It’s an article of faith—or at least expectation—among wine lovers, especially Americans, that a restaurant wine list be extensive, comprehensive, encyclopedic. I note “especially Americans” because we love choice. Really, it’s the American way in so many things.
Now, there’s no arguing against choice. (I am an American, after all.) Yet I can’t help but think that increasingly we’re drowning in choice, and that far from learning more and better from all wines from everywhere, we might be better served by wine lists with greater focus.
This thought occurred after exhuming a bottle of Catherine & Pierre Breton Bourgueil Les Perrières 2005 from my cellar. It is a spectacularly fine Loire red, composed exclusively of Cabernet Franc. Really, it could take its place among the finest red Burgundies, Napa Cabs or red Bordeaux—in its fashion, of course.
That experience made me think: Outside of the Loire Valley itself, why haven’t I ever seen a restaurant wine list that concentrates exclusively on Loire wines?
Think about it for a minute. The Loire has it all: sparkling wines, dry whites from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne (Muscadet); extraordinary sweet wines from Chenin Blanc; and an array of ever-improving reds from Cabernet Franc, Malbec (called Côt in the Loire Valley), Pinot Noir and highly localized indigenous red grapes such as Grolleau and Pineau d’Aunis. Such an array ought to keep both diners and sommeliers busy for years exploring the riches (and good deals) from the Loire Valley.
Now, obviously we don’t need or want every restaurant we patronize to confine their lists narrowly. That said, do we really want every restaurant we patronize to offer us the world? Is that really necessary to our wining and dining pleasure?
I would submit that if sommeliers insist, as they often do, that their great desire is to educate their clients, they can do so more effectively by creating lists of greater focus than by practicing the currently fashionable wine encyclopedism.
Consider what might occur if you were faced with a wine list of only Loire wines. Or Spanish wines. Or southern Italian wines. Or Australian wines. Or only wines from Washington or Oregon or Hungary or California. Let’s say that one or another of these regions or countries is terroir incognita for you. Now what?
You know the answer as well as I: You’d turn to the sommelier and say, “This is all new to me. What do you recommend?” Why, we might all learn something. And, ironically, broaden our wine world more than we might with a more conventionally comprehensive list.
The point here is not to confine one’s choices such as might be the case with, say, an all-Riesling or an only Napa Cabernet list. The trick is the restaurant finding an emphasis that admits an array of tastes and styles yet still retains a sharp focus and—this is important—reflects a real passion on the part of the restaurant. (We almost see this today with Burgundies; some restaurant lists are now so Burgundy-intensive that if the other wines on the list were omitted altogether you’d hardly miss them.)
I can already hear restaurateurs recoiling from this idea, saying, “We’d lose customers. My clients want to have choices.” I don’t doubt that. Yet with their menus, many restaurants today do precisely what I’m proposing for wine: They focus on a particular cuisine. Does anyone going to a French restaurant expect chicken and waffles? Do you even expect to find French wines at an Italian restaurant—or vice-versa? Of course not.
Strange as it sounds, it’s too easy to offer up a “greatest hits” wine list, with a little of this, that and the other (worldly) thing. Where’s the passion? Where’s the individual insight? Where’s the evangelism? (The one great exception to this that springs to mind is “natural” wines. Like them or not, you do see with natural wines what might be called “wine lists of belief.”)
Anyone who was in the New York wine scene in the 1970s can well remember how radical it was—radical, I tell you—when the then-great Four Seasons restaurant actively spotlighted and promoted California wine to its patrons. It was a beacon of wine adventurism of a sort different than today’s dilettantish pursuit of wine esotericism.
Isn’t a wine list of belief what we should want from our favorite restaurants? And for our part as customers, shouldn’t we welcome being led rather than swaggering in and declaring, “Give me what I want.”
We’re far more willing to be led/instructed/enlightened with the food on our plates, aren’t we? Think of what we all could learn from a well-chosen list of nothing but Loire wines. Sign me up.