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Jun 24, 2013 08:52 PM

Are most food critics ill-equipped to review a restaurant's wine list?

Is it time we have dedicated sommelier + wine reviews by dedicated wine critics?

How would people feel if a wine critic reviewed a restaurant's wine service and then did a passing glance at the food menu?

Isn't that sort of what we've come to accept when it comes to food critics and wine?

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  1. " In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

    Anton Ego

    5 Replies
        1. re: PotatoHouse

          It's a perfectly fine piece of dialogue for an animated cartoon character who is drawn as the epitome of a negative restaurant critic. Anton Ego's restaurant reviews are so negative and his opinions so caustic that they create fear in chefs and restaurant workers.

          Think back to the movie. This is the basic plot, the basic struggle in the movie -- to make the food at Auguste Gusteau's restaurant so good that it finally wins over Anton Ego, the caustic, deeply sad restaurant critic who is usually never pleased.

          Besides that, Mrs. Lincoln, the last sentence lacks clarity, and doesn't make sense.

          So no, I don't think that piece of cartoon character dialogue contains any insight into non-fictionalized real-life restaurant criticism. Especially its remark about negative criticism, or that reviewing is easy.

          Negative reviewers like François Simon, who seem to relish spewing vile, are a rare exception. The pervasive edict among publishers is that a restaurant must be good enough to warrant a published review, otherwise it's overlooked. The goal is to send diners towards excellence, not to give them another reason to stay home. But this is just my perspective.

      1. re: PotatoHouse

        That line rang very false to me. Writing restaurant reviews is for many critics consumer reporting. Letting readers know about a great restaurant or dish they might not have heard of is the best part of the job.

        Writing a negative review is one of the worst parts. You have to be more sure than usual that you're right, which may mean having to eat an meal or two at the restaurants you least want to return to.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Another excellent point. I invariably enjoy your contributions - and you make wine and food matches I couldn't conceive of, but I know they are point on.

          BTW a new local restaurant that we love has asked me to put a bilingual review in the Trip Advisor.

      2. I'm not sure. I mean what percent of restaurants reviewed in say the NYT have notable wine lists worthy of requiring a sommelier's attention?

        1 Reply
        1. re: Chinon00

          That's an interesting choice to use as an example. NYC of all cities in the US would probably have the most restaurants deserving of at least a separate sidebar review of the wine service and list.

        2. >>> Isn't that sort of what we've come to accept when it comes to food critics and wine? <<<


          13 Replies
          1. re: zin1953

            Let me amplify, if I may . . .

            The people who are very knowledgable about food will love to read a review of a restaurant they've never been to, *or* to one they've "discovered" already. The people who are less knowledgable about food will read restaurant reviews with a look to where to go, for either a special occasion or a new experience. The people who don't care about food won't read it anyway, but still have to eat . . .

            In contrast, the people who are very knowledgable about wine will figure they know more than the wine critic, *or* won't want to listen about the wine list anyway, preferring to make up their own minds (or they ignore wine lists anyway, and plan to bring in their own wines). The people who like wine but are less knowledgable may be the most interested, but the least likely to respond; that is to say, they might be interested that there are all sorts of esoteric choices, but if they go, they'll be more likely to stick with their "usual" familiar names. The people who don't like wine won't be interested at all.

            1. re: zin1953


              Good points.

              As the full "restaurant experience" is prime to me, I will review the ambiance, the food, the service, the wine list and the wine service. I even get into the wine stemware, as that is important to me, as well.

              If readers do not like it, such is life.


              1. re: Bill Hunt

                The ability exists to do as ipsedixit asks -- "to have dedicated sommelier + wine reviews by dedicated wine critics" --
                the question is: Will those reviews interest a large-enough audience to warrant publishing?

                I do come across dedicated reviews of wine lists and feature articles on sommeliers in some wine journals but wonder how appealing readers find them. The question editors/pubs ask is: Will this article drive readership?

                Reviews of restaurant wine lists usually aren't published unless the story has some topspin and local angle, as in: "Top Ten Restaurant Wine Lists in Seattle." There is limited need for such articles, and as you can surmise, the prose must go down easily (e.g., a Top Ten list of anything).

                In regards to a review of the wine list and wine service found within a restaurant review, much depends on the column inches available. A reviewer may write about the merits of the wine list, but if that paragraph is of little interest to passing readers, it will be cut. The final edit of the story often contains mention of only a couple of bottles or pairings.

                A review that fully evaluates a restaurant, in terms of most dishes on the menu, wine list, service, ambience, flow and chef biography, is rare. Those are long feature reviews, and pubs rarely have that kind of room.

                1. re: maria lorraine


                  Good points.

                  As I am not employed by either an electronic, or print medium, I do not have those constraints.

                  When I review a restaurant, I try to cover all bases, to give the readers the ability to see how the whole experience was viewed by me.

                  I will often start with the architecture, and the ambiance, and then take the reader through the process, such as FOH, and table spacing, along with lighting, seating and table size. Then, I move on to the service, the food, the wine list, the wine stemware and the wine service. In this, I expand on dishes, wines (mini-tasting notes).

                  It's the same with wine reviews, and restaurant reviews - I do not want numbers, I do not want forks, I do not want wine glass icons - I want to know what the full characteristics of the wine are. Same for a restaurant - I want to know if I would enjoy spending my $ there, and get useful details, somewhat free of the reviewers' bias. Unfortunately, one usually gets too many biases, and too little detail.

                  Now, if limited to electronic and print food critics, I think that there might be a deficiency with many food writers. They know wine from the carafe at an Olive Garden, but little more. I assumed that we were talking about the more well-rounded CH members, but probably projected a bit too much.


                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    I sincerely hope we will be able to dine together in the future.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      I share those sentiments - completely!

                      As we are in SF, at least once per month, and often more, this should be a slam-dunk. We do our own thing on Sunday nights, then Monday may, or may not be a dinner that I share with my wife. Often, she has dinner meetings, so I do solo, and often am on the hunt for where we might share a meal on the next Sunday experience. Some trips are longer, so we/I will have Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights to dine.

                      We must make this happen.


                      1. re: Bill Hunt

                        Count me in! We've been talking about this for far too long . . .

                        1. re: zin1953

                          I agree. It is something that needs to be done - I don't have THAT many "good years" left!


                          PS - sorry that the schedules did not work out for NOLA.

                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                            Hey, you guys sound great. Ever get to DC?

                              1. re: law_doc89

                                About 2 - 3x per year.

                                I have an open thread on dining near the Mandrin Oriental (an area, with which I am not familar) in Oct.


                      2. re: Bill Hunt

                        Architecture, ambiance, lighting, stemware, etc., that's sometimes over 80% of Michael Bauer's reviews. He's not as bad as he used to be. Me ne frega.

                        When I wrote reviews I focused on the food, including wine when relevant, e.g.:


                        1. re: Robert Lauriston


                          Nothing wrong with reviewing just the food, but I am looking more for the whole experience. Some appreciate that, but some do not.


              2. I could see the benefit of what you suggest but don't necessarily agree with the basis or need. First off, even though I am a wine nut I am not that interested in an extensive review of the winelist. Though I really wish more places would put their list online.
                I think there is a difference between food and wine. I might really like to hear the critics detailed review of a place's pizzas and pastas. They can relay details to me, such as the texture, cooking style, saucing etc that I would not be able to assertain without having tried it. Especially as there are so many acceptable/quality variants of something like pizza. I don't consider such detailed information as beneficial over a winelist.
                First off a particular wine is not variant from one establishment to another. I don't need the critc to describe their subjective view on Dom Perignon or Tignanello. It might be debatable but IMO enjoyment of a particular wine is even more subjective than for a particular pizza. even if a reviewer did try to delve into the individual selection on the list they usually could not come near covering the majority of them and is not that likely to hit upon those that any particular diner might select given the variation in pricing.
                Whereas with food it is easier to cover a good range of dishes that any particular diner might reasonably want to try. A food dish review also has more time-absent value. A wine can be different from vintage to vintage. A reviewer might correctly love a wine when they have it, but a subsequent vintage which may be that available by the time the diner goes may be significantly different.

                I don't personally see the need for more than a general description of the list. So for MY purpose I think a general food critic ought to be able to provide such. I like to know the areas of concentration of the list. I like to know about how many selections there are on the list, and where the prices are distributed. I like to know if there are almost exclusively young wines or also those that are aged. I'd also like to hear about the stems and wine service. Most importantly I like to know what the mark-up is on the list. In actuality these things are pretty easy to assertain and don't involve a nuanced palate. So while I would like a solid paragraph surrounding wine, I don't think a sommelier's knowledge is necessary to provide it.

                1. This would only be interesting in a "best of" list every few years type way. Wine lists are rather fixed - they don't change much year to year. Most restaurants don't have a dedicated sommelier and if they do - sommeliers don't rotate out very much. Say in SF, the restaurants with a sommelier probably less than 20?

                  For now, I have just evaluated on if I go to the restaurant's website and the sommelier is featured - I look at the wine list and it looks solid- that's all I really need.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: goldangl95

                    I could name way more than 20 restaurants in SF with a proper sommelier on staff off the top of my head.