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Thoughts on Awful Wine Lists

Thoughts on Awful Wine Lists

Aaron Ayscough | Chef's Blade

The myth of wine, as it is sold in restaurants, is wedded to the myth of pairing. Any restaurant with an eye towards gastronomic quality asks us to believe that its wine list was carefully hand-selected to include wines that complement the restaurant’s unique cuisine, or at very least, its general concept. Such a list must be rigorously maintained, to ensure that it follows the seasonality of the menu. It must present a range of flavor profiles in proportions appropriate to consumer tastes, as well as to the general thematic coherence of the meal. Such a list must even at times sacrifice popular appeal for the sake of effective pairing.

Such a list is, inevitably, a myth. Or practically mythical. I know from my work with a small, quality-conscious wine importer that it is the rare wine buyer at a restaurant whose belief in proper pairings can be expected to trump more common considerations, like price, personal friendship, or ease of accounting when it comes to purchasing wine from a distributor. The fact is that most wine lists – even those at some otherwise respectable restaurants – are ghostwritten by representatives from gigantic liquor conglomerates. Leaving aside for the moment the issue of staffing educated sales reps – a low priority for these companies – their sheer size and reach means they must by necessity enforce a certain consistency in the wines they distribute. By this I mean a sameness, a quality that is in itself antithetical to the subject of wine, whose ageless allure lies in its variability, diversity, and changeability.

But for restaurants for whom wine is at best a nod to dining convention, sameness can be a goal, as it is for the Southern Wines & Spirits representative who hammers out a hundred orders each week for the restaurants in Beverly Hills. In fact, for the majority of people involved in restaurant service, components in wine such as rusticity, earthiness, or nuance each amount to potential perceived flaws. Potential returns, potential interruptions, potential crediting hassles.