Mr Grumpy: wine lists

Once a year I judge the finalists in Australia’s Wine List of the Year Awards. It’s fascinating to closely examine a handful of that country’s best wine lists, and always difficult to pick a winner.

What should a perfect wine list look like?

Wine selection should be guided by customer demand, not by a sommelier’s inflated ego.It should offer plenty of selection but the winning list is not necessarily the largest. Content is everything. Some of the lists carry 1,500-2,000+ different wines which is great, but how much time do you want to spend choosing a wine for dinner? Large lists need to be indexed and presented in a logical manner. Want a white burgundy? Go straight to that section and quickly find wines in your price category. Job done. I don’t think that descriptions of every wine are absolutely necessary – they cause excess clutter and a good waiter or sommelier should be able to offer any explanation.

Large lists tend to include a higher obsolescence factor than smaller lists. I identify wines that are probably in decline and deduct marks accordingly.

It’s good to see wines offered by the glass, particularly if the restaurant preserves opened wine under gas, such as the Coravin wine access system.

The wine selection is critically important. I award points for cleverly selected wines that cover all bases and are likely to accommodate all tastes. Some lists are weighted in favour of Australian wines, others celebrate the wines of Burgundy or Bordeaux. It’s fine if they want to develop a reputation as a “restaurant with a great Burgundy list” but I believe they should still offer a selection of wines for guests who don’t want to drink Burgundy. If a 2000-bottle wine list doesn’t include at least one Marlborough sauvignon blanc, for example, they lose points. To exclude a wine style that, when I last checked, represented 40% of Australia’s white wine market, is arrogant as well as commercially naïve.

Wine selection should be guided by customer demand, not by a sommelier’s inflated ego.

2 thoughts on “Mr Grumpy: wine lists”

  1. Jules van Costello says:

    “Wine selection should be guided by customer demand, not by a sommelier’s inflated ego.”

    I don’t disagree entirely but isn’t it up to the Sommelier (under guidance from Restaurant Management) to execute the vision of the restaurant rather than kowtow entirely to consumer demand. Isn’t this what we ask of chefs. I agree there are places where this work and places where it does not. If a restaurant has a particular vision around cuisine, sustainability or organics should that not be reflected by the wine list. Likewise isn’t the reason one goes to a somm-driven restaurant (like Auckland’s Apero) to taste the diverse, interesting things found by the somm. Obviously, this would not work in a more commercial, mainstream restaurant but just as we are glad not all wines are commercial and mainstream (even if you don’t like ’em all) shouldn’t we be glad not all restaurant wine lists are either. Isn’t it up to the restaurant to choose the wines that best fit them and if you don’t like it, it’s up to you not to go (or not go again).

    1. Mackenzie says:

      Absolutely agree with you on every point, Jules. Also, while it doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of a wine list, I would have thought stemware and serving temperatures should be taken into account when judging – what is the point of having an incredible wine list if you serve red wines too warm or fragrant pinot in a poor quality glass.

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