Thu 22 Oct 2009
Eric Asimov had an interesting column in The New York Times yesterday and a follow-up on his blog about how few restaurants in San Francisco, located at the nexus of several of California’s best vineyard regions, focus exclusively or even half-heartedly on California wines, and this in a city where many restaurants take locavorism to Puritanical levels. The argument is often made, with some accuracy, that California’s typical rich, ripe high-alcohol red wines and over-oaked white wines do not make good matches with food and that the more elegant and restrained European wines, for example, Bordeaux and Burgundy and German rieslings, are better suited to the dining experience.
What fascinates me is the idea of a local wine list, a notion which, philosophically, seems pretty attractive. After all, when you’re at a restaurant in Burgundy, all the wines on the list will be Burgundies; if you’re in Bordeaux, the restaurant wine lists will carry all Bordeaux wines. That’s basically the situation in any wine region. I ate in many restaurants in Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz back in July, and not a single wine list offered anything but German wines and mainly of those areas. One could call this approach parochial, but the food and wine heritage of a region grows and evolves together over centuries. To experience that entwining of place, history and taste is one reason why we travel to foreign parts.
Outside of wine regions, of course, restaurants have to depend of the wines that are available in their cities through the local distributors. And while wine is produced in all the contiguous 48 states, I’m sorry to say, but I must, that in many of those states you would not want restaurants to feature local wine. On the other hand, it boggles my mind that so few restaurants in New York City feature any wines from the wine regions that lay closest to them, that is, Long Island, Hudson Valley and Finger Lakes. Restaurants, of course, are dependent on the selections carried by local wholesale distributors, and they must choose wines for their cellars based on need, style of cuisine, customer preference, price, storage capacity and so on.
In other words, a purely local or regional wine list may be a fine ideal, but depending on where the restaurant is, it can also require a lot of work of the strenuously wonky sort.
Thinking about this topic allowed me to contemplate what sort of list I would conjure for a restaurant, so here it is, my notion of an ideal wine list. Half of these wines, by the way, should also be available by the glass and perhaps one-third of them in half-bottles. As you will see, I prefer a short, purposeful wine list to one that tries to have All The Big Names and All The Kinds of Wine.
>Five sparkling wines, i.e., two Champagnes, a sparkling wine from California, a Crement de Bourgogne and a Prosecco.
>Two dry roses, say Prieure de Montezargues, from Tavel, and Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, Los Carneros.
>A dry Sherry.
>Fifteen white wines: three chardonnays; three sauvignon blancs; three rieslings; a Rhone-style white (not necessarily from the Rhone); a gruner veltliner; a pinot blanc or pinot gris; three whites from Italian and Spanish, like vermentino and albarino. The chardonnays could be, perhaps, a Bourgogne Blanc or Macon-Vire, a Chablis Premier Cru and an example from California; sauvignon blancs could be represented by the Loire Valley, California and New Zealand; rieslings by Germany, Washington state and Australia.
>Fifteen red wines: O.K., three cabernet or cabernet-based wines (Bordeaux, California, perhaps Chile); three pinot noirs (two Burgundies at different prices and one from California or Oregon); a merlot from Long Island or Washington state; a cabernet franc from Chinon; a cru Beaujolais; a malbec from Argentina; a grenache (garnacha) from Spain; a Cotes-du-Rhone Cairanne or Rastau; a (non-blockbuster) zinfandel, like the Ridge Three Valleys: a Barbara d’Asti or Dolcetto from Piedmont; an aglianico from Campania.
>Five dessert wines, including a 10-year-old Tawny Port, a Beaume-de-Venise, an ice wine from Ontario, and, uh, two more.
There you have it, 43 wines, easily manageable, easy to change as vintages come and go or supplies dwindle, easy to work with on the computer and printer. Each wine should be accompanied on the list by a brief description (not cute or pseudo-hip, I hate that crap) and a recommendation as to some dishes on the menu it might match; the list should be user-friendly without being condescending. The idea is to keep 30 of the wines priced at $50 and under, 10 between $50 and $75, and three special occasion wines that go up to $100. It’s very important that people not open a wine list to be stunned with horror and dismay at rows of wines they could not afford without taking out a second (or third or fourth) mortgage or to be presented with a telephone book’s worth of daunting choices. Having only 43 wines, or say up to 50, on the list provides plenty of diversity for the diner and plenty of flexibility for the wine manager.
If I really were developing this list for a restaurant, I would hunt first for wines from small, family-owned and operated properties. I would try to have half of the wines come from estates run on some degree of sustainable and organic principles. I would want to offer diners wines of individuality but not so unusual that eating out was like going to school. I mean, it’s supposed to be about pleasure, not guilt.
Image of the vintage railroad wine list from A Taste of Wine and is copyright by fw190a8.