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Are Short Wine Lists Truly Back in Style?

Randy Caparoso, The Somm Journal

“Water, water, everywhere,” wrote Coleridge, “nor any drop to drink.” That’s how I’ve always felt about the palatability of big wine lists—in my book, anything over 150 selections. Way back in the late 1970s I read about Kevin Zraly, who said, “Eighty percent of our wine sales always came from about 40 wines . . . the other 800 to 1,200 wines on our wine lists [at New York’s legendary Windows on the World] were no more than window dressing.”

As a young sommelier I took that to heart. In fact, inspired by Michelin-starred French chefs who hand-wrote their dinner menus each day, for a short time in the early ‘80s I tried writing out (and photo-copying on parchment) 50- to 60-selection wine lists—until computers came along, at which point it became even easier to bang out our short wine lists, several times a day if we wanted. Freedom!

* Problem, of course, was that it was the wine lists with hundreds or thousands of selections that usually got the most press, or garnered “Grand Awards.”

Still, we earned our share of national awards—for the quality of our wine programs, not their size—and our restaurants were profitable and critically successful enough to expand to over a dozen states.

“Thirty bottles is the new 300,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote just a few years back, while quoting Christie Dufault, a former working sommelier who now teaches at Culinary Institute of America Greystone (and contributes to The Somm Journal). To Dufault’s thinking, “A lot of time you go into these places with huge wine lists, these tomes . . . but you can’t find anything to drink.”

Dufault, of course, is referring to the fact that big wine lists are typically filled out with wines you can find anywhere, not so much of what might impress knowledgeable or adventurous wine lovers. The best wine lists, she says, “should be like a short story . . . every word should count”—which is what she has been teaching her students, assigning exercises where they are graded on lists with no more than 50 selections.

FSR (Full-Service Restaurants) magazine recently covered Austin’s popular Eastside Café, where owner Chef Elaine Martin took a scalpel to her wine program following the departure of her business partner, who had been in charge of the wines. Martin said she is much happier with a wine program consisting of no more than 24 selections (by the bottle and glass).

Sharpened food affinity, ease of dining, maximum flexibility and creativity—for these reasons alone you have to ask, why even bother with oversized wine programs?

 

Randy Caparoso

The Somm Journal

  • Cassandra Brown

    Great article, my friend! I’ve worked with the large and the small, many times over, and fortunately each fit into the niche that it was meant for. There are benefits and drawbacks to both large and small lists. Whatever we are working with and whatever cards our establishment, our brand or our company guidelines deal us, the best thing is for us to do as wine professionals, is to make our guests feel valued, to make our guests feel comfortable and to make sure our guests have a great experience while they are in ‘our care’!

    October 19, 2016 at 11:45 pm Reply

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