How to Judge a Great Wine List, According to Critic Elin McCoy
For weeks I’ve been combing through hundreds of wine lists from restaurants around the globe in my role as judge for the World of Fine Wine’s annual wine list awards.
My first takeaway: The heavy leather-bound wine tome stuffed with staid, predictable reds and whites is, happily, in deep decline, if not a fossil.
Deconstructing the elements that make one list great and another completely mediocre, I realized a brilliant selection of wines was only part of what I was looking for.
Fairly quickly I developed a surprisingly long list of pet peeves: misspelled wine names, missing vintages, preachy essays, exorbitant pricing, and stupid jokes and comments. No one really wants to know that a guest at Scottsdale’s Cowboy Ciao described its list as “better than pornography.”
Usability and Basics
My first criteria are simpler than you might think, really: readability, accuracy, and a clear, attractive, user-friendly format. This is harder to find than you might think; aiming for an oh-so-hip design, some lists fail these tests miserably. Who can decipher complicated wine names at a dimly lit table if they’re crowded together and printed in pale gray micro-type? If it takes me more than a minute or two to locate, say, a delicious, inexpensive Burgundy, the list got dismissed.
Whether they include 200 wines or 5,000, my top lists have all the basic categories as well as something good in each: by-the-glass, sparkling, dessert, as well as main sections devoted to whites, rosés, and reds. Some lists forget about rosés (except in summer, of course), while others pack the sparkling section with big-brand fizz, ignoring many increasingly popular small growers.
I still prefer organization by region rather than grape variety, but I appreciate recent attempts to liven things up by flavor profile. The “Low Grip, High Pleasure” section at Boulder, Colo.’s innovative Frasca is one example. (In case you’re wondering, that includes pinot noir, barbera, and rosé.)
By-the-glass selections are, thankfully, getting longer and the good restaurants long ago ditched boring, overpriced pinot grigios and ubiquitous sauvignon blancs. Like curious wine lovers who view ordering a single glass as a cheap way to try something new or special, I look for a minimum of 25 choices that encompass unusual finds to tempt the adventurous as well as at least a few big-deal labels.
Coravin technology, for example, now makes it possible for the NoMad in New York to offer $60 glasses of 1995 Château Gruaud-Larose. When a restaurant offers pours in several sizes, as does London’s 28-50, that’s a plus, too.
Yes, the wine selections should match the style of the restaurant’s food, but I was also sniffing out the breadth, diversity, and depth in regions, styles, flavors, and vintages of the choices. I hope to find at least a few trophy wines, off-the-beaten-path surprises, and hot deals under $60, too. Often these are from little-known grapes or regions or from a new label, like the Calder Wine Co.’s 2013 Rachel Rossi riesling at Pearl & Ash ($45).
Top steakhouse lists have to go beyond the stereotypical, big, whack-you-in-the-face reds to get my nod. One welcome surprise was the number of Italian restaurants in the U.S. with stellar selections of classic and grower Champagnes.
Point of View
Just as an exciting food menu reflects the specific talents of a great chef, an exciting wine list has to ooze personality and a distinct point of view. The mission at Napa Valley’s Press restaurant is to offer older vintages of the best local wines. Terroir Tribeca’s list is a provocative, edgy wine manifesto championing riesling and predicting the next classics.
I hunted for what was unique and special. New York’s Casa Mono trumpets its fine sherry selection and the 200 rieslings at Australian restaurant Jonah’s show the passion of its German sommelier.
Lists seem to be getting shorter, more concise and creative, which is merciful when you just want to pick something quickly. And careful selections can easily trump sheer size.
Fantasy, Indulgence, Education
Still, I admit I gave my highest marks to a few massive lists packed with dozens of vintages of blue chips like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. These signal a shock-and-awe wine destination and should always come prefaced with a table of contents. Palais Coburg in Vienna, for example, has a list that’s a collectors’ fantasy of indulgence, with 100 vintages of Château d’Yquem, old bottles of first-growth Bordeaux, Spain’s Vega Sicilia, Italy’s Ornellaia, and Napa Valley’s rare Diamond Creek single-vineyard cabernets, among many, many others.
I’m also a fan of wine lists that look for ways to broaden knowledge without trying to instruct. The aforementioned Jonah’s helpfully includes attractive maps of the Rhine, while New York’s Lincoln features mini-sections showing off a particular vineyard, vintage, producer, and grape variety. Tasting notes, as long as they are informative and brief, can be useful.
Yes, I know. Time to discuss pricing.
Feeling ripped off definitely takes away from dining pleasure, so I looked for value for money. Many of the lists I compared included some of the same wines, and I was unpleasantly surprised by vast differences in price.
It’s true that restaurants may pay different amounts for the same wine, depending on when they purchase it and how many cases they buy. But pricing strategies vary widely. Though standard markup starts at about double retail, some restaurants charge much more.
Get this: In New York City, you’ll pay $250 for Krug Grande Cuvée Champagne at Morrell’s Wine Bar, and more than double that, $540, at Per Se. At retail shops? It’s about $150.
This week, wine-focused Rebelle restaurant opens on the Bowery in New York with 200 labels on the list that cost under $50. I drink to that.