Tuesday, April 10, 2012

New standards for Top 10 Wine Lists

When SF Weekly ran my Top 10 Wine Lists in San Francisco last week, I braced myself for the flak you get when you run a Top 10 anything.

I expected to get slammed in particular for not including most of the expensive lists you see in Zagat, Chowhound, etc.

Instead what I heard was ... quiet applause.

I'm still stunned; I've never written a Top 10 before that got less disagreement, and this was not a no-brainer; I played with the order until the last minute.

I think the reason is that I tapped into the zeitgeist about the way wine lists are evaluated. I'm not the only one tired of the formula "more + expensive = better."

And so I'm going to list here the standards that I used, in the hope that they will be more widely adopted.

Top 10 Wine List standards for 2012:

1) The wines should reflect the restaurant, its cuisine and its city. If there are local wines, they should be present.

2)  The list should be strong in the $50-$60 range, which is a sweet spot right now for quality wines. There should be a number of good whites and reds under $40 and something drinkable at $30. There should also be at least a few splurge wines.

3) Markup matters. Wines should cost less than double the retail price, with the exception of the very cheapest wine on the list. Restaurateurs need to profit on wine, but excessive profits shouldn't be rewarded with a Top 10 ranking.

4) The list should be online, with prices listed, and updated frequently. Wine lovers like to look ahead to see what they might want to drink.

5) There should be a bare minimum of 15 whites, 15 reds, 1 pink and 2 sparkling. More is better up to about 100 wines, but raw numbers are not a substitute for diversity in either style or price.

6) The list should give a clear idea of which wines are bigger in body.

7) There should be at least 5 whites, 5 reds, 1 pink and 1 sparkling by the glass, and they should be of differing body and intensity. In cities where by-the-glass sales are small, half bottles are an acceptable alternative.

8) There should be some older wines. Particularly for the reds, not everything should be current release.

9) Bonus points for providing background information about the producers or specific wines.

10) Bonus points for a coherent philosophy, whether that's a single-country focus, sustainability, local wines, etc.

11) The list should offer some choices a wine lover might be expected to know, and some unique wines as well. Some people go out for comfort, and some go to get something they can't get at home.
What do you think? Is this how your local publication should evaluate wine lists?

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Eric Lecours said...

blake, great criteria you set forth. over the years i've come to believe that short lists with focus (like food menus) are far more interesting than tomes. i might quibble with the idea that 'more is better up to 100 wines'...in my experience a 50 wine list can be just as stellar or more than a 100 wine list. constraints increase quality. if you only have five wines in the $30s you can be extremely discriminating in your choices. on markup...the wine should deliver incredible quality for the price. there may be a white from sicily that i absolutely love but think is incredibly overpriced...i price it on the list at the price point i thing is fair for the wine which often results in extremely low margin. on the other hand i may taste through hundreds of nebbioli and find one that delivers incredible value for the money and mark it up more than average. in either case, my goal is that the guests feels like they an exceedingly good wine for what they paid.

a short, well thought out list should offer a diner two or three wines in their price range that will dazzle them and more than anything showcase the food.

Kurt Burris said...

As a wine saleperson in the Sacramento market I love these idea for a list. I just might add that you should not let one distributor write your list for you. And don't feature wines that are on sale at your local chain supermarket. But then if you don't let one, very large distributor write your list, that probably won't happen.

W. Blake Gray said...

Eric: Personally I agree with you that 50-wine lists can be better than 100-wine lists. But if you want to write standards, you have to draw the line somewhere, and as you say, if you have only 50 wines, they all better be well-chosen.

I want these standards to work nationwide, and in a lot of cities, you would have to add a layer of 10-12 well-known big production brands for familiarity sake. I wouldn't want to penalize a wine buyer for doing that, but I wouldn't want them to take up 20% of the list either.

Kurt: Very good point.

Anatoli Levine said...

Blake, I really hope all the reviews will be done according to your standard - this is exactly how I like the wine lists to be. Triple retail forces me simply to chose water, and I love diversity more than anything on the wine list.

Anonymous said...

Blake - I don't like in SF, but I have been to many of the top restaurants in the area and agree with many that you omitted - and with your standards - the best wine lists should appeal to broad slices of the dining and food loving masses. Perhaps some restaurant owners and Soms will take notice - Cheers

Kris Chislett said...

If every wine list were to follow these rules, I would find myself gravitating towards wine more often, instead of the safer bet of drinking a micro-brew when at a restaurant.

Chuck Hayward said...

As you say: "6) The list should give a clear idea of which wines are bigger in body."

Agreed. So I can avoid the thin, overly acidic wines....

It might be best to indicate the body of all wines. One man's sun is another man's cloud.

W. Blake Gray said...

Chuck: You're absolutely right. Somms are wrong to completely impose their vision on others. It's nice to nudge people in the right direction with the food, but not everybody has the same tastes.

BikrDave said...

Late to the party (as I usually am), but would add (and maybe this isn't strictly a standard for the list, but perhaps falls in the "bonus points" category): good staff knowledge of and comfort with the list. Maybe can't expect wait staff to know every wine on a 100-ish list, but there should always be someone at the restaurant who can answer a question - even/especially if (as was the case for us) the som isn't there (the wine director was also not there that night). We fumbled through, and in fact discovered an Etna Rosso that I certainly would not have otherwise tried, but there were some frustrating moments as we tried to make a selection.