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Sep 26, 2007 07:01 AM

Wines by the glass: prefer different or the familiar?

Well, this is probably the wrong place to ask, I'd assume everyone here is up for different wines, but here's my question: Do you think an average diner would be put off, or excited by a wine list lacking in the usual suspects (no glasses of pinot grigio, pinot noir, merlot, etc)? Would a wine list featuring varietals lesser known to the general public be a draw or a drawback? Personally, I'm no wine expert, but I love to open a wine list and order wines I know nothing about -- particularly when an educated staff can guide me toward something that will be to my taste. But I'm not sure about the average diner. If you were putting together a wine list, which way do you think you'd lean?

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  1. I *do* put together wine lists, and you have to have both . . . a small number of "familiar" wines for the less adventurous, and some lesser known wines for the more adventurous. It isn't an "either/or" stuation.

    10 Replies
    1. re: zin1953

      No, I think you could do without both - in fact, I think most wine lists do.

      Most wine lists feature the "usual suspects" and I think the average diner would be put off by a wine list that featured nothing familiar.

      1. re: FrankJBN

        You CAN do without both, Frank . . . but the list (and your customers) would suffer.

        1. re: zin1953

          A16 in San Francisco does both and it's still a great list.

          1. re: zin1953

            So you disagree that most wine lists in the country feature only the "usual suspect"?

            Zin asserted that it is mandatory that a wine list has both "you have to have"

            I respond that this is not so and most don't. This means most customers are satisfied with such offerings.

            Bear in mind I am not saying that a good wine list is comprised of nothing but standard offerings. Nor am I saying that a wine list offering more extensive choices is not better.

            I am saying that the majority of wine lists in America, and this includes by definition those that offer "Burgundy, Chablis, Blush" do not offer eclectic choices.

            Honestly, i don't think the customers of these establishments are suffering in silence. I think they are satisfied, otherwise they would ask for and receive more choices.

            1. re: FrankJBN


              My immediate reaction to your post is that I never said it was "mandatory." Then, I looked at my post and I did use the word "have" ("you have to have both").

              OF COURSE you can have a list that is nothing but "the usual." But why would you? I would still say it's not mandatory, but that you have to have both . . . IF you want to attract and maintain a certain clientle. But let me explain further -- with as little backtracking as necessary.

              There is a huge difference between the coasts and the vast middle of the country. Heck, there is a huge difference between the SF Bay Area and LA on the one hand, and places like Palm Springs, Yosemite Valley and Eureka on the other! You can survive all year round in the latter three locations with nothing but the usual offerings on your by-the-glass list; try doing that in the area from Monterey to Mendocino, or in West LA and Santa Monica, and you'll not sell very many wines by the glass.

              Most important of all is to know your market. Where I live (the SF Bay Area), a wine list than only has the usual suspects -- be it by the glass or by the bottle -- would be viewed upon as very weak indeed.

              The average per capita consumption of wine in the US is less than 12 bottles per year, and that includes every man, woman and child -- not just those of drinking age, so the actual consumption is far less. But it's clearly not the case in much of California, in Seattle, in New York City, Chicago, etc. And the per capita consumption in places like Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Kentucky, the Carolinas, etc., etc. is far less . . .

              I readily admit I wasn't thinking of places like the Olive Garden and other chains when I wrote my initial post in reply. And were I running the wine program for the Olive Garden, etc., I would be a fool to put anything more exotic on the wine list than a Soave!

              But in wine bars . . . in restaurants like those owned/run by chefs like Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, Gary Danko, Charlie Trotter . . . in ANY restaurant that considers itself to have a "serious" wine program . . . yead, I think you DO need to have both.

              Like I said, one needs to know their market.

              Finally . . .

              >>> I am saying that the majority of wine lists in America, and this includes by definition those that offer "Burgundy, Chablis, Blush" do not offer eclectic choices.

              Honestly, I don't think the customers of these establishments are suffering in silence. I think they are satisfied, otherwise they would ask for and receive more choices. <<<

              But I also honestly reject your assertion. Far too many individuals would never dream of asking the bartender, their server or the Maitre d'Hotel why the by-the-glass list is so limited . . . any more than they would ask why there isn't caviar on the menu, or Shepherd's Pie . . . Most people would drink that glass of Chardonnay and not say anything. They might not be back, either, but in my own experience, rare is the individual who would actually make a comment on one's by-the-glass selection (or lack thereof).


              1. re: zin1953

                "But I also honestly reject your assertion. Far too many individuals would never dream of asking the bartender, their server or the Maitre d'Hotel why the by-the-glass list is so limited... "

                Now, I am not your average diner. I do talk to whomever I can, regarding wine lists, whether b-t-g, or their full selections. I applaude a good half-bottle selection, When I get home, I usually do a review, and if the wine lists are not up to par, state that. In my case, it's never silence, though I do not make any sort of scene in the establishment, regardless of how badly the list reflects choices that would go with the fare.

                Because wine is a part of every meal, except breakfast and working lunches, I feature it heavily in my reviews - the good, the bad and the ugly. Remember, like I said, earlier on, I am not your average diner.


              2. re: FrankJBN

                [edited to add]: *i don't think the customers of these establishments are suffering in silence. I think they are satisfied, otherwise they would ask for and receive more choices.*

                Disagree - there are restaurants I go to where the wine list is disappointing and uninspired, but I still go because the food is good. Usually there is nobody to say something to, because it's self evident by the list they provide that they either don't give a crap or don't know enough to do better.

                1. re: FrankJBN


                  I think, that before we go too far astray, we need to define the wine lists we're talking about. The vast majority probably has red, white and pink. Beyond that, there is nothing. Their clients are happy.

                  I do not think that this thread was started with these restaurants and their wine lists in mind. I could well be wrong, however.

                  The wine lists for b-t-g offerings, that I am referring to are in more upscale restaurants - that relegates them to maybe 10% of all restaurants in the US. These are shops that have developed a real wine list, and have put some thought into it. Their client base may be across the board, but wine has been deemed to be a substantial part of their menu, for whatever reason.

                  I believe that it is this sort of restaurant and b-t-g wine list, that Jason is talking about. I know that it is what I was referring to.

                  Personally, I love a list, that lets me explore, knowing that some person, with knowledge of the wines (maybe only from a distributor's tasting the day before) and the kitchen and has the ability to realize what will likely pair with the offerings. Now, I'm the adventurous type, and love to learn new wines, regions, styles and varietals. Too many are not. They want what they are familiar with from experience, ads, friend's recs., etc. A restauranteur needs to have a feeling for his/her clientel, and what they will buy. Remember, it's all about staying in business and being able to open the next day. If you have the greatest, but 100% esoteric list imaginable, but do not sell any wine, because no one knows any of them, tomorrow may find that the lights are turned off. Not good.

                  I'd go with enough quality, though more familiar wines (based on the clientel), and weight the rest of the list heavily with wines, that while off the beaten path, pair with my chef's fare. Tough call for the restauranteur. They will almost need a crystal ball, or good luck. Were it my place, I'd be going for the trade, that would love a list, devoid of Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve. Oh, I might offend a few, but my staff would steer them to a better selection and at a good price-point. My staff would work with the pronunciation, and the details of the wines, and not intimidate the clients - rather like teachers.

                  It's not that I have anything against the more mass-produced wines, other than I do not like the formula stuff, when I can get better at similar prices.

                  Now, if we're talking about Coco's, Denny's (do they even serve wine?), Macrironi Grill, Chili's, etc., please ignore all of my posts on this thread, as they will be baseless.


            2. re: zin1953

              I agree, I think there needs to be both. The most important thing is to educate the staff if you are going to have a more adventurous by the glass program. I cringe when a server gives the wrong information like when I asked for a crisp white wine I was told, "This is a Marsanne from Italy" really??? Was is fact Marsanne but from Napa. The problem lies when that guest goes to a wine shop to find that Marsanne from Italy and only ends up confussed or feeling foolish and will next time get Chardonnay because it is comfortable. Seen it happen, (on my end, retail) alot.

            3. I'm probably not the average diner, but I'm only interested in wine-by-the-glass lists that have things I haven't tried.

              These are my current favorite restaurant by-the-glass wine lists available online (Incanto's is not):


              They're all full every night and there's often a wait, so at least for this area it's not a problem. These wine bars also do well with mostly eclectic selections:


              5 Replies
              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                These are great lists, but I'm not sure what works in the Bay Area necessarily works throughout the rest of the country.

                As a somewhat analogous example, Govind Armstrong opened a Table 8 restaurant in Miami Beach fairly recently. I went once early on, and the wine list struck me as interesting but hardly revolutionary - nowhere close to as eclectic as those you've linked to. Apparently within a couple of months they decided that they had to "dumb the wine list down" to give everyone their predictable Cali cabs and chardonnays, because customers were so befuddled by the list. [Insert whatever comment you wish about Miami restaurant customers here]

                I suspect unless you're in a market with a pretty high level of sophistication, you tread on dangerous ground if you completely ignore the "usual suspects". Probably a safer route is to mix them in with other more "exotic" choices.

                Another possibility is to also look at typical varietals but from less typical regions. For instance, Oregon Pinot Gris instead of an Italian Pinot Grigio. An approach like the Amazon "If you liked ...., then you may like ..." can help invite less adventurous customers to try something they haven't had before (and I think the majority of folks in most regions are "tried and true" types rather than "experimenters").

                1. re: Frodnesor

                  You are spot-on. The region of the country and the clientel will often dictate what will "play in Cleveland," as they say. We travel extensively in the US, and I'm usually disappointed by the wine lists "elsewhere," and not just the b-t-g lists. Phoenix has some great ones, but SF has even more. Love the wine lists there!

                  Once one crosses the Continental Divide, it gets sparse, until one hits NYC, DC, Boston, etc. Even Florida has left me underwhelmed, regarding the wine lists, but I've not been to Miami, in decades.

                  A wine list, that wins awards in Indianapolis, or even New Orleans (a real food mecca), pales in comparison to the inventivness and creativity in SF, or even Phoenix. Go into the mid-section of the US, and you're likely to find Clos du Bois on the "reserve" list. Go to NOLA, and Kendall-Jackson rules. The "reserve" lists might have their "Grand Reserve," in lieu of their "Vintner's Reserve," but it's bleak. Even major destination dining spots are likely to have a gaping hole in the list, stopping at K-J and then starting up at DRC Burgs at $1500/btl., though many of these places lost their cellars with Katrina, and some have not recovered, beyond the K-J fare.

                  It all depends on the clientel. I love to dine in SF and just turn the sommelier loose. I've never had a bad wine, or a bad pairing. Those folk know how to do it right, and I greatly appreciate it.


                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    There are only a few places in Miami which have what I would consider genuinely interesting wine lists. Surprised to hear that NOLA is weak, given what a prominent role food has in the local culture.

                    1. re: Frodnesor

                      Historically, NOLA has been a cocktail town, with Bourbon as the #1 base. The major "grande dames" restaurants did have lists, for their more well-heeled patrons, but much of the iwne on these lists was very high-end Burgs and Bdx. That changed a bit, as wine became more widely accepted and expected. Still, many of the old-line places offered lower-end, familiar named wines, then nothing, until you got to the high-end wines. Many lost their cellars, so the high-end offerings have dwindled.

                      Newer restaurants (and restauranteurs) have brought better, more well-rounded wine lists to the city. Judging by the lists that I saw last month, some people are really trying to do wine correctly with broad lists (maybe not too deep), that play well with the cuisine of that restaurant. I still saw a bit of the old-school thinking though. Lists that had a lot of $10 wine for $60, then a jump to $500/btl.

                      I feel that San Francisco got it far earlier, and with the explosion in winemaking, not too far away, is still riding a wave, and with style. NYC got it even earlier, and still are doing a great job.

                      As diners demand more wine with their meals, restaurants will change to accommodate them, even in old-line shops.

                      Just my observation,

                2. re: Robert Lauriston


                  If you have a moment, please stop by the SF Area board, and look at a recent post of mine: "Cetrella... " regarding a dinner in Half Moon Bay. I saw a recent post from you on this spot, and hope that you can offer some help to a poor AZ boy.

                  Thanks for taking the time,

                3. For me, it is dependant on how well these lesser-known varietals and wines pair with the food for that kitchen. I’ve seen some b-t-g lists that are big on the obscurity factor, with little or no regard for the food being served. OTOH, I’ve seen very eclectic lists, that were wonderful in their pairing with the cuisine and kitchen’s style.

                  I love to explore, and hence do a lot of “sommelier’s pairings,” especially with the chef’s tasting menu. I cannot think of a better way to experience new wines, as when they are expertly paired with the dishes.

                  Were I a restauranteur, I’d be a tad shy of going too far from the “usual suspects” completely, as many folk are just not comfortable going down that untraveled path. Maybe I’d price the list to encourage more exploration, and train the staff to make such suggestions. In general terms, I find that domestic Chardonnay, still the most popular white in the US by varietal name, per the last industry survey, that I saw, is not a good pair with most foods. People, however, have a high comfort level ordering something that they are familiar with, even if it not likely to go the best.

                  Still, it would depend on the quality of the list, but I’d rather see the eclectic, than the common – just give ample consideration to the matching of these wines to the food.


                  1. Personally, I could live without domestic varietals, ponderous Aussie reds and low acid Southern Italian wines by the glass.

                    What I'd like to see more of (in no particular order):

                    Alsace wines
                    Loire Valley whites and reds (especially Muscadet and Bourgeuil)
                    Ligurian whites
                    Bourgogne blanc and rouge
                    Cru Beaujolais
                    Rosso di Montalcino
                    Nebbiolo di Langhe
                    German Riesling

                    Just my two cents...

                    1. As Zin, Frond and Bill have noted, I think the average diner depends a lot on the location.

                      I prefer to see both on a wine list just for variety's sake. In addition, a familiar bottle on a list will often tell me how much the restaurant is marking up their wines. Knowing this will let me know if I should return to the restaurant in the future, i.e., if I see a l CDR or a typical California cabernet going by the glass for $15 or more, I'd be disinclined to return.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: mengathon

                        Wow, the cost of b-t-g offerings is a really tough call. There is a lot more, that goes into it, than with a handful of 0.75ltr. btls. I usually go by the "seat-o-the-pants" regarding the cost. I'm more concerned about how well it'll go with my meal, than the exact markup. However (and it's a big however), I've encountered some, that were definitely attempts at grand larceny. When we first moved to PHX, we stopped in at a wine bistro in a tony part of town. Their "special" was a glass of Lindeman's Bin 65 [is that the correct Bin #?] Chardonnay, at $25/glass. Most supermarkets had it at $5-6/btl. If one bought a case, it came in at about $4.50/btl. Now, I've paid $25/glass for some wines, but not ones that wholesale for $3-4/btl. I never darkened their door again. No need to be "hosed." They closed soon after. Even the rich people were not interested in being taken advantage of.

                        I expect to pay more for a b-t-g, than I would to buy the bottle and divide by the # of glasses, that I could pour from it. Same for half-bottles. I would rather spend the same $ for 4 halves, than 2 full bottles, that did not pair well with all courses, or that I had to give away, when we left.