Restaurant Wine Lists

This week, I've had a number of discussions about restaurant wine lists: their pricing, their menu layout, and the expansiveness (or lack there of) of some.

Let me first get a little "pet peeve" out of the way...I am tired of theme restaurants (particularly Italian and Chinese) that have a full menu of regional items, but their wine list doesn't match the cuisine. Even further, their decor and music doesn't follow the theme. When I go to an Italian restaurant, I want the establishment to take me to another place. I want to feel like I am visiting Tuscany. The food, the decor and even the background music. Nothing like walking in, and hearing rap music blazing in the background to prep me for the Floretine Steak and a bottle of Chianti (sarcasm intended).

And, while I'm on Italian restaurants, why is it that a lot of them don't store their wine properly? I don't mean to pick on Italian restaurants, but in my experience they are the biggest culprits. Serving warm wine, that has been stored in the kitchen, is just wrong. More than a few times, I have had to ask for an ice bucket, to chill down my red wine to "room temperature". The cabinet next to the stove is not the proper place for a wine rack.

When it comes to restaurants, there are a number of things that the owner (or Sommelier) needs to pay attention to: 1) the wine list; 2) proper storage; 3) service; and 4) a trained staff.

Whether the wine list is large or small, the restaurant really needs to carry a variety of wines that pair well with the food on the menu. Now, I am one that likes to explore, so I look beyond a wine list that just carries Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. While I have no problems with these wines, I want an experience. I want to try something new. Some restaurants stock their cellars (if they have one) with wines that will wine them awards (check out the Wine Spectators Awards of Excellence List), some will only carry wines that get 90+ points on the latest wine review. Sometimes, these approaches lead to awkward wine lists, that are clumsily organized, with not much thought to the chefs' creations.

My favorite wine lists give me a range of options. I can flip through their wine list by country, or by grape variety. Their pricing is reasonable, and they have the wine in stock (read about some wine experiences - both good and bad, we recently had in Monterey). The wines are also served by a trained staff member, or the Sommelier, and arrive at the correct service temperature. Also, if your wine list is an encyclopedia, give me some time to look it over. It will take me more than a couple minutes to sift through the volumes of wine on the list. Yeah, you know I am a "wine geek" when I look for a wine first, then figure out what food item I am going to order to best pair with my wine choice.

More on pricing. When I mention "reasonable pricing", I don't mean that the restaurant has to give away the wine. I realize everyone is in the business to make a profit. But, with today's tech saavy world, it is very easy to whip out the smart phone, and check the latest retail price of that $42 bottle of Pinot Grigio on the menu, and find that it is selling on for $15. I think restaurants need to be conscience of their consumer's knowledge, and price accordingly. I also realize that if I bring my own bottle into a restaurant, I will be paying some sort of corkage fee (legal here in California, but no so in many other states). This corkage fee covers the cost of glassware and service, as well as compensates the establishment for the wine that was not ordered. Where I have a problem is if the lowest priced wine on the menu is $20, then the corkage fee should not be $35. Charge what your lowest priced wine on the menu is.

As a Sommelier, the wine list, the food, and ambiance should all lead to a pleasurable experience. I want the customer to walk away talking positively about the restaurant. I want them to come back, and bring their friends. As a customer, I want to be taken away to another place, and escape from everyday life for a couple hours. I want to eat tapas in Barcelona, and sip a nice glass of Rioja, all while sitting here in California. Is that too much to ask for? I don't think so!


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