Having crafted wine lists for a living and thoroughly enjoying the exercise it involves, I cannot help but look at restaurant and bar offerings as pieces of art.Wine lists are the ultimate business card or expression of the establishment. If you think about it, you can be as eclectic as possible, or as familiar, depending on the attack. Restaurants and wine bars of a certain caliber tend to be restricted by expectations, but the truth is, we all have a clean canvas to start with. The size and texture of this canvas, let’s say, is limited by the concept, and in some cases, the wine/beverage director.
The type of paint or material used is the style of wine. “Mainstream” wines — higher production bottlings like Robert Mondavi Wines or Kendall Jackson — are the base colors and tones like forest green and sky blue.
Colors like red, turquoise and yellow are the regional wines that are harder to come across at a national level, like Whitehall Lane Wines, Antica Wines and Far Niente, for example.
The accent colors, with metallic finishes or bright tones, are the limited wines that are scarce throughout the country and sometimes exclusive, like Wilson Foreigner, Matthiason, Massican, Le Artishasic and Hudson wines.
The brush thickness accentuates the depth of those selections on the list, whether the offerings are based on obscure producers — that will have wide and long strokes that shine — or more comfortable choices.
Splattering in a Pollock fashion will be a few stand-outs or showpieces — offerings like Harlan or Scarecrow presented via Coravin — that are the draw for a lot of consumers.
Having layers and harmonious paintings can be pleasant for the spectators. Some paintings that rely on either the usage of only bright colors or only simple choices can be a deterrent for some.
Think about it like a movie: a Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie will have heavy action and a simple storyline, whereas a romantic film will have a heavy drama but no action. There are some exceptional examples like “Forrest Gump” or “Star Wars,” where the list will have it all, and there’s nothing more satisfying.
From my own experience, the art of balance in wine lists does exist. Sometimes lists awarded by a publication like the Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast push restaurants to excel.
I think most of us have walked into a restaurant or wine bar, browsed the selections and opted to jump to the beer list or even a non-alcoholic choice because either the list was not exciting or it was completely foreign. The average consumer without the Master Sommelier knowledge lacks the confidence to gamble on a wine choice when they don’t recognize the area where it’s from or the producer, let alone the style of wine.
Several establishments count on knowledgeable staff, in which case the consumer is held by the hand to help make decisions. But in some cases, the staff needs training themselves, leaving the person sitting in the chair or stool spinning their own wheels.
Magical moments happen when every person in the party finds their “cup of tea” when ordering wine. Let’s say it’s a family affair: Grandma is looking for a classic Zinfandel, the son and daughter-in-law are craving a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, and the grandchildren are excited about Abe Shoener’s or Matthew Rorick’s latest release. If all these are available by the glass, which happens often in our world, the dinner will be a success.
At the same time, if the same family walks in and finds an Old World-centric natural wine list dominated by uncommon varietals and producers, good luck pleasing Grandma!
Wine lists are all art pieces displayed to be admired and enjoyed by all levels of guests. Cheers.