What Is Cutting-Edge in Restaurant Wine Today?
by Randy Caparoso
What is cutting-edge in restaurant wine programs today?
This question almost begs a look back twenty five, thirty years ago when I first started in the business, and was literally hand scripting 70, 80 selection wine lists, switching out pages of glass selections and new fangled California "boutique" wines on a weekly basis. Hard to believe, but White Zinfandel was considered an innovation in those days, and Riesling spätlesen, Sauvignon Blanc and even Chenin Blanc sold better than Chardonnay.
In the mid-1980s computer technology came roaring out of the box; and although at first, "computer printout" wine list pages looked pretty funny, it was way cool, and it gave our restaurants a freedom of flexibility (up to the minute changes and additions!) that was as refreshing as opening a window.
So what's cutting-edge in 2008? First, the "cellar" itself no longer needs to be somewhere off the restaurant floor. Just as exhibition kitchens in the center of dining rooms have revved up fascination in the culinary arts, glassed temperature controlled cellars placed in the front of dining rooms, or in wine displays running right down the middle between the tables have a higher percentage chance of stimulating similar fascination in wine.
Hands-on accessibility to bottles works for consumers in retail stores, where customers can pick up and examine bottles, and carry it themselves to the cash register. Why not in restaurants? Is there any law against suggesting to guests that they might want to get up and walk into the cellar or look at bottle displays next to their tables, lovingly touch them, make your selection and bring it to the table yourself? Just as we are breaking down the barriers between food sources and guests, it wouldn't hurt to do the same thing with wine.
But the key components are still the menu and the wine list. Why is something seemingly so easy so often difficult? As captivated as consumers today are by cooking and chefs, specific wine suggestions on food menus may be the single most significant thing you may do to increase wine sales and overall business. There may be obstacles; like too many dishes crammed onto a menu to allow for wine suggestions, or menus changed too often to keep up with making sound wine recommendations but it's worth the effort to overcome them. Simply put, today's food conscious guests care more about the best wine for their dish than the best wine to drink.
Then there is the selection process itself. What are the restaurants successful from both critical and sales perspectives doing today? For one, they are stocking wine for quality not quantity. Do you honestly think a list of 50 Chardonnays, most of which taste pretty much the same, is more impressive to the contemporary consumer than just six or twelve which truly represent distinctive quality, value, affinity with food (your food, not that of the French or Chinese restaurant down the street), and your personal taste? Variety and choice are important; but in the end, most guests prefer one "perfect" choice over all the selections in the world.
Then there are wine lists that actually "talk": consumers in retail stores, who attend tastings or visit wineries are no different than restaurant guests interested in ordering wine they want wine lists that say something, dammit. Lists that give them a hint about the taste of this wonderful little Grüner Veltliner you've discovered, or that incredible high powered Cabernet Sauvignon that only one or two other restaurants in your town were able to get. Where's the Cabernet from, who's the celebrity winemaker behind it, is it fruit driven and ready to pop or is it massive in both tannin and flavor and thus better off served with your lamb or steak?
Finally, there are things like the "Progressive Wine List" formatting, which endeavors to list wines in some kind of order, like "mild" to "strong" or "light" to "heavy". But is such a system enough for today's consumers? I don't think so. Just like there is no substitute for well trained managers and servers who can stand at the table and talk about wines in specific terms, there is no substitute for wine lists that also contain compelling descriptions, regaling guests with information and entertaining them at the same time. No simple "list" can do that. And besides, the biggest flaw of so-called "Progressive" wine lists is that wines rarely end up being listed in true order for the average consumer simply because sensory judgment as to whether a wine is "milder" or "stronger" in flavor than another wine is just about the most inexact science there is.
But if your wine list is, in fact, organized according to "Progressive" standards, it might not be necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I would suggest sharpening the order, but also adjusting your focus on wines of singularity rather than establishment of a complete, representative "list." Given the fact that guests are quite a bit more savvy and sophisticated than before, they are more likely to be wowed by a discovery of a single wine "gem" never experienced before, rather than another long, dreary list of the same ol' brands, even if they are listed in some kind of progression.
So that's progress, at least in my book. There is no "easy" way to manage an effective contemporary wine program. You have to take the time, do the work yourself, summon up all the creative abilities in yourself and your staff, and usually you have to do it over and over again until you get it right. Same as it ever was, I guess, in many ways.
(Originally published in Sante magazine, Oct. 2008)