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May we see the wine list — please?

The evolution and interpretation of restaurant wine lists

Long before the rise of varietal wine, back labels, and globetrotting winemakers, restaurant wine lists were as simple to read as the wines that were engraved on the never changing lists, but those days are long gone in a province where the inhabitants are mad about wine.

For the unaware, B.C.’s annual per capita wine consumption is among North America’s highest, and if the measure was ever calibrated to include the consumption of "high quality table wine" we would easily lead the race.

Sophisticated and thoughtful describes many B.C. restaurant wine lists and they are as diverse as you’ll find anywhere in the world. We are not perfect but it’s fair to say we are adventurous and in some cases prepared to break the more annoying stereotypes that can plague the average run-of-the-mill list.

Still, there is a fine line between giving the customer the variety and depth they demand and totally confusing them with too many choices. A wine list that scares off as many customers as it attracts shouldn’t be the goal of any restaurateur, nor should winning wine lists competitions.

The focus should be on how your list relates to your regular clientele. That said you can't get away with just slapping anything together and calling it a wine list.

As someone frequently charged with reviewing and in some cases evaluating wine lists, I wanted to share with you some tips for interpreting the modern list with a view to helping you become an even savvier wine buyer in restaurants.

To begin, it’s fair to say the day of the ubiquitous "house" wine has ended. With so many interesting and inexpensive wines available to restaurants there is simply no reason to list the big, brand-name house wines.

Wine-by-the-glass is where the action is today. For many diners it has become the perfect pre-dinner solution before ordering that bottle of old faithful. Some restaurants have instituted a mini-taste program right on their wine list. "Tasters", as the two or three-ounce glasses are described, are a terrific way to get a sneak preview of the wine list at a minimum investment.

Another positive development of the modern-day B.C. wine list is the appearance of serious wines available by-the-glass. In the past by-the-glass selections were barely a step above the house wine, if in fact they weren’t the house wine.

Top-flight wine by-the-glass is the perfect choice if you are only going to have a glass for lunch or dinner. It’s a great opportunity to be able to experience the taste of signature wines at a fraction of their total cost. The price may seem steeped at $9 to $15 to $20 a glass but if the wine delivers and it matches the food it becomes the "experience" we all crave when dining out.

From by-the-glass most lists launched into a standard format that divides the white wine from the red, usually by grape variety. Other techniques include a more traditional listing of wine by country and region.

Here on the West Coast it has become fashionable to separate the so-called Old World wines of Europe from the New World efforts of the United States, Canada and the southern hemisphere. Within each country you may discover some regional sorting such as Italy — Piemonte — Barolo. Whatever the format, once you become familiar with the layout, finding most wines isn’t complicated.

Often, within the groupings, the selections are arranged by price. Others mix the order in the hope that you will read the entire list and not just the selections that most suit your budget. Still others have fixed prices, offering selections at various price points such as $19, $29, and $39. It is here that customers, with particularly fine-tuned pricing knowledge, can often find bottles sporting less than the full 100 per cent (and some times plus) mark-up.

Restaurants with more advanced wine programs normally offer a small range of specialty, high-end products either within the main selections or on a completely separate list. The list represents the best they have to offer, which means selections are limited and they tend to change often.

Now that you know what the lists might look like you need a buying strategy. If your grape knowledge is low to moderate choose white wine that is less than three years old – and the simpler the wine the younger it should be. Reds should have an extra year or two of age if you can find them, particularly the cabernet-based labels that tend to have drier tannins when young.

When it comes to what to spend my advice is to head for the middle of the list. The least expensive wines rarely offer value and it’s much the same at the top of the list where you will often pay a premium for the very best. Moving to the middle ground, some 20 per cent from the top and bottom of a wine list, almost always puts you in the best value zone.

Keep in mind that simple food is best with simple wine so don’t out think yourself, and if you need help, ask.

Now, may we see the wine list, please!

Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com

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