Obscure wines on wine lists

Esoteric wine lists are very common in Sydney restaurants today. (Photo: La Buona Vita website)

The scene is a small, fashionable, slightly quirky and quite highly regarded ‘ethical, sustainable’ restaurant in suburban Sydney*, which scored 15 points and one chef’s hat in the current Fairfax Good Food Guide.

Obscure wines may be OK, but they demand a knowledgeable sommelier or waiter who can explain them to mystified diners.

Two of us were dining and I was driving home (mainly because suitable public transport was virtually impossible), which meant we’d be drinking by-the-glass wines. (Our request for BYO was turned down.)

We ordered food. Next, the wine list.

There were 17 dry whites, five of which were described as ‘natural’, and two as organic or biodynamic. There were four whites by the glass, none of which I wanted to order.

Rosé: there were six wines, including two ‘natural’ and one organic/biodynamic. I recognised none of them.

Reds: there were 19 wines, four ‘natural’, six organic/biodynamic, and four more that I knew to be in the natural wine camp, but could not vouch for their quality. There were four wines by the glass, two of which I could order with some confidence.

So we drank a glass of each: a BK Wines pinot noir and a Bondar Junto Grenache Shiraz Mourvèdre. The latter was especially delicious.

But the fact remains that this is a totally unsatisfactory wine offering. The food was excellent and deserved better accompaniment.

The breakdown for the total of 48 white, red, sparkling and rosé was just 16 wines that I recognised and would feel safe ordering, but, of these, only two were available by the glass – and we drank them as I’ve mentioned.

This kind of esoteric wine list is very common in Sydney restaurants today. Indeed, I would venture that it has become the norm.

Obscure wines may be OK, but they demand a knowledgeable sommelier or waiter who can explain them to mystified diners. At one point I asked for some input from our waiter, and he replied that he was new and didn’t know much about Australian wine. There was no sommelier on the floor.

I wish I could say that this was a rare experience dining out in Sydney, but unfortunately, it’s not. A week rarely goes by that I don’t hear similar complaints from people I meet, many of whom have above-average wine knowledge.

*The restaurant was Three Blue Ducks, in Bronte.

6 thoughts on “Obscure wines on wine lists”

  1. Greg Kuriata says:

    I have long considered obscurity on wine lists to be centred totally around the ability to apply massive markups without consumer awareness.

  2. Noel says:

    Totally relate to the ‘obscure wine list’ experience in Sydney and would love to know why this phenomenon exists with prevalence. I’ve cynically reached similar conclusions to DE. I like to think I have a broad producer knowledge so when I sit confronted by a 15-20+ wine list with zero recognition my usual emotion is a combo of bewilderment and suspicion!

  3. kg@matilda.net.au says:

    I can see a solution to this problem. First, it is surely a good thing for restaurants to showcase smaller and obscure producers who can’t get their wines onto the shelves of major outlets — providing the wine selection team or sommelier are succeeding in selecting appropriately interesting and quality wines. Secondly, restaurants cannot be expected to have an experienced wine person available 24/7. I never hesitate to ask for a taste of whatever’s available by the glass, and I often ask directly how long the wine has been open (I actually prefer riesling that has been opened the previous day).
    Solution: whoever is in charge of the wine selection needs to write or record a short descriptive message or video which can be used either, to coach the staff, or could be directly accessible as a supplementary printout, or via the Internet. They would only have to put a QR code on the menu and people could point their device at it and hear the sommeliers comments.

    1. Bob Colman says:

      Good idea

  4. David Everett says:

    Very true. “Esoteric,” in this context means ‘wank’. Unknown vineyards offer the restaurant the opportunity to charge big dollars with no reference points for the diners. Marketing terms like ‘natural’ add yet more opportunity for $.

    1. Bob Colman says:

      I do flinch a little when I see the wine prices at restaurants but I’m more likely to spend my dollars on unknown, hard to get wines than commercial well known ones I could (but don’t as I don’t drink them) get cheaply if I hunted around. Also, “natural” is not a marketing term.

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