Ours is an era of culinary athleisure. The hottest restaurants specialize in expensive understatement, serving cult toasts and Michelin-starred pizza, and rendering $200 porterhouses and muscular Napa Cabs not obsolete, exactly, but certainly not cutting edge, either.
The format and formality of wine lists are similarly shifting. Those grand, leather-bound tomes of yesteryear, wherein 10 pages might be devoted to French whites, are increasingly replaced by one-page printouts (or, better yet, a hand-written chalkboard!) comprised of a few reds, whites, a rosé, and maybe a Pét-Nat or grower Champagne.
It’s unclear whether these slimmed-down selections are necessarily an improvement for diners. Is it easier for consumers to approach a 15-bottle list than an encyclopedic tome? Or do restaurants with limited offerings risk alienating all but the savviest of drinkers?
“I’m a fan of the hyper-curated list because it maintains a focus,” Piper Kristensen, beverage director of Brooklyn’s Oxalis restaurant, says. His 50-bottle wine program has “gotten a lot of people to try some wines that are maybe outside of their comfort zone. For the most part, people have been really pleasantly surprised,” he says.
The mix is key. “If you’re going to have a shorter list, you need to have a little bit of everything,” says David Osenbach, wine director of Los Angeles’s Providence restaurant. There should be some bottles that will be familiar to most of your guests, as well as some surprises for curious drinkers.
Margot Mazur, sommelier at Rebel Rebel in Somerville, Mass., believes a well-edited list can demonstrate how much thought the restaurant puts into its wine program. “I look to restaurants like Sarma in Boston, who champion wines from the Mediterranean to match their similarly placed food menu,” she says. “Instead of feeling overwhelmed, the guest is intrigued and feels empowered to make a decision and to ask questions.”
Think about your favorite local Italian restaurant. If it has a short list of primarily Italian wines, you know you can pick one and it will likely complement your meal. On the other hand, if the kitchen serves southern Italian fare, and the wine list contains four California Chardonnays, three Oregon Pinot Noirs, and a smattering of obscure French varietals, many diners won’t know what to order.
Smart wine lists of any length reflect the restaurant’s culinary ideology. At Parallel 37 in San Francisco, for example, the menu features local ingredients and lists the provenance of everything from Dungeness crab to the Port Reyes-born blue cheese accompanying a beef tenderloin. Fittingly, the 20-bottle wine list skews heavily Californian.
“My best sellers are my servers, and no one can memorize a 1,000-wine list,” says Jacqueline Hültner, assistant director of food and beverage at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco, which contains Parallel 37.
Meanwhile, Oxalis’s chef Nico Russell changes his hyper-seasonal New American menu almost daily, so Kristensen has a similarly ephemeral approach to his list, often buying one case of wine at a time. “The wines we get are released very seasonally. They’re here just for a minute and then they’re gone. That works with the way Nico designed his menu,” Kristensen says.
Granted, that means if you loved the Spatburgunder you had with your duck rillettes at Oxalis last month, neither might be available the next time you visit. But it’s in keeping with the market-driven spirit of the restaurant.
Seth Rogin, the CEO of a media and advertising company in NYC, estimates he dines out two of every three nights a week. He believes the size of a restaurant’s wine list is considerably less important than the skill of its staff.
“I’ve seen phenomenal short lists as much as I’ve seen the big binder. It really matters more what level of insight and care comes to the list,” Rogin says. He recalls an evening at the Beatrice Inn in Manhattan, when an especially skilled sommelier made suggestions for both his meal and after-dinner entertainment based on the wine he had purchased from a 220-bottle list. “It was spot-on!” Rogin says. “The wine list can really make you connect with the restaurant.”
That’s good news for those operating smaller cellars. After all, from a practical standpoint, wine lists can only be as expansive as storage allows. “I always know my wine-purchasing budget is up when I’ve run out of space in the wine room. When I have no more room to put things, I’m like, ‘Ah, I probably shouldn’t buy anything.’ The accountants have different metrics for measuring,” Osenbach says.
If you’re in a tiny boite serving seasonal small plates in, say, Brooklyn or Oakland, it makes sense if the wine list is slim and focused on young wines. Many modern city restaurants don’t have budgets or storage capacity for expansive, Bern’s Steak House-style, old-school cellars.
Those long wine lists can be challenging, too. An expansive collection can intimidate diners even as it awes them with its breadth and expertise.
“Having 1,000 wines on your list is less impressive than it is overwhelming, and, as a consumer, I don’t want to come to a restaurant and have to take 30 minutes poring over the list,” Mazur says. “I want to know that the restaurant tasted through options and curated their list to match their menu and their style. I want to trust the restaurant to help me in my decision-making process.”
Orsenbach agrees. “I can see people being like, ‘I don’t know anything on here, there’s too much going on, I’m overwhelmed, I’ll just get a cocktail,’ and then you’ve defeated the purpose of having this giant and/or esoteric wine list,” he says.
Herein lies the secret to excellent restaurant wine programs. Regardless of quantity, all the wines need to be accessible to all the diners and staff. If no one but the head sommelier and their two best friends can figure out how the list is organized, or what might appeal to someone who typically only drinks New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, it’s missing the mark.
“You have to put your hospitality hat on,” Dan O’Brien, owner and winemaker, Gail Wines, says. Otherwise, the restaurant will alienate guests — and probably not sell very much wine.
“I want to have a wine list where, if I died in the middle of service, people are still able to order wine,” Orsenbach says. “It can have 12 bottles nobody’s heard of, or 150 pages of things people know, but you have to have people in the restaurant who can help you navigate all that if you need it.”