Wine lists at restaurants

It’s interesting how often wine lists in restaurants give the lie to the suggestions of quality that the eateries are trying to convince you of. Money spent on fine fittings, enormous rentals to hold beautiful positions, a menu that boasts fresh this and the best that – and a wine list that is not only founded utterly on commercial wines but usually littered with errors in spelling.

How difficult can it be to hold the bottle in front of you and spell the name right? It is also the case that the vintage is an arbitrary number on the bottle for many wine lists (although its omission often also unmasks the restaurants intention to list the wine in perpetuity for convenience’s sake).

Lists made up solely of big brands show a complete lack of imagination when it comes to wine, or a simple lack of interest. With no-one on the floor with the knowledge to sell the bottles, you don’t want to sit with relatively unknown labels. Play it safe. The disparity is most glaring when the menu declares its intention to dazzle you with culinary delight. Adjectives abound, organic is flaunted, and prices soar. The wine list hobbles along, shackled by “Cape Rieslings” and dried out reds.

A few weeks ago, at Franko’s in Plettenberg Bay, I was faced with a menu that declared its intention never to overcook fish again and to bring me Spanish tomatoes and Danish feta with young asparagus. I accepted, and turned to the wine list that suggested it was solely founded on the superb wines of Franschhoek, which was a brave and rather curious start. Turns out it wasn’t even true. Between Ashton Winery’s humble offerings, Springfield’s usual offerings and Thelema’s top end offerings, I think there may have been two Franschhoek wines.

In the mood for a good red, there seriously was no choice on this list except the priciest Thelemas. So perhaps the establishment got what it wanted, but I was immediately suspicious of the whole experience. Wine lists tell you about detail, and that is famously where the big man is supposed to reside.

By contrast, the eccentric and sparkly Firefly Eaterie in Knysna has a list that was clearly selected by persons that wanted to bring variety and joy to the diner, at decent prices. The less obvious list perhaps forces the staff to have to work a little harder, but this means more time with the diner, more interaction, and probably a more satisfying dining experience. The wine list – how it is selected, presented and served – tells you a good deal about the true intentions of the establishment and what you, the diner, mean to it.

2 Replies to “Wine lists at restaurants”

  1. preach man! the fact is that few restaurants actually take the trouble to source the wines they have on offer themselves. 90% of the time the wine lists are the result of direct sales from winery representatives.

    knowledge of food should go hand in hand with a basic knowledge of wine. it’s pure consideration for the end customer.

  2. It’s true that restaurants rely on distribution reps and winery reps, and take little interest themselves. This is why lists end up looking like “one-stop shops” – especially for the bigger producers who have a wide range to offer.

    I like what you say about the consumer, this is who it should suit, not the lazy restaurateur.

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