I don’t want to go into aesthetics or the physical format of wine lists (which today spans from the classic leather-bound book to the ultra-modern iPad), nor the monstrosity of spelling mistakes I often see printed. Rather I hope to touch on a few simple questions you can ask when you peruse a wine list – whether it be in a Michelin-starred establishment or your local Italian trattoria – not only to choose what to drink, but also to critically evaluate the quality of a restaurant’s wine list.
Question #1: Who put together the wine list? Was it the owners (or sommelier)? Or the distributors or sales representatives in the area? If you’re familiar with the catalogues of the main local distributors, often the answer is immediate: The wine list and the catalogue will be almost identical. But if you’re not well versed on this matter (and I realize this is slightly useless information in the life of a mere mortal) there is another way to find out: Choose two or three or the more unusual wines on the list and ask the restaurateur to tell you a bit about them. If he or she starts to mumble and fiddle, or worse, begins to blandly recite the catalogue descriptions, you know that the list has been put together by someone else. If on the other hand, he or she spends a few precious minutes excitedly talking about the wines and their producers, you can bet that the wine selecting is being done in-house.
Question #2. If you ask the restaurateur, “How much wine do you sell in a year?” you might be met with a shrug of the shoulders. But knowing this is fundamental to forecasting. And you can gather if it’s not being done well when you catch a glimpse of unsold merchandise: wines lingering on the list not because they’ve been aging in the cellar, but because nobody ever bought them.
And let’s say it loud and clear, the length of the wine list is not necessarily synonymous with its quality. Between a wine list with 200 wines where 150 were bought at the local supermarket and one with 20-30 wines chosen with care, there is no doubt which one is superior.
Question #3: The restaurant’s identity. Considering the cuisine served, why are these wines on the list? Is there a list full of tannic reds but the menu offers mostly seafood? Is there a cellar packed with whites but the kitchen is serving game and grilled meats?
Harmony between the cuisine and wine is fundamental in judging a wine list, and the restaurant in general. If a restaurant proposes an elaborate menu, it can’t have a dull wine list with the same wines as the local supermarket. And vice-versa. Likewise, if it does traditional regional Italian cuisine, it’s a bit out of place to then offer French wines. In my opinion, the wine list should be in line with the personality and expectations of the restaurant. From a Michelin-starred restaurant I expect one thing, from my local trattoria, another.