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Why Huge Wine Lists Suck

With the recent review I penned for WCDish.com, I've had restaurant wine lists on the brain lately.

Which means that this post will likely be ill-timed, given the dearth of restaurant-goers in an economy that is wading knee-deep in layoff announcements. Oh well - timing was never one of my strong suits.

Anyway, as a semi-educated wine geek, I fully appreciate that I might approach a restaurant wine list in a slightly different way than the average diner, in that I might have a deeper knowledge of what the foreign word mean, or what the wine is supposed to taste like from region XYZ.

Which is not to say that I think I'm smarter than the average restaurant-goer; quite the contrary, as I can tell you that 90% of them will be able to calculate an appropriate tip faster than I can (I like words - math... not so much). It just means that I'm probably geekier about wine than the average restaurant-goer.

But... at the restaurant table, while I may have more trouble with tip calculation due to my mathematically-challenged brain, my wine list perusal goal is no different than the average restaurant goer's: find a good bottle of wine at a decent price that will go well with dinner.
Which is why I think that huge-ass restaurant wine lists suck.

Tyler over at Dr. Vino recently posted an article about a Tampa restaurant (Bern's) that might be of interest to those who will be traveling to Tampa to watch the STEELERS trounce the Cardinals in Superbowl XLIII. Bern's boasts 6,800 selections and more than 500,000 bottles. I don't even want to see that wine list.

For me, dozens of pages detailing hundreds of choices of wine amounts to two things:

  1. A brief curiosity as I look up something geeky say softly, to no one in particular, "Wow. They have a bottle of 1925 Chateau L├ęgendaire Maison Pompeux that costs more than my car..." (this might have appeal to boring wine snobs, but if that's your clientelle then I am probably not coming back to your restaurant anytme soon)...
  2. ...that quickly becomes a big distraction. If I am at a dinner with a group of like-minded wine geeks, then by all means bring on the wine cellar curiosities. Chances are that I'm not, however, and a huge wine list distracts from the dinner conversation and enjoyment that I should be having while I try to reason with the weighty tome of vino choices.
And the wine geeks out there will appreciate that it's always you that has to pick the wine - and the larger the wine list, the faster it will get tossed your way by the other dinner guests.

Here's an example:

A few years ago Mrs. Dudette and I took a trip to Vegas (baby, Vegas) and caught up with some old college friends of mine. We decided to grab dinner at Aureole, the restaurant with over 800 bottles of wine, which are stored in a glass tower and retrieved by babes on hoists.

The wine list is a tablet PC with a touch screen, with which you can browse and search the wine offerings. Sounds like a time saver, but it turned into exactly the same type of curiosity / distraction. While trying to settle on one of the 800+ bottles, I spent too much time looking at the bottles of 1925 Chateau L├ęgendaire Maison Pompeux* that cost more than my car, and not enough time enjoying the conversation with my friends.

And after all, what's better - oohing and ahhing over a list of stuff you can't afford to drink, or drinking something good and sharing it with friends?

In my book, there's no contest.

Kind of like there's no contest in the upcoming Superbowl...

(images: picasa/chung, m-kerho.net)

* - Not a real producer. At least, not that I'm aware of, anyway...


Lenn Thompson | LENNDEVOURS.com said...

Agreed across the board.

I'm almost never with "wine geeks" when I'm at dinner, which means I'm always the one ordering the wine. I don't want to read a list for 30 minutes.

The Steelers WILL trounce the red birds.

I much prefer restaurants with small, well-considered lists, that really tie into the food coming out of the kitchen.

Anonymous said...

I was going to just disagree, but now that I see Lenn in agreement- I really have to disagree! ; )


The one thing you didn't mention in regards to big wine lists, is that they often they come with a sommelier who knows the list inside and out and can help you find what works, what is drinking well, what is a good deal etc

Joe- You can't knock "THE TEMPLE OF TERROIR" (Bern's) and get away with it!

I eat at Bern's 1-2x per month. Their list is massive- (they don't have 500K bottles, they have almost 2 million bottles.) As part of their wine program, they have 3 of the best, most down-to-earth sommeliers in the biz.

At a place like Bern's- you NEED these guys and want their recommendations. They have almost anything that you want, and a prices that will pleasantly shock you. I gleefully thumb through the list while waiting for a sommelier to come to the table- but then only look at it, while they are offering suggestions that match my budget, what I'm looking to experience, and ultimately what will work with my food.

You may not want to navigate their list, but you do want to see it. It comes with its own "Holy sh@#!!!" that you will repeat over and over again. They are known as much for their low prices as their breadth of selection. In the end, you will just be happy that you can close the list, and then talk to someone that knows it inside and out.

Huge wine lists are only as good as the people behind them. In Bern's case, this is the greatest wine list in the world.

Richard Auffrey said...

To me, context is important. I don't have a problem with the high-end restaurants with their huge and impressive wine lists. You almost expect their lists to be as thick as a telephone book. I like finding unique wines that I can't get elsewhere. And once the wine is chosen, I get put the list aside and concentrate on dining and conversation.

But, such lists do bug me at the smaller, especially suburban, restaurants. Such places don't sell as much wine and thus there is little reason to have a huge cellar. They are better off creating a smaller, more interesting wine list.

One local place has over 100 wine selections, yet the list has like 10 Chardonnays, all similar in style and price. They really don't need 10 such wines. They really should cut their list in half, at least, and get more variety. I know there is much of their wine just sitting around oin storage as no one orders it.

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks, Lenn - totally agree on the point about the upcoming STEELERS victory!

Hey Dirty - appreciate you keepin' me honest! I wasn't trying to diss Bern's per se, but I am dissing any phone-book-sized wine list tossed onto the table at a restaurant where they don't have adequately trained staff - to your point, having a knowledgeable wine staff *incredibly* important in those cases.

Richard A - I am in your camp, I think: give me a smaller selection of interesting choices any day over a whopping list of similar wines.


Anonymous said...

You know I'm just messin w/ you too. It is just that with any huge list, you need someone to act as cruise director. Bern's is the ultimate in this area.

I'm with you, I hate big lists with no help. I can and will navigate w/ the best of them, but when buying wine off a list, I want to choose what I don't know, vs something I know (I can't stand to pay 200-300% retail for something I can easily get a home). Good staff is essential for this.

Jeff (Good Grape) said...

Say, Joe -- did you get a picture with the beautiful sculptures outside of Aureole?


Joe Roberts said...

Dirty - it's always a pleasure man, stop by and comment whenever you like, and do NOT let me off easy!

Jeff - no pics outside of the place, I was too preoccupied with the wine list I guess...

CoreyDTT said...

I was at Bern's a few months back and the wine list looked like a NY telephone book, no lie. I didn't even attempt as I knew I would probably geek out for at least half an hour. So, i left it up to the Somm... That's what they're there for, right?

Anonymous said...

*Disclaimer: My wife disagrees with everything I'm about to say, and just wants me to talk to her during dinner

I love big lists in the right setting. Especially in older restaurants where they don't adjust the price with the auction market (which never seems to go down). BEAT THE LIST is my favorite game, and I love to find over looked bargins lost on a large list.
Unfortunatly many large lists were not compiled over years of purchasing, but at auction, make the prices way too high.
Most importantly, use the Sommelier, and don't be afraid to guide HIM. "I was thinking right bank bordeaux in this price range" (pointing to the price on the 2008 2 buck chuck)


Joe Roberts said...

Thanks Corey - but don't get Dirty started again! :-)

Hey Chris - great to hear from you again. Great advice, btw. Also, if you are cheering for the STEELERS then you are THE MAN!

Anonymous said...

A thoughtful and honest somm is worth very much. It *is* nice to be able to say "Tonight I want an Oregon Tempranillo with my steak. What do you recommend?" That's why a long list can be a good thing, as long as the selection is truly there. But too often you get long lists of Cabs and Chards of no distinction, and few choices beyond that. No imagination.

Jeff - Next time I am in Vegas I'll get you some booby wall photos ;)

Anonymous said...

I think huge wine list are a bit too much for the average restaurant patron. I like a good selection that is creative and has lots of unique wines and a good variety of ol' faithfuls. Love your wine blog, you have wine cred and great posts. I just linked you up under my "wine blogs of note" column on the Blog Wine Cellar! Cheers

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks Jefe - just curious, is the booby wall in the casino, or somewhere else "close to" the strip? :)

Thanks for the luv, BWC! Just an FYI, it's likely that I will be moving 1WineDude off of blogger to Wordpress (no luv lately from blogger, I'm afraid); so, if you list me in your blogroll, please use the www.1winedude.com address. Cheers!

Le Meems said...

Fur real!

I want to see 10-15 reds and 10-15 whites (bonus points if there are less than 5 cabs and 5 chards).

I want to see 10 sparklings and a few desserts mixed in for good measure.

Phone book wine lists distract me from playing footsie with my date and actually ENJOYING the wine I'm drinking, because I"m worried I should have picked something else.

Kinton said...

please, please do a list entitled "Why Napa Cabs Suck"

please please please

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks Le Meems! I hadn't even thought of the footsie angle...

Kinton - thanks, but, uhm... I've had enough controversy for the last 12 months... :)

Lenn Thompson | LENNDEVOURS.com said...

First, Joe doesn't think that Napa Cabs suck...if he gets a bottle for free ;)

The point about sommies is a good one -- I was thinking more along the lines of the stuffy restaurants that inexplicably do NOT have good sommeliers. We've all been to those places.

Then again, I tend to prefer smaller, less-stuffy restaurants too.


Joe Roberts said...

Did someone say free wine???

Anonymous said...

Bern's is a exception, it is widely known in the wine world for its huge selection. I work in the industry and agree that in many cases, the list is bigger than it oought to be for the given level of restaurant. But if the owner has the $, that is part of our freedom. Buy a lot, sell a lot.

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks, Anonymous. You bring up a really interesting point: do establishments with large wine lists sell more wine than those with smaller lists?

Anonymous said...

Dude! Glad you brought this up. One of the things I've wondered about huge wine lists is just how much the "wine-educated" staff (which are often no more than the head food server in many restaurants) knows about the list. It's near-impossible even for those of us in the wine industry to keep up with all the vintage and varietal variations year-to-year, let alone memorize a wine list's tasting notes and make appropriate suggestions for pairings. It becomes unwieldy, and I'm sure a lot of misinformation and mismatches occur as a result when working with such enormous lists. It takes me 1/2 hour just to get through some of the lists ... and that stresses me out.

Which leads me to my thought I'd like to posit to you: I've suspected that perhaps when customers ask for recommendations, the server will only recommend those that they (A) personally like, (B) read the tasting notes for, or (C) were told to push by management for whatever reason. How are we to know they truly know the whole list?

What irks me further about these tomes is that they're not always current (imagine reprinting costs!); a vintage I select may not be the one arriving at my table. And it can be vastly different in taste from what I'm expecting, or what I was told by the server. It's happened to me before.

That said, I agree with Lenn that restaurants should have a carefully considered wine list that pairs nicely with the menu items. Less chance for mishaps. :)

Oh, and as someone who was born and raised in Pittsburgh and has black-and-gold in her blood, I say loud and clear, "GO STEELERS!" (Hey, I live in Phoenix now, so imagine the crap I'm getting right this week ....)

Jeff (Good Grape) said...

All I keep thinking about on this thread is what an opportunity for the Somm. at Bern to write a book about their wine list -- give each wine a page and have him tell the bacakstory for how the wine was acquired and why it's special.

that's a money book right there.


Joe Roberts said...

Hey Jeff - that, or a movie.


Damn, that should have been the title of this post...

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks, Stevie. I can commiserate - I recall being told by restaurant staff during a dinner in PA that the wine available was not the vintage listed in their big wine list. Three times during the same dinner for the three different wines.

As for those Phoenix fans - hang in there, hopefully by Monday you will have a picture of the Steelers holding a 7th trophy that you can email to them to shut them up! :-)


Amy Atwood said...

I am with Lenn and Joe on this one. Big lists are distracting and overwhelming.
I am always impressed with a carefully thought out, concise list that perfectly compliments the menu.
I think the phonebook size wine list seems antiquated and elitist....and therefore has limited appeal to the average wine drinker.
I want more Americans to feel comfortable drinking (and choosing) wine with dinner.
The long lists are just another hurdle for them.

Joe Roberts said...

Thanks, Amy.

"I am always impressed with a carefully thought out, concise list that perfectly compliments the menu."

Beautifully stated!

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