Once again the wild social web has given me a topic to expound on. The past week or so has had some very loud and lively posts and even print articles about what a wine list should be. First person to start the yelling this time was Steven Cuozzo in his New York Post column, Free Range with a rant called Sour Grapes that had a secondary title of: Would you like whine with that? Our critic is sick of pretentious vino that expects you to do all the work
I write a monthly wine article for the Long Island Pulse in New York and I’d love the attention that Mr. Cuozzo’s article got. I know that plenty of wine list writers have weighed in with their displeasure and even Eric Asimov of the New York Times got in the mix. Great stuff. Then came (not in any particular order) W. Blake Gray and Jon Bonne of SF Gate and Jeremy Parzen of Do Bianchi along with I am sure plenty of others I have missed (including my own from few years ago). By the way, Jeremy has a wonderful new name for Mr. Asimov: Eric the Red.
The restaurant that Steve laments about is in the Williamsburg part of Brooklyn, which might even be part of his lament. But how many wine consumers have felt this way while looking at a wine list: “Ordering wine can be a nuisance even in the easiest case. You’re making a pricey decision that will affect everyone’s meal. You poke through the list under guns of time and noise in an under-lit room while thirsty friends beg you to get on with it.” I took this wonderful quote directly from Steve’s article and I have felt this way on so many occasions.
So I did a bit of research on Reynards of Williamsburg in Brooklyn and found that they don’t even have a website. As a former Sommelier, and Wine Educator I often get e-mails with a link to a restaurants wine list asking me for help. Reynards doesn’t even allow for that and according to Steve has a fairly diverse and yet esoteric wine list. It’s an all French wine list, but I don’t think you’ll find any Jadot Pouilly-Fuisse or Chateau Greysac on the list. You know something a touch familiar. I get it, let’s be different, set yourself apart, yadda yadda, but aren’t these businesses trying to sell stuff? If the wine list (or program I hope) scares much of the cliental, then what’s the point. Is the customer guilted into buying a bottle of wine that they have never heard of? If they do, what are the chances it will in any way resemble something they either expected or have tasted in the past. Will it satisfy them?
As a consultant and wine educator, I always want to bring people from the obvious and commercial to the more interesting and hand-crafted or small, family owned. But I realize that I can’t easily do this if I don’t have some of the familiar wines as references. If you tell me a particular wine is as good as Opus One 2007 and yet I don’t see that wine on the list or shelf (retail) then why should I believe you? If you don’t carry the wine how can you tell me that another is just as good or better. I think this concept or philosophy goes back to the old view of the cartoonish Sommelier or Maitre d’Hotel looking down their nose at the diner and daring them to ignore a wine suggestion.
Trust me I don’t like wine by numbers and I don’t like using any of my wine dollars to support the massive spirit conglomerates that are stifling diversity in wine and the small artisan & family producers. But let’s take the notion of wine selection back down to the small group of non wine geeks with one geek trying to push them into geekdom. The non geeks are a resistant group, they have some appreciation for the knowledge of the geek but ridicule him and try to poke holes in his attempts to bring the non-geeks up a few rungs. Hey let’s admit it, wine is complicated and complicated things can be scary. Want more people to drink interesting wine, don’t make it scary. Simplify it. Don’t throw the pacifier away and have the babies scream themselves to sleep the next several nights. Help the baby get used to not having the pacifier, gently move them away from it. With wine it’s just so easy to go back to the bank of brands with names like Cavit, Kendall-Jackson, Cupcake and the like. So my theory is go gentle, allow some brands to guide the newbie wine consumer into the more complex. If ‘fake brands’ (apologies to K-J, not the other 2) can lead to real brands like Chablis, Champagne, Bordeaux, Napa, Sonoma then can’t those real brands lead to smaller brands like Walla Walla, Sta Rita Hills, Muscadet, Cavanese Rosso and the like? Maybe Reagan shoulda been in the wine industry where I think ‘trickle down’ works.