Goldilocks would be all too comfortable navigating today’s wine lists. “Most of these are too boring,” she would think. Occasionally, a tiny little wine bar brings a different reaction. “These wines are all the somm’s pets. They are too strange.” Alas, Goldilocks by now learned not to give up easily (this is of course years after her bear encounter), and eventually she locates the elusive list. “This is just right.” You, too, are likely to be handed all of these types of lists at a restaurant or wine bar. Here’s how to navigate them.
The Too Boring List: The most common of wine lists, its formation starts when restaurant owners and buyers share little interest in or knowledge of wine. The list is complete when a distributor shows up and offers to print the wine list or some other favor in trade for choosing the wines on offer. The restaurant and drinks business are not fairy tales, though. The wines on these lists aren’t chosen for their ability to pair with the food. More likely, sales goals and incentives are the lead decision-makers. It’s easy to spot these lists because even a casual wine imbiber is likely to recognize most of the names. Most of these wines are perfectly fine. None of them are likely to be amazing or make you exclaim at a new wonderful food and wine pairing. When choosing from these lists, the goal is finding a satisfactory wine without being gouged by the price. Unless you are lucky, the staff are unlikely to offer much guidance beyond telling you which wines are popular. Decide if white (seafood, high acid foods) or red (meat, rich foods) is likely to go with everyone’s meal, and pick from there. Probably stay away from chardonnay unless everyone wants it. It is likely to be heavily oaked, which is a more divisive style, and will make some pairings problematic. A sauvignon blanc, pinot noir or merlot are usually fine.
The Somm’s Pet List: On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the somm’s Pet List. These are most often encountered in cities. Most of the winery names will be unrecognizable, even unpronounceable. Even many of the grapes are often inscrutable. The wines might be categorized into white, orange and red. These places are all very high on the risk/reward level. A glass could make you rethink what wine even is. There might be a new food pairing that takes you on a philosophical journey about the nature of taste. Conversely, it’s possible you drink something that makes you wonder if they just put the dirty dishwater in a bottle. You are at the mercy of the somm/server here, but the good news is that almost every sommelier wants to sell you a bottle that will bring you joy. The somms to watch out for are those who think the list is more of a personal testimony to themselves, their great wine knowledge and taste. That means the wines might not have anything to do with the food being served. You also might be surprised that despite all of the different places and grapes on offer, the wines fit into a general spectrum of flavor and style. Fans of rich, oaky wines could have problems here. The best course of action is to explain what you and your party like, how much you would like to spend, and what everyone is eating, and let the somm do the work. That will bring the odds strongly in your favor, and while you might not like every wine chosen for you, the odds are quite high that not only will you try something new and great, but you might have found a new spot to learn more about wine. If there is nobody to offer guidance and you’d like to play it safe, probably ignore the orange wines.
Then there is the Just Right list. Elusive, but marvelous. This is the list that isn’t too long, isn’t too familiar or too strange, and carries selections that are specifically thought of in the context of the food. There is almost always someone knowledgeable about the list who will listen attentively and offer a well-thought-out selection. There should be a combination of familiar and unknown wines, so that you can embrace the flavors of a known commodity or reach a little to the unknown. Often the wines are not that flashy at first, not as exotic as the Somm’s Pet List. However, when the food comes, both the wine and dish is elevated. Afterward you might have a difficult time separating the wine from the dish in your memory.
And yes, if all else fails, and you have no idea what to do and no interest in dropping a lot of money on an unknown, buying the second least expensive wine in the category you are considering has a surprising success rate.