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Is there a future for wine list competitions?

My column criticising award-winning restaurant wine lists received a great deal of attention last week, with reaction cleanly divided between a handful of Victorian sommeliers and the odd wholesaler and restaurateur who sided with them (who opposed the article) and the vast majority who strongly supported my critique.

Dozens of emails, text messages and phone calls were supportive. Social media, especially Twitter, was more divided, but most forms of communication were strongly approving. It’s clear the article hit a nerve.

The most common response was from winemakers who are having enormous difficulty, not only getting their wines into restaurants, but even getting a hearing with sommeliers. The second group were regular restaurant-goers – non-trade and non-industry people, who also feel mystified, alienated and ignored when they go to these top-end restaurants and are faced with a massive wine list full of obscure and largely imported wines.

I would like to add a few comments as, although the article was lengthy, I couldn’t say many of the things I would like to say on this subject.

  1. I am very supportive of sommeliers and restaurant wine lists, and have been for more than 20 years, and there are many good things to say about these wine lists. But they have all been said many times over, including by me, and the time is ripe for the alternative. It is breathtaking how easily some sommeliers become upset and defensive. It’s difficult not to conclude that some of them are spoilt.
  2. I am no enemy of sommeliers. Good sommeliers are a great resource and mostly, they’ve improved the wining and dining experience immensely. And wine list competitions have helped improve our wine lists enormously, especially in the first decade or so of Australia’s Wine List of the Year, which began 20 years ago when things were relatively dire. I’ve nothing but praise for the likes of John Clancy, Franck Moreau, Kim Bickley, Matt Young, Greg Plowes and Jerry Jones. The good sommeliers not only know their stuff and can answer any question you throw at them, and will do their best to find you a wine you’ll enjoy drinking, they know how to interact with people and be welcoming, as opposed to intimidating. They know when to appear at your table and when to leave; much of the time, they oil the wheels of a great evening without you even noticing.
  3. The wine list competitions – and I have to plead guilty here as I’m still a sometime judge – are partly to blame for the epic wine lists of this country. Why? Because, for a number of years now, they’ve been rewarding the biggest wine lists and the wine lists which are over-loaded with rare, obscure and expensive wines, not to mention lists that include ‘orange’ wines, ‘natural’ wines and feature-pages of Jura, Etna, Slovenian and Georgian wines, etc. I hasten to add that I’m only one of a large team of judges these days, and my voice is probably lost in the chorus.
  4. Wine list awards are still performing a good service and their results are a good guide for the restaurant-goer – especially at the lower levels: the 1 and 2-glass award winning restaurants. These are NOT the wine lists that I’m gunning for. Other valuable categories are the special awards for small wine lists, wine-bars and bistros, etc. And many of the 3-glass lists are also excellent in my opinion, balanced and accessible and catering properly to the clientele.

The main point I want to make here, is that I think it’s time for a new kind of competition, which evaluates the total wine service experience of a restaurant. Wine lists are just one of the components of restaurant wine service, and they’re not even the most important component. Wine list awards are open to abuse: yes, they are audited in a limited way, but frankly there is little to stop people drawing up a fantasy wine-list without having all of the bottles in stock. The experience of being a diner in the restaurant is what must eventually be embraced by some sort of new award.

Such a competition would involve a team of people: each restaurant would be visited by an inspector who would spend an evening there as a customer. They would judge the establishment on all aspects of wine service: the staff and their service, wine list, cellar, temperature of wines, glassware, the whole bit. They could even perform an audit – asking to see a random sample of bottles from the list to ensure they’re in stock.

Restaurant critics are paid to go and review restaurants for the newspapers and magazines, why not apply the same principle to wine? No doubt many will say it would be too expensive. But surely, wine has become so important in the restaurant experience that it now deserves to be evaluated fully and properly. The reply will be: “Who can afford to do that? It would take an enormous budget”. But if there is the will, it can be done, I’m certain. The question is: does the will exist? 

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