What makes a good restaurant wine list? Do I hear you say “when it’s cheap?”. I am sorry to say that I think the practise of subsidising the menu through the wine list is here to stay. With very few exceptions, restaurants mark wines up 300% or more and offer comparatively little in exchange – not even storage or maturation, as they order only a few bottles at a time.
Is a good wine list a long one? No, although it is more likely to be better than a short one by sheer number of chances to hit the sweet spot, a wine you really want. Shorter lists can have these sweet-spots if they are well-chosen and/or interesting. Well-chosen can mean different things, depending on the style of the restaurant. Broadly, for a fish spot, a predominance of whites makes sense – and the reverse for a steakhouse. Not just plugging in the same generic list.
Well-chosen also means more particular attention to the wines on the list, and in my books that means wines that have been chosen to suit the menu and the place and that show some imagination. Interestingly, you may not always find this “well-chosen” attribute in a big list. A restaurant may have a bible of a list, but be populated by all (and that’s no exaggeration) of the usual and “fashionable” suspects, but very few very unusual or quirky suspects.
A good list shows depth of knowledge. The start of a good list is the turn away from one that is dominated by the big players, or generated by them. Any list with a producer’s logo on the cover is most often the sign that this will be an average to poor list. Depth of knowledge means that the proprietor has chosen to look into wine and to come up with some personal options, and not only the rep’s “choice”.
For example, in the bible list I referred to, there was a “garagiste” section, where “hand-crafted” (as opposed to machine-engineered?) wines were listed. While this is welcome, I also want my garagiste wines to be good wines, not just to fill this category, which was the unfortunate case here. Knowing that their garagiste picks were duds made me uncomfortable about the rest of the list and the minds behind it and although it was big enough to offer joy, it did not make me rate it a good list.
It’s better in my eyes not to have all the categories but to offer interesting wines, than to strive to offer each variety. Lord knows we have many hundreds of producers, and a little exploration will easily create a personal list, where focus and story is more important than comprehensiveness.