunting task. Not only must you perform your wine savvy in front of a group of friends or, worse, a date, but you must make choices that will inform your whole dining experience.
"Curation is an enormous part of work as sommeliers," says Morgan Harris, head sommelier at New York's Aureole. "Making a wine list that makes people happy, harmonizes cogently with chef's cooking and the overall ambitions and the atmosphere of the restaurant is the backbone of a wine buyer's work."
Here's what you want to look for in the ideal restaurant wine list, according to people who work in wine.
1. Good selection of wines by the glass.
Janice Scheckter, a South African wine educator, is deeply committed to scouting the best restaurant wine lists in her city, Johannesburg. The most important thing she looks for in a wine list? A robust selection of wines by the glass. "My husband doesn't drink, and I don't want to have a whole bottle," she says.
2. Reasonable mark-up.
Scheckter is well aware that restaurants need to sell their wines way above retail prices in order to keep their businesses viable, but there's a line she won't cross. "On the wine list, if there’s a 100 percent mark-up, I get it; I understand … but if there’s a 300 percent mark-up? Did you add that amount of value to the wine?"
Of course, you'll see restaurant wines marked up higher than 300 percent, and you simply have to decide what you're okay with, then make educated decisions going forward.
"If you see a wine, and know the value of it, you can see if they have a high margin on the wine," says Laurent Yung, cofounder and CEO of Sommailier. "If you assess and see they’re putting a lower margin on their wine, that may be a place where you would want to order a more expensive wine from, and try something you wouldn’t normally order.”
3. Harmony with the vision of the restaurant.
According to Harris, wine lists should be governed by a deep thoughtfulness about place.
"It makes no sense to serve Napa Cabernet in a restaurant that, say, celebrates the cuisine of Central and Southern Italy, unless, perhaps, that restaurant were in Napa," he says. "I would feel some obligation to find a wine that makes the guests that want Napa Cabernet happy though, i.e. an oaky, ripe extracted Montepulciano d'Abbruzo or Primativo from Apulia would be great options. This way, they're experiencing a wine that makes them happy, but it's more in-line with the restaurant's vision of wine as a portion of cuisine, rather than an abstracted alcohol. The guest gets to experience something novel, that they enjoy, and the restaurant can be proud of serving a product that makes more sense with their food."
4. Suggested pairings.
While this isn't quite a requirement of a good wine list, pairing notes can be helpful for the consumer, even educated ones.
“Food pairing is a huge value on a menu as a whole," says Yung. "Restaurants that offer recommendations with entire courses or specific food items remove the hassle of going through the whole wine list for consumers, which can be overwhelming. That shows the restaurant is knowledgeable, which is an initial good sign of quality of not only the wine, but also the food.”
“If you see diversity, and not just one region, it’s more likely you’ll have an option you’ll like," adds Yung. "A good wine list should be well balanced between old world and new world wines.”
6. Knowledgable presentation.
A solid wine list is nothing if the wine isn't served properly. Glassware, in particular, can dramatically affect wine flavor.
"If I’m in a café or bistro, with like a gingham tablecloth, I’m okay that it’s not the finest glassware," says Scheckter. "There’s a restaurant in Johannesburg, and they’re rated highly—everything except their glassware. Their glasses were like a crystal soup bowl. I said, 'Guys, what are you thinking? You can’t drink out of this.'"
Similarly, wine temperature is key. Scheckter says she would "really rather have a chilled red" than an overly warm one. Above all, to make the most of a wine list, you must take advantage of the staff's knowledge.
"Engaging with the sommeliers, maybe getting your bottle port-tonged, and feeling like you got something special even though you're not a Russian oligarch, makes that list successful," adds Harris. "It's never about what' exactly is on the list, it's about how you feel about the whole interaction with the list and a beverage team that makes a wine list special."
The moment wine isn't fun ... is a bad moment.
"Great wine lists, simply put, should make wine feel fun, like the bacchanalian celebratory beverage it is," says Harris. "Night + Market in L.A. is great example of this. A lot of Thai restaurants cop out on wine, offering Singha or Chang, which are both delicious, but Night + Market has this awesome list of off-dry and bubbly wines that are spectacular with the loud flavors coming out of the kitchen. I always really look forward to the list there when I visit LA, because these light-hearted, delicious, affordable wines are in perfect harmony with the spicy street-food style Thai."