Christopher S. Miller
During my career as a chef, I would read every restaurant review with my attention riveted on the culinary aspect of each. But as my career took a more vinous turn, I began to pay more attention to the parts of the review that described the wine list. They were tiny. And I mean tiny. In fact, the list was sometimes ignored entirely. This is often still the case today.
Twenty years ago such a slight to the wine list was just that, a slight. But today it makes no sense as customers, generally much more wine savvy than they were several decades ago, are spending more time with the list and are even making dining decisions based on a restaurant’s wine program. The one publication that gives wine lists and wine programs their due, in my opinion, is the Wine Spectator, and I even find fault there as the award system is a bit simple.
But for the purpose of this article let’s pick up where the critics leave off and focus on what constitutes a fine wine list or, more accurately, a fine wine program. What’s the difference? A lot.
First of all, a wine list is just one part of a restaurant’s wine program. Other parts that are equally important include glassware, staff ability, staff knowledge, storage, decanters and other tools of wine service. Have you ever ordered a fine bottle and watched in horror as the waitperson secured the bottle between their knees to remove the cork? Or worse, extracted the cork in more than a few attempts in two or more pieces? Have you wondered why there were bits of cork floating in your wine? Or that the last glass poured from a bottle had sludge at the bottom? All these might be a bit annoying but acceptable at home. They are not when you are paying restaurant pricing for a bottle of wine that should be accompanied by service equal to the mark-up.
In a previous article for Dan’s Papers, I described the duties of a sommelier (you can find it at noblewines.com under educational articles) so I’ll keep it simple here. A good sommelier can guide you through a restaurant’s list and make your dining experience complete. A bad one, well, can’t. I have taught Sommelier Classes on Long Island, including several in the Hamptons, for the last three years, so if you ask me which restaurants have the best sommeliers I should be able to answer. However, due to the seasonality of the economics out here there aren’t any restaurants that employ someone strictly as a sommelier. There are, however, several of my former sommelier students working as bar managers, restaurant managers, at wine stores and at wineries, but all those working in Hamptons restaurants are doing other duties as well. So asking for the sommelier might be met with a quizzical look or pause. Evaluating a restaurant’s wine program takes a bit more than just a look at the list and asking a few tough questions (and trust me – I’ve seen some doozies).
So Dan’s Wine Guide editor Susan Simm and I came up with the idea of “The List,” which will be a regular feature in Dan’s “Through the Grapevine” Wine Guides (you are reading the first Guide of the year – there are six total). This column will serve as a guide to fine East End restaurants’ wine programs. Not just the biggest or best, though they will certainly be acknowledged, but those that have potential and perhaps need a bit of adjustment or focus. Personally, I am not a fan of wine lists or programs lacking in focus. We will explore the area’s wine programs and divulge the secrets to getting the most out of each profiled restaurant’s wine experience, be that by jumping into a large list or digging deep into an experienced and knowledgeable staff.
The goal of this column is to give wine-conscious restaurant customers a bit of a guide to help them feel confident when ordering that special wine when the time is right, and to know that when you spend money on a wine that is a treasure to you that it is being treated that way when served. It may matter more when the stakes are high – sludge in a glass of your 1982 Chateau Lafite is simply not acceptable – but neither are bits of cork bobbing in a far more modest 2004 California Zin.