Can you imagine picking-up a restaurant’s wine list only to find a selection of Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir for the reds along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc representing the whites? It seems in this situation your only real choices are which producer or price suits your mood.
Is this any different than a men’s store offering only a selection of grey suits and white shirts or a lunch counter serving only Coke and Sprite for your beverage?
It’s widely acknowledged that wine is produced from several thousand grape varieties in a multitude of growing areas around the world and in numerous stylistic expressions. While a majority of these wines are not available in our local areas, many of them are, thanks to accomplished sommeliers and adventurous retailers. I have always been a strong proponent of having an array of wine choices available whether on a restaurant’s list or the shelves of a wine shop.
So why do some restaurants and merchants limit our choices to only the handful of the “tried and true?”
Unfortunately, that was the premise drawn by James Lawrence in his April 19 Wine-Searcher.com post, “No Safety in Numbers for Wine Grapes.” So let’s take a look at Lawrence’s opinions and some others taking an opposing view.
Lawrence cites the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) in his post as saying, “Cabernet Sauvignon – excluding table grapes – is still the world’s most popular variety [followed by Merlot and Tempranillo]. The 13 most popular grapes [account for] a third of the vine area of the world.”
With this in mind, Lawrence then suggests that “… diversity in wine terms is a bad idea. At best it’s an indulgence of the trade and at worst it may lead to commercial suicide. It is also patronizing. Do consumers really need to be told that they should be expanding their palates?”
Under the sub-heading of “Let them eat Spam,” Lawrence continues his train of thought but does quote an opposing opinion by New York-based sommelier Raj Vaidya who wisely states, “We – sommeliers and merchants who actually care about their customers – are not offending customers by our ‘indulgent’ habits of tasting and sharing new wines, we are helping those of them who are truly interested.”
Expanding on Vaidya’ remarks, I also recently read an article in “The Buyer” (a British website geared to the restaurant sector), “How Stefan Neumann MS gets guests to discover new wines.” Neumann is Director of Wine at London’s prestigious Mandarin Oriental Hotel who says, “I love discovering things, especially when you work in the world of wine, to taste as much as you can.”
Neumann takes pride in introducing his diners to different and often obscure wines by “transporting the customer…and taking them to the place…” In his view, sommeliers (and retail merchants) can interest their customers to a new world of wine by not just talking about the wine itself and how much they’ll enjoy it with their chosen dish(es). But more importantly by painting a visual picture through “colourful and wonderful words” describing the wine’s place of origin, producer history and how that specific wine assumes its role at the meal or event being planned.
There’s no doubt Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Merlot account for some of the world’s finest wines either standing alone or as a significant part of multi-varietal blend. But neither of them presents a good fit for every occasion.
Somehow, I cannot see even the most prestigious Cabernets pairing with a summer barbecue of ribs, chili and chicken nor can I see a beautiful Chardonnay as the best choice for a casual picnic at the beach. But there are countless varietally based or blended wines outside that “top 13” that would graciously fill the bill for either of these situations and many more. In these cases and others, I cannot view diversity in the negative as Lawrence suggests, but rather as an appealing approach voiced by both Vaidya and Neumann.
Only through a search for diversity did some of today’s top-selling wines come to market. Cabernet Sauvignon did not gain its current popularity from California until the 1950s and the Chardonnay revolution came even later. Only in the last few decades did we observe the growing popularity of Pinot Grigio, Grúner Veltliner, Prosecco, Malbec, Grenache, dry Rosé and countless others as they began to appear on wine lists and retail shelves.
In fact, Pinot Noir was far behind the field of other well-known red varietal bottlings until the 2004 release of “Sideways.” The film also derailed the ascent of Merlot launched by the 1991 “60 Minutes” segment about the “French Paradox” that promoted red wine as part of a heart-healthy diet.
Most likely (weather permitting), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay will continue as leaders in global planted acreage due to their ability to adapt and grow under a wide range of varying climatic and soil conditions (albeit with widely diverse quality and stylistic presentations). However, a myriad other varieties will remain true to their indigenous sites, produced in comparatively small quantities for local consumption and modest export capabilities.
Sommeliers and progressive chefs continue to lead the parade when it comes to offering an imaginative range of vinous choices to pair with their innovative cuisine. The tried and true category remains an important part of most wine lists but relative unknowns and beneath-the-radar selections also occupy principle positions and are available for those willing to explore.
Diversity in wine selection is not “a bad idea” or “an indulgence of the trade” as Lawrence asserts but rather an effort at “helping those … who are truly interested” as expressed by Vaidya. Choice is a benefit and exploration can be rewarding.
For the health of the industry and enjoyment of consumers, I look to the creative thinking by those in restaurants and retail shops rather than following the marketing/manufacturing philosophy of Henry Ford on the introduction of the Model T – “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.”
Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.
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