Wine Lists

For some they are stuck-up sticky beat digests or riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas inside leather folders; for others they have the capacity to inspire, inform, indulge and challenge the drinker.

Wine will always be a bit esoteric in that each bottle has the scope to be individual and it is unlikely that the majority of customers inspecting the list will have the foggiest idea what the wine inside will taste like. Whereas two eggs or two slices of bacon will be pretty similar, two Sauvignons (from the same grower even) may be chalk and cheese (and taste of chalk and/or cheese). The question of how to dispel that fog of uncertainty may be answered by finding ways of breathing life into the moribund structure of wine lists.

The traditional incomprehensible document of names is dead text; the aim should be to stimulate a dialogue with customers by asking or challenging what they like to drink in as economic a fashion as possible.

The most compelling wine lists establish thematic links that mirror the way customers think about wine. Lists that try to establish the essential flavour of the wine itself – however subjective an exercise that might be. The interesting compilation should, by definition, be a selection, disclosing an individual intelligence at work and illustrate the virtue of discrimination. What is omitted from such a selection is almost as revealing as what is present. Quality is diluted in those vanity projects where wines are chosen with the eye and acumen of a magpie, covering the bases for the sake of it, trying to second guess the taste of the customers; symptomatic of a desire to be all things to all people. A good chef after all will cook food that he or she is proud of; a skilful compiler of wine lists should be informed by the same spirit of individual expression.

A wine list should be able to function in loco sommelier. It can be personalised and tailored to the needs of customers by being presented as a series of questions asking what they feel like drinking. How about something thirst-quenching? Or something to go with oysters? Or grilled meat? Or what’s the best wine with blue cheese? Would you like to try an organic wine? Do you fancy an alternative to Chardonnay? Have you got any organic whites? Would you recommend something really unusual? Which reds can I drink chilled? The ability to steer the customer into a section of the list that they want to be in – just like a search facility on a web site – and to reduce the choice to a few options, is the sign of a strong wine intelligence.

The service provided by sommeliers and wine waiters cannot be overstated. The list, however articulate, is merely a utensil and no substitute for the sommelier’s personality, knowledge, intelligence, enthusiasm and ability to interpret the needs of the customer. The investment in any bottle of wine (not just the loftier cru classé Bordeaux) is a substantial one when you are buying blind, hence customers will tend to default to the tried and trusted, yet too many lists, are formidable cyphers inviting us to genuflect before their quality and width. The sympathetic sommelier should want their customers to feel relaxed with the format of the list rather than so intimidated by their lack of knowledge (one reinforced by the list) that they invariably have to request information.

A wine list should be able to function in loco sommelier. It can be personalised and tailored to the needs of customers by being presented as a series of questions asking what they feel like drinking.

The most dynamic wine lists work with a combination of deconstruction (of hierarchies) and imaginative juxtaposition. They capture the diversity and spirit of the wines contained therein. Both Socratic and intuitive they will embrace objective groupings that describe the qualities of the wines and subjective categories that suggest more sensual or mood engendered responses to wine. The traditional incomprehensible document of names is dead text; the aim should be to stimulate a dialogue with customers by asking or challenging what they like to drink in as economic a fashion as possible. And if you have an imaginative list then customers will begin to make imaginative choices (rather than inevitably fade to Pinot Grey).

Some restaurateurs are adventurous and create expectation-ruffling, discursive, affirmatively demystifying lists. Others, however, are fearful of what their customers might think - as if the status quo is always correct because no one takes issue with it. That is the counsel of drabness and commonplaceness of mind. The wine list is not out there on its own; it is a tool to engage with customers, a means to discuss their preferences and to suggest matches for dishes on the menu. In short, a great wine list (great in quality not necessarily in magnitude) can raise the experience of eating out to another level.

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