What is the Best Way For a Restaurant to Organize a Wine List?

What is the best way to organize a restaurant wine list, the menu of the wines available to accompany the food? The traditional answer is to arrange the wines geographically. Sections are named Red Bordeaux, California Red, Germany, Spain etc. If you are a wine expert this is probably the best way, at least prior to internet technology, to organize the wine list.

However, for anyone other than the wine expert, the geographical wine list fails in two respects. First, if you stare at, say, the “Red Burgundy” section. There is no indication that each of these wines is made from 100% Pinot Noir grapes. You just know that or you don’t, and the geographical layout in the wine list does not inform you. If the list were arranged by grape type then these red burgundies would have been listed under Pinot Noir, along with doubtless Oregon and California examples as well.

The second failure of the geographical layout is even more serious in my view. It doesn’t help you decided what wine to choose with your food. As a source of expertise, it is like having the world’s best archeologist introduced to you as the person who will be doing your colonoscopy today.

Jump, there’s more.Wait, I hear you say. Isn’t the wine waiter (sommelier) supposed to be the intermediary between the list and the food? That is true, and is ultimately the best solution. The problem, while many restaurants want to offer a decent wine selection to their customers, they can’t afford to hire a full-time person. Instead they hope to educate their staff to help the customer.

For the broad swathe of mid-priced restaurants with 50-100 different wines on the list that do not have a specially trained sommelier on staff, I want to suggest a couple of reasonable ways to reorganize a list.

One way is to integrate the wine list with the menu so that the total dining experience is more enjoyable. Restaurants should choose a method of organization, say by geography, and keep it as a separate list. On the food menu, the list maker could add a couple of selections from that list to each item as a suggested pairing, at least in the entrée section of the menu.

Below is the entrée section of the menu at Central 214. This is Executive Chef Blythe Beck’s summer menu that I described a few weeks ago. It is divided into seafood and meat. I have chosen Central 214 as an example because this menu works with wine and the restaurant has a selection of about 80 different bottles that have been carefully chosen. I don’t know if it was assembled by people on the ground in Dallas or by the parent company, Kimpton, but I suspect the latter. The only shortcomings I found were the heavy New World emphasis, which eliminated certain flavor categories (e.g. whites from Alsace and several Italian reds) and compromised others (e.g. a poor value California Tempranillo rather than one of the many inexpensive good ones from Spain).

Also, one of the two California Viognier wines on the list could be replaced with an example from Texas that would be as good and less expensive. I could also not find a rosé on the list (although there may be a lurker in there). That said, there are plenty of good selections on this list. Prices indicated below are per glass/bottle and represent the per bottle price when only one number is given. In order that the wine titles are not intrusive on the menu I have omitted obvious information from the name. For example, domestic wines don’t get the country listed.

Here is the seafood selection. Below is my thinking behind the pairings.

pan seared texas redfish
texas shrimp cocktail and avocado
2009 Paco & Lola Albarino, Rias Baixas, Spain 11/432010 Sea Glass Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara, California 9/35
diver scallops
creamy tomato orzo, central 214 chow chow
2008 Selby Chardonnay, Russian River, Sonoma Co., California 14/55NV Veuve Cliquot, Champagne, France 21/84
grilled halibut
broccoli casserole, shallot butter sauce
2008 Mer Soleil “Silver” Chardonnay, Santa Lucia, California 12/472009 Erath Pinot Noir, Oregon 12/47
central clam boil
littleneck and cherrystone clams, texas sausage, roasted corn, potatoes and okra
2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle, Riesling, Washington 10/392009 Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand 13/51

Whites pair best with seafood but not any white with any seafood. Beck’s Texas redfish brings dynamic range to a town suffocating in sea bass. The earthy flavors in its flesh work well with high acid wines like the Albarino. For customers who want something more familiar, the Sauvignon Blanc should be appealing.

The scallops in the second selection are served with tomato orzo – a challenge due to two very different flavors. The power of the Selby Chardonnay should prevent it becoming buried. Russian River is a reliable source of quality New World Chardonnay. For the adventurous, there is Champagne. The French drink it with scallops in the Champagne region, where they actually advocate the bubbly throughout the meal.  The non-vintage Veuve Cliquot is a good and very typical example of Champagne.

Halibut is an oily fish like salmon or trout. A powerful Chardonnay works. I am less enamored with the notion of ‘red wine with fish’ than some people, although I am sure it sold a lot of copies of a popular book by that name a few years back. However, as a hand wave to those who practice this witchcraft, the Erath Pinot Noir should be soft enough to work.

Finally, Beck’s clam boil is screaming for wine. For strong flavors go with the Washington State Riesling. For high acid and crispness, the unmistakable herbaceous flavors of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc can be found in the Whitehaven.

One criticism that could be leveled at my suggested whites is that they are mainly in the same price range. Some people may want to splurge so I have widened the price band in some cases with the reds below.

16oz, grilled, potato salad, fried okra, cayenne butter
2009 Crios Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina 10/392007 Josh Cabernet Sauvignon, North Coast, California 10/39
fried green tomatoes
burrata cheese, lavender basil chimichurri
2009 Benton Lane Pinot Gris, Willamette Valley, Oregon 11/432009 Davis Bynum Chardonnay, Russian River, Sonoma Co., California 11/40
chicken and waffles
spicy fried chicken, buttered waffle, jalapeno gravy
2007 Gary Farrell Chardonnay, , Russian River, Sonoma Co., California 662007 Renard Roussanne, Santa Yzez, California 53
grilled filet mignon
white bean ragout, spicy bacon reduction
2006 Franciscan Merlot, Napa Valley, California 10/392007 Greg Norman Petite Sirah, Paso Robles, California 15/59
brown sugar crusted pork tenderloin
cherry rice pilaf, peach demi-glace
2009 Byron Pinot Noir, Santa Barbara Valley, California 12/472007 Archery Summit Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon 96
chicken fried kobe steak
slow braised mustard greens, butter whipped potatoes, bacon-red eye gravy
2008 Evening Land “Table” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California 15/592006 Concha Y Toro “Don Melchor”, Chile 168
lemon thyme roasted poussin
crispy fingerling potatoes, toasted garlic green beans, poussin pan gravy
2006 Anglim “Cameo” White Rhone Blend, Paso Robles, California 542007 Consilience Viognier, Santa Barbara 56

Ribeye is a fairly fatty cut of meat so it is ideal to pair with tannic wine. The fat of the meats moderates the tannins. This is why ‘steak and Cabernet’ is a classic combination. Here we have a young Argentinean Malbec (Cabernet Sauvignon’s Andean first-cousin) and a blended Cabernet Sauvignon from California.

Fried green tomatoes. I am not quite sure what type of meat these are (?) but they probably don’t add much to wine. They are too acidic, even with the softening of the frying batter. For those who do want a wine suggestion I would encourage not to spend too much money, hence these suggestions. The Pinot Gris or Chardonnay should add some fruitiness.

The fried chicken (with jalapeno gravy on the chicken) and waffles dish gives us a chance to pair an oily, complex Chardonnay or the earthy, minerally richness of the excellent and unusual Renard Roussanne.

The filet mignon has less fat than the ribeye so this is a chance to recommend a softer red like Merlot. The Petite Sirah is for those who want a big wine with this meat, but something other than Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pork tenderloin, although pitched as the ‘other white meat’, works better with light red wines. On this wine list the Pinot Noir choices are the best example of this. One of the recommendations here is for those who want to splurge.

Chicken fried Kobe steak, like the other steak items, is a good match with Cabernet based wines. The second one recommended is expensive but it did get a classic 95 points from wine critic Robert Parker and is priced at about two and a quarter times retail (not bad!).

Finally, the lemon roasted poussin (Central 214 must be the only Dallas restaurant serving a classical French painter roasted with lemons. Andrew Zimmern would be proud). An unusual piece of poultry might attract those who want an unusual white wine so I matched it with two southern Rhone types. The Anglim is a blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier and the Consilience is a 100% Viognier.

This suggested reorganization is designed to cut the wine choice down to a couple of specifics for those who find themselves more confused than edified by the typical wine list. As I said above, the regular wine list would still be available for those who want to see the full range of choice.


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