What Should Be the Goal of a Wine Menu?
We were dining at a top restaurant several months ago that I knew had a deep wine menu. This was a celebratory occasion so I really wanted some diversity in wine selection. I had my fill of restaurants thin in wine choices and in quality yet charging three times the retail price.
After we were seated and ordered a glass of Schramsberg sparking wine, the server brought over the dinner menu and the wine menu or perhaps a wine “bible” or novel would have been more accurate. It must have been two plus inches thick and made me feel like a kid in the candy store. The menu was segmented into style, varietal and region. For example, the first two pages alone were dedicated to “bubbly”: Champagne, sparking wine, Cava, Prosecco and more.
From there the list continued to build like a suspense novel, teasing you with anticipation to turn the page. How would this end? Well, it ended with several pages worth of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone. Can you say Latour, Margaux, Haut-Brion and Cheval Blanc? Or how about DRC, E. Guigal’s La-La’s and M. Chapoutier? But wait, there was an epilogue………….great Ports and Sauternes such as Chateau d’Yquem. This was a tome for the wine lover!
After choosing our wine and ordering the dinner, my mind returned to the extensive wine tome still sitting on the table, pondering how anyone without extensive wine knowledge might be expected to parse through the list and make an educated choice? I’m certain that the restaurant ownership would have replied that that’s what the sommelier staff is there for……….to assist you with a choice. I guess that’s fine if you have a reliable relationship with the staff and feel confident that their suggestions are directed toward quality and pairings rather than “pushing” a wine. On the other hand, if the tome wasn’t quite so overwhelming, perhaps it would be more useful for the customer. This begged the question, for me, what the goal of a wine menu should be? Is it to impress? Is it to educate? Is it to push wines that have been overstocked? Let me take a swing at this.
First, a wine menu should offer sufficient diversity in styles, varietals, region and price to satisfy the customer base. Translated that means an assortment of sparking wine/Champagne, whites, reds, and roses at bargain, fair value and even high prices. If a restaurant has only a few bottles of DRC or Lafite and it can move them at high prices to demanding customers, that’s ok. At least the wine is available. It would also be helpful if the menu were assembled such that at least some of the choices actually paired with the dishes offered. It’s frustrating for me to be served a tasty dish only to be limited by poorly structured wines.
Second, it’s folly not to offer a list of wines by the glass. There are times when a bottle is just a little too much in alcohol, price or both whereas a glass is just perfect. Unfortunately, my experience with most restaurants is that the wines offered by the glass are weak candidates. I certainly appreciate that some people are simply looking for a generic glass of wine but I think it would be nice also to have a list of higher ends by the glass. If that means a more expensive glass, then so be it. At least you would be guaranteed of a top quality glass of wine. We could take a good lesson from Le Mangevins restaurant in Tain l’Hermitage where we dined a couple of years ago during our Rhone video tour. They’re located right next door to the M. Chapoutier estate. They serve top Chapoutier wines by the glass. Yes, they’re expensive. But yes, they are to die for paired with their dishes.
Third, the list should be presented in some organized fashion so that it’s readable. Some wine menus intermingle categories of price, region and varietal, making it quite confusing, especially for a novice. While they may think that they’re being helpful, it actually can add confusion to the choices.
Fourth, the wine menu should compliment the culinary sophistication of the food. If the cuisine is elegant French, then the wine menu should include commensurate choices in all styles and varietals. If you check out the dining and wine menu choices of Daniel in New York, you’ll see what I mean. The dishes are phenomenally detailed and complex in aromatics, flavor and texture and so is the wine menu. On a much smaller scale, Le Mangevins is another great example.
Fifth, the wine menu should offer some wine education. And this is where I think that the majority of menus fall short. It’s interesting that food menu choices usually offer a description of the dish, down to the ingredients and flavors yet many wine menus pages resemble an old fashion rolodex………wines and price stacked one upon the next.
To be fair, many restaurants do segment their wines into region, varietal, price category and even weight: light, balanced and big. That’s a good start, but it’s only a first step and limited in information. To some, a big Cabernet based wine might conjure up big fruits while to others, it may symbolize one with lots of tannins. If the restaurant were to offer a sentence of two about the wines from a given region (i.e., Bordeaux) or a varietal (Chardonnay), that would help the customer better hone in on the category of wine that fits her or his palate while pairing well with the dish.
For example, under the category of “big reds,” would be the sub-category of Northern and Southern Rhone. The Northern Rhone description might be as follows:
“displaying distinct notes of dark plum, fig, olive, meat, smoke, bacon, licorice, garrigue, peppery spice and mocha notes with a scent of violets”
While for the Southern Rhone might be:
“scents of raspberry jam, boysenberry, pepper, cinnamon and cloves, smoke, meat and violets. ”
Under Chardonnays, there would be two subcategories: (a)unoaked or naked & (b) oaked, with a brief description for both.
I would also like to see a list of wine styles accompanying all of the food menu dishes. Next to an oyster or mussel dish, styles such as Chablis, Albarino and Muscadet could be mentioned. This would be very helpful to the customer.
Would this approach reduce or eliminate the contribution of the sommelier or wine manager? Not at all. In fact, now that the customer has settled upon the preferred category of wine, it opens up an opportunity for the consumer to resource the expertise of the sommelier on specific wines and producers. You might have settled upon a Chablis but are uncertain as to which producer you should go with. The sommelier can guide you on this. Everyone wins!
I remember fondly a long time retail clothing store back in my old stomping grounds outside of Boston proudly exclaiming in their radio ads “an educated consumer our best customer.” For so many years, they had it right. Seems to be a great philosophy.