Navigating the Restaurant Wine List Mine Field, Part 1

If you find it difficult selecting wine in a restaurant, you’re not alone. Often the wine lists contain only the name of the wine, the year, the price, and whether it’s white or red (with a rosé or sparkling thrown in the mix). Even if you know a lot about wines, restaurant wine lists can be packed with wines or producers you’ve never heard of. (And, as you loyal first vine customers know, you won’t find our wines there unless you bring them yourself.)

Your average restaurant lists about a page of wines, and that’s a lot to choose from if you’re unfamiliar with the selections. A longer list can make it worse. You’re more likely to see wines you know or have heard of before, but you’re often faced with two seemingly similar wines with very different prices. (Not that any one seems like a real bargain to begin with, either). And what’s really annoying is that if you take the plunge and try something new and love it, you can’t always count on finding it on the menu again.

We’ll offer some practical advice for you in the coming weeks. For today, though, we wanted to talk about why we think restaurant wine lists are the way they are. It’s not as simple as it appears. But let’s say up front that we can’t think of a good reason for not having useful information on a wine list. Even a one-sentence description of the wine and some suggested food pairings would help, and the restaurants’ wine buyers can get those from the distributors (and if not, they should be asking themselves why not).

On the most helpful end of the scale, we’ve been to a couple of restaurants with menus where every wine on the list was keyed to the menu items that would pair well with them. Sometimes you even get information about the wine producers (like, say, a certain website you may recall ;-)). This isn’t always available, but we appreciate it! When you find good wine information, the list is usually grouped by color and then by body or intensity, which allows you to pair wine with your meal assuming that the menu has enough information to let you do that. Keep in mind that restaurant servers are usually more familiar with the food selections than the wines, so they can probably help you determine the intensity of your meal.

Some restaurant wine lists are less overtly informative because they have trained staff who can help you make a selection. Like us first viners, wine is their life, and you should definitely take advantage of their expertise without fear or shame. Talk to them about what you like in wine and in food, and don’t be afraid to tell them how much you’d like to spend based on the range of prices on the list. Likewise, if they’ve helped you select a wine and you don’t like it, you should definitely say so because it will help them make a better choice for you. They ought to do this without complaint — happy diners come back, after all. (And don’t worry about the open bottle, they’ll be selling that by the glass at the bar).

Many restaurants like to keep their wine lists relatively exclusive, with wines you won’t find at other restaurants or at local retail shops. For some, it’s a genuine exclusivity, with wines that the chef, restaurant manager, or sommelier found by visiting the producer, and then negotiating with an importer or distributor to get the wine and be the only one in the region serving it. Or the restaurateur has a good relationship with a local distributor who brings him or her some of the real gems purchased from reliable importers and producers. If that’s the case, you’re in luck because even if the wine is expensive, considerable thought went into the selections.

On the other hand, exclusivity also means that since you can’t find the wine in a local shop, you won’t know just how much it has been marked up on the wine list. The markup can be considerable, at least three times the wholesale price for a bottle. If you’re buying the wine by the glass, the price of one glass is likely the same or more than what the restaurant paid for the whole bottle. Restaurant managers may work exclusive deals with distributors for that reason – which means that you can’t necessarily count on getting great wine with your meal if that’s the case.

Finally, as to wines dropping off the list just after you’ve found them, we have to say that we sympathize with the restaurants here. Restaurants are at the end of a supply chain that can go from producer to importer to distributor to the restaurant with different delivery mechanisms in between, and there is the potential for delay or changes in price at every link. And since restaurants don’t have the space to stockpile a large amount of each wine, they’re dependent on their distributors to get them the wine when they need it, and they may not be able to guarantee the supply if there are other customers who want that wine.

It’s not an easy decision to drop a popular wine, but if orders are low there’s less incentive to keep them on the list with vagaries in supply and price. Unless you let the management know that you’d like it back, restaurant wine buyers are probably right in thinking that you’ll just order something else.

So while you wait breathlessly for our “blind leading the blind” wine-picking hints in upcoming newsletters, there are a few ways to let the restaurant know you care about the issue. The first is to ask for better descriptions on wine lists. Also ask lots of questions, and definitely ask your server what the chef would recommend with a particular meal if he or she can’t help you enough (enough questions from diners and maybe the chef will make those pairings without being asked). If you find a wine list and menu food pairing that works well, let the restaurant management know what it is – it might be the beginning of seeing those pairings on wine list. And be adventurous, too. If you receive advice pointing to something unfamiliar, take the plunge. You might find a new favorite!

On to the recipe. Our calendar says it’s spring, but it’s dreary and cool. April showers, blah blah. We’d love to offer you something fresh and spring-y to make, but we’re not yet in that “fresh and local” window. So you’ll have to settle for “quick and tasty” Portabellas au Gratin instead. Our recipe is handwritten on a piece of paper copied from who knows where. But it is delicious. You can make the mushrooms with either marinara sauce or pesto, depending on what you have on hand. (A puree of roasted red pepper would work, too). Serve them as a starter or main course, or cut them in quarters as hors d’oeuvres, or serve them on a salad. Quick and tasty, as advertised, not too heavy, and just the thing until you’re sure it’s really spring.

But April is also the beginning of our ecological year, with Earth Day and other activities. So pair this dish with our TerraVentoux La Font Nouvelle red, a 100% organic blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, a perfect accompaniment to the portabellas and the cheese. While most French wines don’t use fertilizers, pesticides, or irrigation, the grapes for the Font Nouvelle are grown on a UNESCO World Heritage site with even stricter requirements. Better yet, the wine is 20% off through April. So be good to yourself, the planet, and your wallet all at once!

Bon Appetit!


Portabellas au Gratin
Serves 4 to 6

6 large portabella mushrooms, stems removed
Olive oil
Salt and freshly-ground pepper
Half a cup of marinara sauce, or prepared pesto or red pepper coulis
Half a cup of mozzarella cheese, either shredded or cut into very small pieces (fresh or the firmer kind from the supermarket)
One quarter cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. While the oven is heating, brush the mushrooms on both sides using about 3 tablespoons of olive oil, then salt and pepper. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, and cook the mushrooms until they’re tender, about five minutes on each side.

Lightly oil a baking dish large enough to hold the mushrooms. Place the mushrooms in gill side up. Spread whichever sauce you’re using over the mushrooms, then the mozzarella, then the parmesan. Drizzle with a little olive oil, then bake until the cheese is melted and nicely golden, about 15 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature.

2 Responses to Navigating the Restaurant Wine List Mine Field, Part 1

  1. Aparkeele says:

    Interesting story, didn’t thought it was going to be so awesome when I saw the link!

    • firstvine says:

      Thanks for checking us out — I’m working on part two for the not-too-distant future. One of my neighbors is a former restaurant owner/chef and has been giving me tips!

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