So Long a Wine List-So Short a Food Menu!

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Screen-shot-2010-06-24-at-5.01.32-PMI am presented with a leather bound, encyclopaedic volume and the sommelier stands beside me itching to tell me about a hidden gem of a wine secreted within his considerable wine list. The last time I held a book that large I brought it home and neither the librarian nor author followed me to tell me I should turn to page 126 because that’s where the hero gets shot dead!

It is a proven fact that too much choice destroys good or effective decision making (think about when you’re drunk and gawking at the enormous takeaway menu of a Chinese Takeaway), so why do I still encounter these substantial wine lists. Why does anyone believe that a list of 80 wines is not “extensive” and when well selected provides more than enough sufficient alternatives to cater for a wide spectrum of flavour profiles.

One occasionally comes across the modern day equivalent; a pretentious I-pad containing a wine list, it will be handed to me by an “I-sommelier” a person who is completely disinterested and unengaged with their customer. There are drop down tabs with information on the winemaker, terroir, climate and other pointless waffle that will just serve to complicate the otherwise enjoyable process of selecting a bottle of wine.

A long wine list will inevitably contain undrunk donkeys that will die slowly and be foisted by the accountant pressured sommelier onto unsuspecting diners. The tasting notes have exhausted the thesaurus and great creativity is applied. You find words like “invigorating” and “uplifting” to describe wines. Clearly the desperate sommelier in an attempt to avoid using citrus, limes, lemons and grapefruit again was inspired by reading the front of his shower gel.

Then by comparison you are horrified to open a leather bound folder with a simple, single sheet for a food menu with less than a dozen dishes to choose from.

If a restaurant carries such a large selection of wines, where do they store all this wine? Yes they might have a cellar but a large cellar area is not common in times of high rents. If so much capital is tied up in wine stock, what part of the restaurant’s business is suffering a lack of capital. In many cases, the choice of food! What other corners are being cut? Fewer or substandard ingredients, untrained staff, a low grade chef with a pock marked employment history, cleaning staff perhaps! Is my food a frozen buy in because every last penny and square inch is devoted to someone’s obsession with wine? Is the ethos of the restaurant to earn an easier and more substantial margin on liquor and so to focus nakedly on that revenue stream?

Who manages? An extensive wine list will need time and attention, this person is going to have clout with suppliers, thus their recommendation could be influenced by factors other than the customers experience or satisfaction, if in the back of their mind, for example, is an incentive golfing trip to Florida based on sales of a specific Chilean Cabernet.

But of course sir! the Chilean Cabernet would be an excellent choice with your seabass!”

Most meals in restaurants are social occasions with passing references to the food and wine diminishing as the evening progresses and the conversation develops. I am certain that you’ll hardly enjoy your evening any less if the wine list has dropped from 1500 wines to 150 wines. However if you feel forced into a compromised choice of two or three dishes based on your inherent dislikes, you feel almost discriminated against and understandably somewhat bitter as it will take away from your enjoyment of the occasion.

This is something a restauranteur should consider as every diner today is a critic with instantaneous access to social media.