Friday, April 6, 2012

Top 10 Wine Lists in San Francisco: Short is beautiful

I'm writing this before seeing the flak I expect to get for the Top 10 Wine Lists in San Francisco that I chose for SF Weekly, but I'll lead with a question somebody has to ask:

"How can you leave RN74 off the list? They have 2000 wines."

The answer is simple: despite the 2000 fine wines on celebrity sommelier Raj Parr's list, RN74 is not one of the 10 San Francisco restaurants where I would most enjoy ordering a bottle of wine. And I believe a majority of SF Weekly readers would agree with me.

If I were a wealthy investor with a taste for grand cru Burgundy -- imagine if Mitt Romney were cool -- RN74 might be my No. 1. I didn't leave it off my Top 10 because the list is too long; I left it off because it's too expensive. Look at the half-bottle prices, for example, because it just takes too long to read the entire list. Hurray, 55 half-bottles of red -- but just three under $60. Half-bottles.

Most "top wine lists" articles are written for the 1%, both in funds and devotion to traditional luxury brands, and the prevailing paradigm has usually been that more = better.

Yet in all but special cases, very long wine lists are more of a hassle than a blessing.

Obviously there are exceptions. Wine lovers from around the world, including me, wouldn't fly to Tampa to eat at Bern's Steak House if the list had only 2000 wines. I thoroughly enjoyed the hour I spent with the Bern's list before ordering dinner on my last visit; so did my wine-geek friends in the group. I hope the apps and bubbly we ordered to placate the others did the trick.

But for most meals, I don't want or need to have that many choices -- and I'm a wine geek. I would rather have a well-chosen 75-bottle list than a 750-bottle list. Unless I'm dining in Los Olivos, I don't want a choice of 10 Santa Barbara County Chardonnays. I want the sommelier to choose 3-5 Chardonnays from the entire state of California in different styles and be ready to explain the advantages of the Lioco vs. the Ridge.

And I can be satisfied with less choice than that. Anchor Oyster Bar usually carries 4 white wines (and three reds, but who has red with oysters?), and it's walking distance from my house, but I have never brought a bottle of wine there because I'm confident that they'll have something I want. I like the simplicity of that: do you want the Sancerre or the Viognier? So does my wife, because I don't spend 20 minutes with my face buried in a wine list.

Don't get me wrong: I want variety on a wine list. But I want it between types of wine, not between versions of that type of wine. In other words, give me 3-5 Cabernet Sauvignons total, preferably from different regions, and if I'm in a Cab mood I'll order one. I like more Pinot Noirs than other types of wine because it's so food-friendly and varies so much by terroir, but 7-10 well-chosen ones are more than enough. Let me have the option of a couple of Rhone wines, Italian reds, values from South America, something from Spain and matching options from California. If the wine buyer has taste, who really needs more?

Of course, that "if" is big in more ways than text size. Very long wine lists are some protection against wine buyers with either poor taste or tastes customers don't share. Yet is that really a strength: "our list is so long, even an idiot can buy wine for it?"

Apparently I'm not the only one who feels this way. After writing the Top 10 Wine Lists, but before its publication, I was terrified to see the headline "The Bay Area's incredible shrinking wine lists" in the San Francisco Chronicle. Fortunately for me the Chron didn't pick a top 10 (thanks, Jon). Apparently restaurants aren't shortening their ponderous wine lists to make choices easier, but because the economy makes carrying too much inventory hazardous. Sometimes great things happen for unexpected reasons.

So here's a link to the Top 10 Wine Lists in San Francisco. And yes, unless I'm with someone who stole Mitt Romney's wallet, I really would rather order wine at Piccino than RN74. Sorry, Raj, but out of 2000 wines, you really need more under $50.

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Cabfrancophile said...

I totally agree with the short, well-selected list over long list approach. A shorter menu usually means the restaurant is focused on doing what it does really well and often switches menu items as season, taste, mood, etc. dictate. Same for shorter wine lists.

Aside from that, there is an illusion of choice in both food and wine. If you have 20 choices of red sauce pasta or 20 choices of North Coast Cab, are you better off than having 3-5 options? No, not really. The differences are small relative to having even one seafood and one fresh red wine option added.

A lot of this long list mentality comes from, I think, the competitive tasting mindset pushed by wine magazines. Yes, if you taste wines side by side, there will be differences. Yes, you will prefer one over another in that context. But with dinner you will be having a glass or two with your meal. Synergy, not differences, are what matter. This isn't even an issue of food vs. trophy wines. It's simply a matter of small differences in character or perceived quality not applying in this context. The big-picture stylistic differences are what matter, not whether it's eucalyptus or pine you perceive. Eucalyptus vs. vanilla, now that is a substantive difference.

Dapz said...

What a nice list of restaurants. Thanks Gray. I'm planning to visit the ones I haven't been yet. So nice to see a list of places I can actually casually go instead of Gary Danko, Boulevard, Coi and all the other super fine dining places in the city.

Dapz said...

On the same subject, I have a question:
Do you agree that the dining scene is changing from fine dining places to casual eateries like the one you listed? I feel that more and more people care want to go to places where they can be comfortable instead of dressing up and going to a swanky restaurant. Is it really important to serve from the left, bus from the right and all those fine dining standards. As long as the server is not blocking the guest's vision the final result will be the same.
As for the food, I feel you can get just as creative and good food (if not better) in casual restaurants versus fine dining ones.
Do I have a point/

W. Blake Gray said...

Dapz: I completely agree with you. More diners want great food in casual atmosphere, and more restaurants are emerging to provide it.

I've never gotten over a time some years ago when I walked to a formal French restaurant for lunch on a 100 degree day. I was overheated so I was carrying my suit coat. They made me put it on before they would let me into the dining room. Once in the dining room, I took it off and put it on my chair. The manager came over and told me I couldn't be served anything, not even a glass of water (which I hadn't had yet), without my jacket. I never went back to that restaurant.

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


On the restaurants that have longer, much more phone-bookish type lists. One of the things that I really appreciate when I do visit those establishments is when they have an updated list online. It makes dining so much more pleasurable when you can pick out the wines ahead of time.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: Completely agree with you. I have chosen restaurants just because of the wine I can have there, because I read the list online.

In today's world there's really no excuse for restaurants not keeping an updated menu AND wine list online. That's as much a part of customer service as, say, crumbing the table between courses.

Dapz said...

how do you think this trend applies to service? Do you think that service gets compromised in any way by being more informal?

W. Blake Gray said...

Dapz: I would say no, that it's just a different standard. I've had good formal service and bad formal service. I'm sure there are some diners who prefer more formal service, and they might find today's standard disappointing. But I think it's just different, not inherently better performed or worse.

Mary G. Burnham said...

Blake, I think your Top 10 list is brilliant, and agree with you about RN74.

And your quote from Local Kitchen's list made my blood boil. You did a public service by highlighting it, and I hope they'll be shamed into editing it away. ("This might not be the wine for everyone, excepting those who can taste great wine when it's given to them. If you don't like this, we have something more expensive we think you might like.")

I want to see the passion behind a list, but that kind of hipster condescension ("you're a clueless rube if you don't like this wine") has zero place in a restaurant. A list, and a staff, should educate, not lecture customers and make them feel insecure about their taste preferences. Grrrr....

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Mary. I got some flak about and from RN74 on Twitter this weekend, but geez, I was there Friday and they had about a dozen Loire Sauvignon Blancs -- and the cheapest is $130. One of their somms on Twitter told me that was because the one SB they had at $48 sold out. No wonder! You'd think that would be a sign.

RN74's list reminds me of the cliche, "If you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it." That's just not Top 10 for most people.

Local Kitchen & Wine Merchant would not have made the list with that hipster attitude if their pricing policy wasn't the exact opposite of RN74. But I can't name a better place in the city to drink wine for under $35 a bottle, and that's the price range a lot of people want to be in -- more people than want to spend $130 a bottle, for sure.

I once took some friends visiting from Florida to a mid-range restaurant in SF, where I thought the wines were very reasonably priced, and they said, "Look at all the wines over $50 here. Do people really spend that on wine?" Useful perspective.

The Scented Man said...

For me when someone states "best" lists. It is usually the top cream della cream. The article should be top affordable list. Value is always a great thing to offer, but sometimes it just does not fit in certain categories. When you think the best cars in the world many think of the luxury brands. Why would this be any different. As stated the article is good, but the title is wrong

W. Blake Gray said...

Scent: You should probably get your Top 10 suggestions from the Robb Report or another luxury magazine. As you say, *some* people would consider the best cars in the world to be the most expensive. But for the great majority of people, that list simply wouldn't be useful.