Thursday, October 29, 2015

Great wine list idea that works even if the sommelier on duty is an idiot

Harvest Table restaurant in St. Helena has one of the more interesting ideas for a wine list that I've seen.

Not only that, it was good enough to get me a good wine on a night when I had an absolutely terrible sommelier.

Wines from Napa Valley are listed by name. But all of the wines that aren't from Napa Valley -- and there are plenty -- are only described.

I've included parts of the list so you can see what I mean. The descriptions vary: sometimes they're about the producer, sometimes about the character of the wine, and sometimes both. (To be clear, the price is on the right. I don't know what the number on the left is; a bin number, probably.)

If you order something by the description, they wrap it in aluminum foil so you can sample it without knowing what it is. Of course you can pull off the foil as soon as you like. It adds an element of fun discovery to a meal.

Some of these wines that you order semi-blind are not cheap: there's a Sangiovese at $995 (in the picture), and a Chardonnay at $650, described only as "Those in the know consider him the king of this neighborhood, 2011."

But there are values, and I ended up ordering a $44 Pinot Noir, "One of the coldest regions to grow this aromatic beauty, 2012." It was August Kesseler Pfalz (Germany) Pinot Noir, and we quite enjoyed it. I thought I was going to be the first person to report on this unique wine list, but when I got home I learned that not only had Wine Spectator's Harvey Steiman gotten there first -- he had ordered the same wine. Great minds, and all that.

Before ordering, I tried guessing what the wines were, and I daresay I was successful on many. But I liked the descriptions more than just having the names. Would I have ordered the Kesseler if I was listed by name? Maybe: we were having white-wine-friendly food (shrimp-and-grits; stone fruit salad) but I felt like red wine. But maybe I would have gone for a more familiar name, because I don't know anything about August Kesseler. I felt like having the descriptions leveled the playing field for wines that the wine director might be excited about.

This was good because the sommelier on duty just didn't understand at all what I was looking for, nor did she try. She first recommended a $170 Napa Valley Chardonnay that was too rich for me in more ways than one, which is exactly what I said. So then she recommended a more expensive Napa Valley Chardonnay, one of Parker's favorites. I don't like to say, "I write about wine for a living," but I did at this point, and explained that I wanted something lighter. I said I didn't want to spend that much money, and that I taste a lot of wine and would rather try something unusual, and especially something with good acidity.

So she recommended a $150 Napa Valley Merlot.

Shrimp and grits and hopefully no sommelier spit
I sent her away, hopefully politely enough that she didn't spit in my grits. But wow, was she worthless.

Sommeliers often say that they don't include descriptions on wine lists because they want you to talk to the sommelier. This was a perfect example of why that's inadequate. I expect that the wine director, or somebody from the restaurant's PR department, will send me an email after this post makes its way to their desk. Yeah, great, you give terrific wine advice, but where the hell were you when I was actually dining? What am I supposed to do, send the sommelier away and ask for her boss? I would much, much rather walk out and eat somewhere else. Or just order a glass of some wine I know, and maybe never come back.

I would come back to Harvest Table though, because its wine list is idiot-sommelier-proof.

One more interesting point about Harvest Table: the restaurant isn't that expensive for St. Helena, but has a $65 roast chicken. When Michael Bauer reviewed it for the San Francisco Chronicle, he loved the $65 roast chicken. When I told people in Napa Valley I was going there for dinner, and later that I had gone, their reaction was all the same: "That place is really expensive, I heard roast chicken is $65." We had an easy time getting in on a nice Friday night and the restaurant never filled up, when others around it were booked up. The reputation for being pricey must have something to do with it, because I didn't speak to one local who wanted to eat there, and I'm talking about winery owners and others who have money. I don't know what the answer is: not have a $65 dish on your opening menu? Perhaps tell Michael Bauer you're all out of it? Bauer's positive review, focusing on that dish, has cost Harvest Table a lot of money.

Hmm, now I understand why they're pushing the $170 Napa Valley Chardonnay.

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  1. Very interesting post, Blake. I was always under the impression that the sommelier chose all of the restaurant's wines, composed the wine list, and was even responsible for writing the copy on the wine list. This doesn't seem to be the case at Harvest Table. Can you estimate how often this is true?

    Also, what are the numbers on the left? At first I thought the wine list was a wide format and the numbers were the prices for wines further to the left not shown. Then I realized Harvest Table probably does not offer $15 and $18 bottles of wine, especially not right across from the $995 Vino da Tavola. Is the number on the left just an ID number?

  2. Not many sommeliers have the luxury of choosing all of a restaurant's wines. Harvest Table is part of a group of restaurants owned by Charlie Palmer. I don't know its actual management structure, but groups like this usually have a group beverage director who would make some wine buys for the whole chain. The individual restaurant would have a wine director who makes the rest of these buys. I think the sommelier I encountered was just working the floor and not responsible for any wine purchases, fairly common in all but small, locally owned restaurants.

    Even when a sommelier doubles as wine director and makes purchases, turnover in these jobs happens relatively often, and the new wine director inherits a cellar.

    Restaurants where the sommelier you meet on the floor actually bought most of the wines and wrote the list are very rare. One in 50? Fewer? It's why I always advocate for more descriptive lists.

    Re the numbers on the left: some sort of bin number.

  3. Had a similar experience when I ordered an $80 Oregon Pinot Noir. The sommelier brought a burgundy and stated, corkscrew poised over the top, "we're out of that, shall I open this one for you?" Seeing it was a 1er cru I asked the price...$160. I asked if I was getting it at the same price. "No I couldn't do that." I was mad, particularly since she wasn't going to tell me the price before opening. I hate to say it but I bad-mouthed the restaurant every chance I could and wasn't unhappy when it went out ot business. Sorry for some of the staff.

  4. To be clear, this Unknown comment didn't happen at Harvest Table, which is still in business.

  5. Blake, you could of just ask for a Sauv Blanc from Kiwiland...All that trouble to be able to write a blog?! :-)

    For the record, i had the same thing happened to me every time i go to ...... ....... in Paso Robles but I love the food there so I put up with the "Wine Expert"

  6. Mauricio: But then I would have had to drink a Sauv Blanc from Kiwiland on a night when I wanted red wine. All that trouble was to enjoy a meal. The blog post came after.

  7. Blake,

    Your piece brought back fond memories of a delightful restaurant in Newport Beach, CA:

    Bouzy Rouge Cafe.

    Link to Dan Berger's 1989 Los Angeles Times "Food" section tout of its wine list:

    "Great Southern California Wine Lists, Part II"

    Note the playful wine descriptions.

    (I still have a hard copy of that late 1980s wine list in my wine reference library.)

    ~~ Bob