Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Waning of the (Testosterone-Driven) Wine List?

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it with my own ears. A couple of salespeople were discussing an account and the wine buyer. One of the salespersons mentioned that the new wine buyer was always cock-blocking her from the owners, with whom she had a good rapport. And while a wine list can sometimes be testosterone-fest, it got me to thinking about how much of that kind of energy is expended to make wine lists.

In the old days, the snobbish approach was de rigueur. But in today’s coarser cultural times, it seems that the one who shouts loudest is the dominant (and deciding) force. Is this a widespread occurrence? Am I just imagining this? The salespeople discussing this over drinks sure seemed to think it was a reality. If that’s the case, what can they, or any of us, do about it?

I have been asking wine directors and sommeliers around the country to help me out here to understand this: Is the modern-day wine list an Opus Magnus, or an enigma?

This seems to be one of my common themes lately: how to make sense of the wine list for all kinds of people. I would add: how to make it self-actuating, freeing up the wine steward for more creative matching. Antonio Gianola's wine list is the quintessential wine list for the wine lover, but it is also very user-friendly. Able to function as a stand-alone (self-serve) with being self-serving. It offers enough information for people to know something about the wines rather than the name the region and the price. After all, what good is that to even the most seasoned wine aficionado? Does someone in that world really want to find what they are looking for (safe, predictable and highly rated) or to discover something that they might like?

One of the faults of many large wine lists is the sheer volume and the lack of information about the wine. Gone, in my mind, is the old-school practice of just listing the region – or even a latitude of flavors that folks might be able to home in on. I’m not at my dry cleaner looking to alter my pant length or clean my suede jacket. It doesn’t even have to be a large wine list – in fact, small is beautiful, about 40 to 60 wines is where the skilled wine director can deliver an incise, focused, exciting list to help the diner delve into a virtual adventure along the wine trail.

A few weeks ago, I was dining in an upscale restaurant, adjacent to a trendy hotel in the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex. The presiding chef was famous and had a slew of spots across the world. The food was clean, wholesome and delicious. Our table decided on roast chicken with a wild mushroom risotto and some roasted cauliflower. On the wine list was a Gaglioppo from Calabria. Discovering this on the wine list was unusual, but a very welcome one in my book.

Combined with the earthiness of the vegetables and the style in which the chicken was prepared, the match was perfect; the wine had its own character, but it danced in harmony with the sensibilities of the chef. It was really one of the best pairings I have had in some time – and all thanks to a wine director who put that wine on the list because he liked it.

Surely he wasn’t going to be winning any Wine Spectator Award for having it on the list, but he earned huge kudos from our small party. We walked away that evening having been served great food with a wine that graced the menu – no blunt force, no sumo match to the death. What many people are looking for are simple pleasures in an over-revved modern world. That night, thanks to the sensibility of a sommelier putting his restaurant’s food and their clients’ gratification first, the wine list functioned as a tool of enjoyment rather than a statement of prowess. What a refreshing idea and a direction in today’s economy that works for everyone.


Brooklynguy said...

The restaurant, Catalan, that you link to looks great, and that is one terrific wine list. I'm curious about some of the pricing - there are a few bottles selling for what they would retail for in NYC. How can this be? Are prices that much lower in Texas or is this guy not marking up all that much, or both? In any case, if I haven't been to Houston since '94, but if I return, I know where I'm having dinner.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks BG!

No- that's jusat thewy way they mark it up @ Catalan. We gonna see you in NY this week?

Marco Soverato Calabro said...

You've linked to Catalan's wine list before and for good reason. Maybe it's just a failure of the chef and the wine buyer to communicate or power ego's playing those endless games.
Here's a blast from the past:

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