I somewhat belatedly read my fellow Palate Press columnist Evan Dawson’s article on corkage and then, also somewhat belatedly, The Gray Report post in which W. Blake Gray (also a fellow Palate Press columnist) responded to Dawson. When I realized that I had more to say about the topic than was going to fit tidily into a comment on either piece, I thought that I’d continue the chain by responding here. Please don’t think that I’m trying to steal either Evan or Blake’s thunder. Everything I’ve seen tells me that both Evan and Blake are great guys and even better writers, and I couldn’t steal their thunder even if I wanted to.
Blake asks the pertinent and (characteristically) punchy question: should a wine list educate or is the wine list just a price list? His question is prompted by realizing that he (an experienced wine writer, no less) doesn’t recognize most of the offerings on the wine list Jeremy Parzen has compiled at Sotto, which Dawson used as an example of a particularly thoughtful and interesting list. Since Blake can’t order based on familiarity and is given only the most general information about the wine – name, vintage, red or white, “bold” or light, and a very general idea of place (it’s an Italian restaurant; most of the wines are also Italian) – he has three options.
- Ask the sommelier for advice. Blake dismisses this option as impractical because the somm isn’t always there and takes a long time to arrive table-side when he or she is. And while some servers are reliable sources of knowledge about the wine list, most are not.
- Choose a wine based on price.
- Bring his own bottle from home (which is the original connection with Evan’s article on corkage.)
The fourth option, which Blake didn’t mention, is to pull his smart phone out of his pocket and use his favorite wine app to look up tasting notes on the list’s mystery wines, but I’m going to give Blake the benefit of the doubt and guess that he’s too much the polite diner to unholster a cell phone at table.
Both Evan’s and Blake’s articles caused me to reflect on how narrow an audience they’re really addressing. We’re all addressing a narrow audience when we write about wine; most people don’t care enough about wine to read about it for fun, and that’s especially true of the geeky stuff I prefer. But Evan and Blake are writing to people who, additionally, live in sizable cities with significant fine dining restaurants AND who eat out at such establishments often enough to think about bringing their own bottles from home. I suspect that this does, in fact, describe most of the readership of Palate Press and The Gray Report, but it definitely doesn’t describe me. Blake lives in the San Francisco area. ‘Nuff said. Evan lives in Rochester, NY where I also once lived and so which I can attest is definitely not San Francisco, but it still has some reasonable restaurants. It unquestionably has restaurants whose wine lists surpass the boundaries of my wine knowledge.
I live in Pullman, Washington, a town the size of which is overstated by its 30,000-somethingish population estimate. Pullman is a small town on the Washington-Idaho border, smack-dab in the middle of wheat- and lentil-farming country, that just happens to have a sizeable university (Washington State) stuck in the middle of it. It is, therefore, a peculiar blend of redneck farm community and partying college town. I love it. I love living in a town where I have a field ten minutes from my door and where I can’t go to the grocery store without seeing someone I know, but which has the critical mass necessary for cultural events. And a decent library. But what we don’t have are restaurants of the caliber that Evan and Blake assume are the norm. Pullman restaurants are largely designed to feed college students, which means neither fine dining nor notable wine lists. I’d qualify one restaurant in town (the lovely Black Cypress) as “fine dining” – two if I include the nearby Idaho town of Moscow – and its short but satisfactory wine list favors Washington and Oregon enough that I can reliably identify every glass and bottle. I’ll guess that at least some other readers can relate. We don’t all live in San Francisco or New York or even Rochester.
Back to Blake’s question about whether the wine list should educate or can be just a price list. As much as I enjoy the former, I’m honestly okay with the latter, which brings me to my second point about narrow audiences. On the rare occasions when I find myself within range of a good restaurant, I don’t have a lot of money to spend there. I know that more expensive bottles generally carry a proportionally lower markup and are therefore a better deal. I often know that some of the more expensive bottles are hard-to-find treasures, and sometimes I know that they’re really yummy. But none of that matters when you’re a grad student who’s functionally living below the poverty level. I DO use the wine list as a price list. I don’t make a selection based on price alone – there are usually a few options around the lowest price point and I can rule out bottles that I know I don’t like or that are inappropriate for what I’m eating or that are horribly overpriced – but price still ranks as the most important factor in my decision. Hand me Jeremy Parzen’s beautiful wine list at Sotto and I’ll have no trouble making a decision even though I’m woefully incompetent at Italian wines. I want something red, and I want something bold – because I’m eating a braised oxtail dish, let’s say – so I go to that section of the list. The least expensive bottle is something called a syrache, which sounds a lot like syrah and I know that I’m hit-or-miss on liking syrahs, so I move to the second least expensive bottle. This one says “di Sardegna” which I’m pretty sure means “from Sardinia” and I’ve heard a lot of interesting things about Sardinian wine. Sold.
The worst thing that can now happen is that I don’t like the wine which, at a restaurant of Sotto’s caliber, is more likely to mean that I simply don’t care for it than that it’s poorly made. (If the bottle is clearly flawed I would send it back, but I’d also say that I’m more confident than the average consumer about my ability to identify wine faults.) Whether I like it or not I’ve probably learned something. It’s possible that the wine isn’t a good representative of it’s type and that I’ve therefore not learned anything that I can generalize beyond this specific wine, but that also seems unlikely in a restaurant like this with Jeremy Parzen running the wine show.
Actually, I’m much more likely to order a beer or stick with water regardless. Obscene markups on restaurant wine lists bother me so much that I rarely drink wine in restaurants even when I’m not the one paying. At less schmancy places with little or no wine on offer I feel fine bringing a modest but interesting bottle of my own. I won’t bring a bottle to someplace like Sotto unless the bottle ranks comfortably in price with their own list AND rocks, and since I have no such bottles in my cellar I won’t bring one. So I’ll drink water or, if the beverage manager has been thoughtful enough to put together an interesting beer list with a few curiosities, I’ll order one of those. Beer is usually an obviously better deal and, if I’m lucky, I’ll find keg- or cask-only offerings that I couldn’t try at home, all for less than the least expensive glass of wine on the menu, and almost universally more interesting.
I would be overjoyed to find a wine list full of things I’ve never seen before with clear, accurate, and interesting descriptions of its contents. But, if I did find such a list, I would:
- Be tempted to rudely bury my nose in the wine list rather than attending to my dining companion, should I have one;
- Take 75 minutes to place my order because it took me that long to read the list and I forgot to look at the menu; and
- Still order wine based primarily on price.
So, in the end, perhaps it’s better that the wine list act as a price list rather than an educational tool. When I go out to eat, I want to enjoy the meal and, hopefully, the pleasure of good company. I might not do either of those things very well should my attention be caught by an educational wine list. I can learn about wine at home, and that’s probably the best place for it.
I know that most people reading Evan’s and Blake’s articles aren’t like me but, if there are any who are, know that you’re not alone. To Evan and Blake, thanks for the thought-provoking reads. And I envy you getting to eat in those restaurants.