Luring Wine Drinkers Into the Tree of Trust

I haven’t written much recently as I have taken full advantage of living near the sandy beaches of New Jersey.  When not sitting on the beach, I have been running, cycling and recouping with ample amounts of rosé in the backyard tomato garden.  Interesting wine stories coming through the RSS has been few and far between this summer, though I am intrigued by what I read about tomato “wine” coming out of Canada.

One of the storylines that caught my interest is the emerging debate over the approachability and level of user-friendliness of restaurant wine lists.  Over the past decade or so, sommeliers (and boutique retailers) have focused not only on estate bottled wines from small production wineries, but also on appellations that might not be easily recognizable by the casual wine drinker.  Wine geeks normally don’t have much trouble navigating a list laden with selections from Jura, Roussillon or the Sierra Foothills, to name a few.  Without wines from more popular regions such as Sancerre, Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Napa, less savvy wine drinkers who aren’t hip to latest trends might find themselves a little lost at sea.

Though the journey that is reading through the selections of an esoteric wine list is nothing new, the Twitteratti are engaged in a heated debate on the importance of recognizable regions and grape varieties on wine lists.  The argument seems to be rooted in an article in the New York Post written by current social media whipping boy of the month, Steve Cuozzo.  I have never met Mr. Cuozzo, nor have I ever felt to inclined to read more than a column or two on the Yankees in the Post, but I understand the swift responses coming from other wine writers, including Eric Asimov in today’s New York Times.  Below is the gist of Cuozzo’s rant which is the ethos of many a dining room curmudgeon.

Ordering wine can be a nuisance even in the easiest case. You’re making a pricey decision that will affect everyone’s meal. You poke through the list under guns of time and noise in an under-lit room while thirsty friends beg you to get on with it.

Seasoned diners can cope. What’s tougher is when a restaurant sets out to prove a point with its “wine program,” a strategy that results in a list that’s 100-percent inscrutable.

Now, my issue isn’t with how Cuozzo feels about difficult to read wine lists.  I was the sommelier in New Jersey for the better part of a decade – no one needs to explain to me how difficult it is to sell someone Lagrein from Trentino-Alto Adige.  Try selling anything but Pinot Grigio to a table of pre-theater diners splitting two salads six ways and tell me how it works out.  My issue is with the stubbornness of diners like Cuozzo who refuse to ask the sommelier for a recommendation that might not be obvious to them then complain to their friends at the club that the restaurant they went to last weekend didn’t have much to offer on its wine list.

The most enjoyable role as sommelier (and salesman on the street) was (and is) to guide those unfamiliar with Bandol, Wachau and Somontano to those special places on the list that satisfies their urge to try something new.  And for those not looking to escape their comfort zone and lay up with a buttery Chardonnay from California, helping them choose between ten selections was just as satisfying.

No restaurant with a wine list worth its salt should leave even its most claustrophobic customers to want for anything – including a wine selection that fits both their comfort zone and price point.  Eric Asimov generally agrees, but he concludes that, “the enemy isn’t obscure wines or challenging lists. It’s fear of wine.”  I disagree, most diners that do not ask questions and uncomfortably order a bottle without fully knowing if their selection will fulfill their desires are not afraid of wine – they are afraid of speaking with the sommelier.  For them, waving away the sommelier or ordering from the list or IPad without a recommendation and having the bottle appear at their table is sufficient.  And that is one of my biggest fears with the current evolution of wine buying – wine drinkers missing out on a bottle that might turn out to be an eye-opening experience.  They would never know what they missed because they were too busy tweeting pictures of their filet mignon while drinking a cult Cabernet that’s treated with 200% new oak.  And unless you are lucky enough to work in a hip, metropolitan restaurant or shop, luring wine drinkers into the nest in the tree of trust has proven to be the wine cognoscenti’s most difficult task.