Who is the wine list for?

How much should diners be expected to know about wine? What happens if a diner doesn’t want to engage with a sommelier? Robert Joseph weighs in on a contentious debate.

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash
Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash

Sommeliers are the new gods of wine.

That’s pretty much a given, now that traditional critics have seen their influence dissipate and wane.

And the best sommeliers are terrifically well-informed, passionate and eager to share that knowledge and enthusiasm with their customers – which will hopefully encourage them to buy more profitable bottles.

All of which is precisely as it should be, but as anyone with experience of wine service knows, there are lots of customers who don’t actually want to talk to them. These individuals may just be shy, or nervous about showing up their lack of wine knowledge, or chary of being nudged towards wines with higher prices than they want to pay. (When all is said and done, many people don’t really like having to interact with salespeople, and that, to be blunt, is a fair description of a sommelier’s role.)

Then there are the diners who have all sorts of other priorities, ranging from discussions of mergers and acquisitions, to the arrangements for a wedding or divorce. Quite a few may be keenly focused on seduction. None of these may be in the market for even the briefest rundown of Domaine Coûte-Trop-Cher’s chalky soil, Monsieur Nouveau-Truc’s egg-fermenters or the six-generation history of the Vraiment-Crevé family.

Yet these diners will still make a selection from the wine list. Some – a minority - will be enthusiasts (yes, even wine buffs sometimes have reasons not to talk to sommeliers); others will know little or nothing about wine beyond the labels of the bottles they most regularly drink.

Or they might, just possibly, be a restaurant critic like Helen Rosner of the New Yorker magazine, who recently shared one of her professional experiences online. Confronted with a wine list that included:

“Didier Chaffardon ‘Chnaploiod’
Le Haut Planty ‘Gwin Evan’
Les Vignes Herbel ‘La Rue aux Loups’
La Boulance Melon”

she reasonably wondered which of the “many many words on a wine list is the one word I’m supposed to say to indicate that this is the wine I want a glass of”.

The social media wine backlash was immediate, with responses such as “i don’t see why wine lists at small restaurants need to be comprehensible to a mass audience”.

To which I can only respond, “why not?”

I grew up in a family-run hotel in the south of England, with a fairly smart restaurant that was well reviewed in the guides of the time. For at least some of our customers, eating out on a Saturday night was a relatively exceptional occurrence, and represented a significant chunk of their weekly expenditure. Mario, the restaurant manager – known as a maitre d’hotel in those days – used, like many of his global counterparts, to judge the clientele by their shoes. Expensive footwear got you a better table. Even in my relative youth, I was more aware of people’s body language, and some certainly seemed far more at ease than others.

I’ve never forgotten the look on one diner’s face when the Steak Tartare he’d ordered arrived and turned out to be raw. This was in the late 1970s, when the UK was thought of as a culinary wasteland; avocados had only recently become available in supermarkets, so Steak Tartare was definitely a novelty in a rural setting like ours. Even in London, there would have been plenty of restaurant-goers who were just as unfamiliar with the notion of eating uncooked meat.

As unfamiliar as they and the vast majority of other diners will be with the idea of the Melon on Helen Rosner’s wine list being a kind of grape.

It is a very long time since I have earned money by serving wine, but I’ve seen lots of Steak Tartare type moments. Diners who find that the Vouvray or Alsace Pinot Gris they’d expected to be dry turns out to be sweet. Or that the Champagne or Savennières is far drier and more acidic than they’d anticipated.

What to make of the Pinot Noir with an alcohol level of 14.8%?

Or the white Rioja with a nutty, apparently oxidised character?

Send them back?

But can you do that with a wine that isn’t faulty, but which you just don’t like?

Quite a few people (including me) have had a hard time persuading sommeliers to acknowledge that a wine is corked. How easy is it to get them to replace a bottle that you are simply not enjoying?

How do you avoid the reproachful “You should have known what the wine would be like,” that was directed at the hapless customer who complained about the flavour of a Tondonia Rioja Blanco?

The simple answer lies in the restaurant taking the trouble to write a few words of description, explaining, for example, that Savagnin is not a mis-spelling of Sauvignon, but a quite different variety with a quite different flavour. Or that Tondonia’s white wines are unlike other examples from their region. Or that the cloudiness of a Pet Nat or the cidery character of a natural white is part of its appeal.

Having written over 20 books on wine and countless articles in newspapers and magazines, I don’t think of myself as lacking confidence when it comes to buying wine, but I’d have felt no happier choosing from the list that bothered Helen Rosner than she was.

Should I have asked the sommelier for help?

I am sure the restaurant sommelier is capable and helpful. But, frankly, I don’t enjoy being in situations where I am forced to have conversations with people other than my dining companions.

The place to offer a few words of explanation is on the wine list. It’s that simple.

Robert Joseph


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