Some are massive. Of biblical proportions. Others are almost flat — as slim as a sheaf of parchment. Some offer an evening of endless pleasure, while many can be glossed over in only a single glance. If you’re lucky, you may find an example that borders on a work of art, carefully tended to and masterfully sculpted. Mostly, however, you’ll find yourself dealing with something rather ordinary: serviceable, but hardly exciting. Yet you make do, because you really don’t have much of a choice.
After all, it’s just a wine list.
Just a wine list. This is no doubt the sentiment of many a restaurateur. At least it must be, given the sorry state of some I’ve seen of late. (Wine lists, not restaurateurs. Okay, not many restaurateurs). With dining establishments being given “makeovers” left, right and centre, you’d think that wine-list makeovers would also be in vogue. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Too many restaurants appear to treat wine as a condiment. “Fresh pepper with that? A little grated Parmesan? How ’bout some wine?”
Is putting together and maintaining a wine list that reflects more than what is simply in stock and popular at the corner liquor store that difficult a task?
Tom Lexovsky, owner/sommelier of The Superior in downtown Toronto knows a thing or two about wine lists. In fact, his establishment has won no fewer than ten awards of distinction including five Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence and five awards from Ontario’s Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA). So far.
Lamenting the laminated
“Unless you have a ton of dough to start with, a decent wine list doesn’t happen overnight,” Lexovsky warns. “For us and I’m sure many other small places, it’s a work in progress that has taken years to get to where it is today.”
He also feels that the dreaded “laminated list” is a sure sign the establishment is less than enthusiastic about wine. A simple paper list generated as needed and by-the-glass specials listed on a chalk board or read out along with the dinner specials offer more flexibility than anything fancy or plastic-coasted. “Our list changes weekly,” Lexovsky reveals, adding, “I don’t really care what the list looks like, just so long as I can get something decent by the glass.”
Wines are sold by the glass at The Superior, in six-ounce as well as three-ounce pours to encourage sampling. Three cheers. And there is decent stuff to be had, including a delicious Kurt Darting Durkheimer Hochbenn Riesling Kabinett 2003 from the Rheinpfaltz. “I think we’ve carried this through about nine vintages,” says Lexovsky. “We love it!”
And now for something completely different
Size, as it is sometimes (perhaps rarely) said, isn’t everything. Anyone with enough coin can go out and buy a bargeload of wine and boast a hundred-page catalogue. While the optics of such a tome can be impressive, it can also be confusing for customers. Too many choices often make choosing a wine difficult.
A half-dozen carefully selected whites and reds plus at least one decent rosé and a sparkling wine, a dry sherry and a couple of stickies should do it. Make sure that at least three whites and an equal (or greater) number of reds are offered by the glass (consider both three- and six-ounce pours). And please, oh please, think about the food you are serving when cobbling together your list. A tapas place without a single Spanish wine? An oyster joint without a Sauvignon Blanc? I’ve been to both. What Shiraz has to do with Spain or heavily planked New World Chardonnay with briny bivalves, I have no idea.
All said and done, people typically go out for a meal to experience something they can’t or won’t get at home. Similarly, a wine list should offer something outside of the vinous equivalent of the bestseller list.
“You won’t find the typical commercial stuff here,” Lexovsky emphasizes. “‘Wines of character’ and ‘a sense of place’ are the best terms I’ve heard … I love that. That’s pretty much what we try to offer. No mysteries, an easy-to-read, straightforward list and no snooty serving staff looking down their noses at you.”
Works for me.
Help, I’m Lost!
It’s bound to happen sometime. Though Tidings readers will generally not be too intimidated by a wine list (right?), it is at least within the realm of the possible that you may be faced with a list full of rather obscure choices. First thing to do if you find yourself in a jam? Ask for help. Wine lists containing bottles sourced from a little (or a lot) off the beaten path are typically conceived by those enthused by the stuff (who ignore their accountants).
No sommelier to be found? You’ve got two choices: go with what you know (there’s gotta be something you sort of recognize) or take a chance with an educated guess. Or order beer. Some wine lists, like the one at The Superior, contain brief descriptions of each wine. A few lists go as far as to offer food matches — a very helpful addition. In any case, just keep in mind that lighter dishes typically pair well with most whites and light reds (Beaujolais, Valpolicella and their ilk), while heavier dishes need wines with more heft and assertiveness. A decent dry rosé can pair remarkably well with a range of dishes. And don’t overlook sparkling wines. Though typically served as an apéritif, the acidity and bubbles in these wines act as remarkable palate cleansers.