Wednesday, August 8, 2012

That's not a wine list, that's a price list

The "bold" red section of Sotto's wine list
I'm too stupid for the wine list at Sotto, a trendy Italian restaurant in Los Angeles. I don't know what Rocca Rubia is, or Syrache, or Il Falcone.

I don't know what they taste like or what foods they go with. I don't know why Syrache is $50 and Il Falcone is $125.

I don't know who makes them. I mean, I see the producer's names. But I don't know if they're biodynamic or fifth-generation vineyard owners or some brand name picked out by a corporate winery to move excess juice. Sotto has Red Car wines; are those related to Red Truck?

Juan Rivera. Not a vintner. Yet.
I can imagine someone commenting, "You don't know who Rivera is? That's one of the biggest names in Apulia. You're supposed to be a wine expert."

Yes, I'm stupid. I spend much of my day reading and thinking about wine, and I had to Google "Rivera" to get that fact. Had I just sat down in front of the wine list, I might have thought it was this Rivera. Or, since the restaurant is in LA, perhaps Juan Rivera.

Evan Dawson, a fine wine writer, wrote a piece for Palate Press this week about corkage, in which he uses Sotto's wine list as an example. Dawson talks to Sotto wine director Jeremy Parzen and learns that "every week, we get people who stop at the Ralph’s Supermarket across the street and buy Kendall Jackson and similar bottles."

Well, no wonder. They know what Kendall-Jackson is.

I made a comment on Dawson's post and I want to repeat it here, to hopefully spark a discussion about Sotto's wine list and many other wine lists at trendy restaurants:

That's not a wine list, that's a price list.

Without context, without descriptions, Sotto's wine list is mystifying to more than 99% of Americans.

I personally would not bring a bottle of wine to Sotto. If you read this blog regularly you know I'm a thrill-seeking drinker, always interested in unfamiliar wines. I'm also not afraid to announce my ignorance on a topic, even one I'm supposed to know well. As in this blog post.

How common is that?

The New York Times' Eric Asimov wasted his large pulpit on this topic yesterday. Asimov wrote, "The crucial point for consumers is to feel free to ask questions, and to insist on simple answers if the reply seems to verge on becoming a technical lecture." Asimov cites a sommelier who put together the list at two different restaurants, apparently not adjacent, who says she's not an absentee. That gives diners a 50% chance of being in the restaurant with her when she's on duty. In other instances, diners can ask the server. I know a few servers with excellent wine knowledge, but it's noteworthy when you meet one because they're rare.

The headline on Asimov's article, which he probably didn't write, reads, "Should a Wine List Educate or Merely Flatter You?" I'll say "educate." Where's the education, though?

If sommeliers want their customers to drink something unfamiliar, they have to explain why, without forcing their customers to ask. Few people want to appear uninformed in front of their friends. Make the case on the wine list, in writing, so they don't have to.

What say you, readers? Should a wine list educate, or is a price list sufficient?

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McSnobbelier said...

I have a handful of favorite wine topics...along with Burgundy (just in general) and Ratings 'Rants', this is one of them. The Wine List jumble is a constant sticky point for anyone that likes wine.

I am always trying to remind restaurants what a wine list is, because the concept is frequently eluding them. It is a marketing piece, marketing pieces sell things. Do I have a pang of guilt when I increase the price of a value wine that isn't selling so it does? Yes, does it work? Yes again.

But books educate, classes educate, wine lists list, sommeliers help choose. Listing and choosing can only can offer tiny bits of edu and only if the guest is open to it and the info is small and coherent.

I also struggle with the concept of Gavi di Gavi over just plain Gavi or Gavi from another fine village next to Gavi or with that black label from La Scolca. But with enough brain involvement I get it. La Scolca Black Label is all about guilt. How can a guy go to his favorite Italian restaurant and order his favorite Barolo or Brunello or Amarone with his favorite girl who doesn't drink red wine? If he gets her a $40 Pinot Grigio and himself a $250 of above... as Larry David might say - "no sex for you"! The Gavi di Gavi La Scolca Black label does the trick. $45 retail about $100+ on most wine lists.

ptahcha said...

But isn't this the point of why there is a somm on duty to educate? After all, if you put a descriptor next to each wine, it becomes an appendix to Wine Spectator.

jim silver said...

Can you imagine the menu written the same way as the wine list? How about this:

Chicken, the old way $19
Chicken, a new way $28
Chicken, my way $38
Duck, parts of it $19
Duck, half of it $48
Duck, warm $32
Steak, from a cow $50
Steak, from a different cow $60
Steak, from around here $140

W. Blake Gray said...

Ptahcha: I'm patient; I ask for the sommelier and wait. I'd say my average wait time is 10-15 minutes. During that time the server has asked for drink orders twice. Many if not most diners will just order something.

Also, no sommelier has ever -- EVER -- taken the time to describe every single wine on the list to me. But that's what I really want. Why wouldn't I? If the wine's on the list, it must be there for a reason, right?

Jim: Great point.

Jack Everitt said...

I like this list. The wines I recognize are very good ones.

With more than two dozen choices available by the glass, I would happily dive in and try the ones I don't know.

I do think it needs more hints for the reader other than Light/Medium/Full.

W. Blake Gray said...

Jack: That's a fair point. I'm much more willing to take a chance on a wine by the glass, and I suspect I'm not alone. Wines by the bottle, I really do want to know what they are.

nomadfromcincy said...

Blake, this is a great post. This appears to be a sommelier trying to be different - in general, I love that. However, if it's a long list and she/he hasn't trained the staff extensively, what's the point?

My biggest pet peeve these days is to order wine at a restaurant like this and the server tries to fake the wine knowledge. I may not be the most wine knowledgeable person reading your article, but I can definitely sniff out the person who is BSing me. I'd say that happens to me like 4 out of 5 times these days.

I am a fan of restaurants using iPads or other electronic lists that let them maximize information. That's the future.

W. Blake Gray said...

Nomad: I'm with you, I love iPad wine lists.

There are at least two general types of people who order wine in restaurants: people who want a tasty beverage, and people who want a story. A lot of sommeliers would prefer to serve the latter. But you gotta TELL that story, and you can't do it if you're not at the table when the customer needs to order.

Vin de Terre said...

An entry must include producer, vintage, appellation and price (also goofy made-up name in Italy). It should include varietal (eg sangiovese blend) and region (eg Tuscany). A brief tasting note is nice if you have room.

Greg Harrington said...

The success or failure of any wine program is directly related to one thing - staff training. With extensive training, and a list like Sotto's would require many, many hours, staff can successfully offer unfamiliar items and make the guest feel comfortable.

While the list does categorize the style or wine, adding other information, such as grape variety or a "key" to regions/styles of Italy would be helpful. This is seen on many wine lists, particularly those heavy in Italian wine.

But I applaud wine directors and owners who are willing to offer an unknown challenging list. But be willing to spend the time and money to train the staff well.

JLB said...

"Also, no sommelier has ever -- EVER -- taken the time to describe every single wine on the list to me. But that's what I really want. Why wouldn't I?"

Well, um, because you're at a restaurant, presumably there to enjoy yourself, and should have perused the wine list at home (via, you know, the internet) if you want to know about "every single wine"? Because this is not an MW schoolroom, but a restaurant? Because the som- horrors- has other customers to attend to? Your quote, Gray, is just supremely silly- I've never wanted to know about every single wine on list: why would I? If I'm not familiar with a list, I consult with the som regarding the style I'm looking for, select a wine, and drink it, repeating the process as needed.

And, yeah- if there were a descriptor for every wine on that list, it would run to pages.

You're wasting your pulpit with this- and creating a slightly embarrassing tempest in a tea cup...



Unknown said...

I'm delighted that these articles are being written and provoking conversation.
It seems that an alarming percentage of sommeliers are losing the sight of the end goal, just as many chefs have in the past.
Very simply, the role of a sommelier is to serve the guest, make them happy and, in turn, generate profit for their restaurant.
The wine list is nothing without the service to back it up. Worse than that, a large wine list without familiar wines is a hindrance to a guests enjoyment.
Even as an adventurous diner and serious drinker, I can not easily enjoy wines without reference or context

Randy Caparoso: said...

You make some valid points, Blake. For years, at Sommelier Journal, we've pushed and pushed sommeliers not to be lazy: if they're going to offer interesting, esoteric wines, they need to provide info on their wine lists and train their staffs thoroughly to help out the guests.

Exactly the same way we do with food: when you offer creative dishes with unusual ingredients, servers go the extra the mile explaining those dishes. Why not with wine?

I have to disagree with you, though, regarding Asimov's column in the NY Times: I thought it was a very good one, pointing out the basic fact that if you go to a fine French or Italian restaurant, you should expect some fine French or Italian wines, not what you usually find on the domestic shelves of a grocery or retail store. For that, New York's leading restaurants should be applauded.

But it's a two-way street. It may be absurd to expect Kendall-Jackson at an Eleven Madison, but it's even more absurd to expect guests to automatically know, and appreciate, obscure wines that cost over $100. The leading restaurants and sommeliers are working very hard to put out extremely interesting wine lists, but they need to work even harder at communicating what the heck they're doing.

Unknown said...

So let me get this straight...a somm does not need to know their wine list but someone like myself who has around 1000 different wines in my shop and who knows everything about them from RS levels in the German wines to the amount of oak and type of oak used in the wines from Jura is okay?

This is one reason why I got my diploma them through it away. If you can't do your job as a specialist in wine, maybe it's time to find a new job. We are here to educate the customer and to talk to them. Cut a few wines off the list if it is to hard for you to do your job.

W. Blake Gray said...

CCMBA: Sotto's list is short enough that one could read a couple sentences about every wine in far less than the 5 minutes it takes to wait for the sommelier.

Let me ask you this: Do you think customers want to know what every main course on the menu is?

Main courses cost a lot less than wine.

I actually DO read the wine list at home, fairly often. So that's what you expect customers to do?

Randy: Normally I love Eric Asimov's writing. But he was just reacting to Steve Cuozzo's piece in a way that so many others already had. I would rather drink a wine list written for Asimov than for Cuozzo. But one point where Cuozzo is right and Asimov isn't is that diners are customers and shouldn't be condescended to and dictated to. If you do, then people will bring their own wines.

Randy Caparoso: said...

Now, of course, it seems that Mr. Bonne is joining the "wine list war" in the Chronicle. But again, I have to agree with him, as I do with Mr. Asimov: wine lists are getting better, and it's a very good day indeed when you can find fun, interesting wines that better match a restaurant's cuisine and identity. A far cry from, say, just 10, 15 years ago, when every "Grand Award" winning wine list carried the exact same wines, no matter how diverse their foods and themes.

So yes, I'm saying that consumers should be thankful for this; and that critics should shut up about it, too. Why nag a positive development?

But this does not excuse restaurants who do not supply adequate information on lists and enough staff training to make guests feel comfortable. It also doe not excuse the markups, which in many quarters is getting excessive to the point of ridiculousness (when 90 out of every 100 wines on a list are over $90, that's ridiculous, no matter how good and interesting the wines).

In any case, an interesting debate...

W. Blake Gray said...

Randy: I believe I completely agree with you. How likely is that?

Unknown said...

Blake -

You make some fair points, and chief among them is that diners ought not be confused by a wine list. And often, yes, wine lists are confusing.

I chose Sotto for the PP piece because I think it turns a rare trick: It almost certainly introduces new wines to the diner while also ensuring a trained staff that can help guide diners in their choices, as well as answer questions. That's the ethos of the place. But you are right to say that most establishments offer only lackluster server training in regards to wine.

Do Bianchi said...

Lot's of good discussion here and so glad to see so many familiar faces...

From an American's perspective, my list at Sotto is esoteric... no doubt...

My colleague, Rory Harrington, the wine captain, is at the restaurant nearly every night and he and I are in contact nearly every day. And we work very closely with all the servers, making sure that they can speak authoritatively on the wines (I'm there 2 days a month to train with the entire staff).

The one element that's missing here: visit Sotto and gauge the wine experience by dining there... you might be surprised by the wine knowledge and by the wines (even if you're not familiar with them).

thanks, everyone, and thanks Blake for the shout out! :)

Ith said...

Do you have any idea how wine is made? You are one of thoe types who like to put it in boxes, have it all laid out 4u. Well my dear friend, the fun of wine is that you can't do that unless you get rid of proper wine and replace it with Kendall Jackson&Co crap. In the old countries wine list like these are de rigeur. I applaud someone makes lists like this in the USA.
Btw you write ' I'm a thrill-seeking drinker, always interested in unfamiliar wines.'... The wine list is perfect than not? Have some balls order something unfamiliar might change your life.

W. Blake Gray said...

LTH: Do I have any idea how wine is made? Um, yes.

This isn't the old country, LTH. I'm not asking for a single wine changed from this list. All I want is for the compiler of the list to tell us what they are. But if you read what I wrote instead of overreacting to what you thought I meant, you would know that.

Brooklynguy said...

I cannot understand the thinking in this post, or the one from the NY Post that began this whole issue. Since when are we entitled as consumers to know everything there is to know about the products we consider buying? There's more wine knowledge out there than any one person can aggregate and it's great that some people choose to delve deeply into a particular region or type of wine on their restaurant list. Part of what makes the landscape of restaurants interesting and varied.

If you don't feel like dealing with that, then don't go to that restaurant.

You might not recognize or understand every piece at a museum either. You can ask questions or buy the audio-tour. Or not. And if you don't like the quality of the explanations, don't go back. Organizations are allowed to present their vision of complicated and sensory subjects as they wish. You get to decide which visions you wish to patronize.

Complaining about not knowing the wines on the list is a complaint about yourself. There are ways to learn that don't involve much effort. And if that's not your bag, then skip the restaurant, or get a beer instead.

Sorry if this sounds obnoxious, I really don't mean it to. But there was something about the tone of this post that struck me as holier-than-thou.

W. Blake Gray said...

Brooklynguy: It's an interesting POV. I like the art-museum analogy. Some museums just show you the art; others try to put it in context.

Of course, art museum admission is $5-$20 for hundreds of pieces of art. One bottle of wine is $35-$150. To me that makes a big difference. Some people spend money all the time without knowing what they're buying. And you're right, it's fair for restaurants to cater to these customers; they're desirable.

It's also fair to have lists that exclude all but wine geeks who look up the wines ahead of time (this includes me). If you're going to run such a restaurant, Brooklyn and San Francisco are good places for it.

Just don't call it "education." That, as you say, is holier than thou.

Please, folks, stop trying to personalize this as "W. Blake Gray doesn't want to try something new." That's not true at all. My point is that in most cases (exceptions above), sommeliers should provide information to their customers. You can personally attack me, but that doesn't address my point.

Unknown said...

I think it's probably easy to attack the writer; in this case, Blake. And I side with Blake when he says that he's being misinterpreted; I don't think Blake is Steve Cuozzo, despite Blake's unfortunate defense of that piece (which I chalk up to a contrarian's insatiable desire for contrarianism).

Blake is right: Too many restaurants, and too many somms, can't explain their wine lists. That's a problem. And it's not silly or simpleton or reductionist to say so. It's not too much to ask for somms to know their list, and to train their staffs to know their lists. These days, that's too uncommon.

Dan McGrew said...

If, like me, you lived in the middle of the country where boring wine lists are the norm you would find this wine list exciting.

Six or eight years ago I was visiting friends in Marin County and we spent an evening at The Slanted Door and it's off the wall wine list. I wasn't put off by the list - I was in love with the new and wonderful things it was offering me. Between six of us I think we tried more than a dozen different wines either by the glass or bottle - sometimes passing a single glass around the table.

We got tremendous service from the wine staff and even though the place was crowded several members of that staff stopped by to chat briefly and to talk about their wines and make recommendations. It made for a tremendous evening.

I suspect that if there is a wine list like this at a serious restaurant the management has taken the time to appropriately train the staff. If they haven't then a few months down the road Kendall Jackson will be on the list.

W. Blake Gray said...

Dan: The Slanted Door has one of my top 10 wine lists in San Francisco:

Unknown said...

I can not agree more with Greg Harrington's point. A sommelier can concoct the most adventurous beverage program in America but it's all for naught without a properly trained staff. The beverage director at many restaurants can not be at every table to explain each individual wine on a list any more than a head chef can visit with every diner to explain the ingredients of the evening's special. Does one look to to the the chef de cuisine when they are faced with unfamiliar menu items? The onus is on the server to act as the basic guide and should be provided with the knowledge to do so. That is the reason most servers spend time in a pre-shift meeting as the chef and sommelier go over the evening's menu and wine list.

W. Blake Gray said...

Evan: You pegged me: as a contrarian, I love to read contrarian columns. That's what appealed to me about what Cuozzo wrote. Obviously I agree with very little of his point of view. But the man started a debate that is worth having.

In my original blog post, I don't think I defended his POV; at least I didn't try to. What I tried to do was three things: 1) Explain why Cuozzo's column fit the publication he wrote it for. 2) Make my own point about information-less wine lists, that I have elaborated on in this post, and 3) Try to tell people that Cuozzo is speaking for a lot of customers.

I said in that post, and again in these comments to Brooklynguy, that a restaurant can chase away these customers if it chooses. It just should be aware that it's doing so.

One HUGE difference between what I wrote and what Cuozzo wrote is this: Cuozzo was a lot more personal; he wants Bordeaux so he can drink it. A lot of readers don't seem to notice that for every wine list in question, I personally would order from it. I'm trying to stand up for many consumers, not for myself. Just ask the many sommeliers to whom I have said, "I'm having the pork dish. What wine do you recommend?"

Unknown said...

I think your reasons to attack the wine list in Sotto are not professional but personal and you know why...

I will try to read your blog more often now...

W. Blake Gray said...

No, I don't know why. Tell me why.

I wrote this post in response to an article in Palate Press. I've never eaten at Sotto and wouldn't have noticed the wine list if Jeremy Parzen hadn't complained to Evan Dawson about people bringing wine to his restaurant. I made a comment on that article, and decided the comment deserved a post of its own.

That's how this post happened.

W. Blake Gray said...

BTW, I don't need to explain Steve Cuozzo's position as he has just done it himself, once again in tone that perfectly fits the New York Post:

Unknown said...

First of all, I tried to read all the columns involved: Dr. Vino, Steve Cuozzo , Evan Dawson, Eric Asimov and Jeremy Parzen. Steve and you make a very good point about complicated wine lists for regular clients. On the other hand if he does not recognize a single bottle of this wine list I think he should retire from wine writing, you can not excuse from I am old and I drink only Bordeaux and smoke cigars. Bordeaux can not be paired with every cuisine and besides it is very expensive and boring. I find the article of Eric Asimov wonderful, he is always objective and a fantastic wine writer. On your side, I feel pity that you try to hide your intentions , 95% of your post talks bad about the wine list in Sotto, you throw the stone and then hide the hand and try to be diplomatic, you called the wine list a price list. And why? You know why but you pretend to have amnesia. We can analyze from miles that your reasons to attack the list is because a particular post from Jeremy Parzen about Frescobaldi . Sommeliers and staff are there to help wine geeks and regular drinkers, it is good when a wine list has descriptors and it is good when it does not have them. The beauty of the world is diversity, you can not pretend all the wine lists to be the same and follow a certain pattern.

W. Blake Gray said...

Eder: I can't control what Jeremy Parzen writes about me. I can only control what I write. Yes, he has personally attacked me. But you haven't been reading me very long -- he's far from alone in that. If I couldn't write about anyone who ever insulted me online, I'd have a much shorter list of topics.

I wrote about this topic for Sommelier Journal last year. I wrote about it on my own blog last week. It's not like I just picked up a new topic here.

Believe what you believe. But if I just wanted to write about people who wrote nasty things about me, I wouldn't have any time to drink wine, much less write about it.

W. Blake Gray said...

By the way, Eder, I will ask you to show me where I've "attacked the list." Take another look: I didn't say there are bad wines or bad values or that the wines are inappropriate with food. How could I? I admitted I don't know the wines.

There's no context on the list. That's all I wrote. And it's true no matter who writes it.

Unknown said...

When I go to a restaurant,nowadays in the world of information, I research a little bit about the wines, google COS Frappato and there are much more entries on the wines online. I am very stupid as well, but when I do not know something I ask or research ;)

eric said...

If a restaurant has an esoteric list but limits it to one page, categorizes it by style and trains its staff regularly, you have to commend them for making it easy to experience wines one might never have had the opportunity to enjoy.

W. I don't think any sommelier can describe every wine to every customer. My approach is this...I describe the kinds of wine I normally drink, I tell the sommelier my budget and then ask him/her to offer a couple wines that will dazzle me. If I don't know the wine and it dazzles, money well spent.