Another birthday passed. When I was a kid, I never understood Jack Benny’s joke about being thirty-nine. Why make up such an old age if you’re trying to sound young? Jack Benny has gotten a lot funnier as I get older.
I was talking with a good friend who is also in the wine business. We began talking about a couple of winemakers whose wines we both love and over time the conversation turned to restaurant wine lists. We realized that there are very few (if any) media sources that discuss wine lists or wine programs in any detail or depth. Wine programs are certainly are not taken seriously by food critics in the local Portland market. And I have never lived anywhere in the US where a restaurant critic gives anything more than a passing comment to a wine program in a restaurant review. To me, it has always seemed bizarre that a restaurant owner will make Herculean efforts to produce painstakingly lovely food in a beautiful environment, only to turn the wine program over to an employee with no wine or wine buying experience. The result is a wine program without direction or focus and at best a list of ill-chosen wines. More often, the end result is a very expensive monument to the wine buyer. Restaurant critics will go into great detail on how a dish is made or describe the server’s attention to detail, only to completely ignore the wine service and program, which can greatly affect the entire dining experience and also account for a significant portion of the tab.
Writing a good wine program takes a tremendous amount of effort and thought. What makes a wine list outstanding is not simply an outstanding selection of wines. I do not mean to deny that selection is not an important element. There are many fine wine lists out there with remarkable selections, but they are not outstanding wine programs. They may be awe-inspiring, but they are not all inspiring. What really counts is what you do with that selection of wines and how you present it.