What to look for in a wine list

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Image:  istockphoto – RapidEye Media

           Sure a restaurant’s wine list tells you what kind of wines are available at a restaurant and their prices but it can tell you a lot more if you know what to look for.  Looking at the wine list can tell you a lot about the commitment the restaurant has to its wines and give a good indication of whether they can be trusted as a place to try out a new wine or not. If you want to take a chance to try out a new wine in a restaurant it’s a lot safer to do so at a place with a good wine program.

            There are many signals that indicate a bad wine program.  If there are no low-priced wines it’s a good sign that they may be marking the price up too much.  All restaurants should have wines at the lower end of the price range.  A middle priced restaurant should include wines as low as $20 on the wine list, and a more expensive restaurant should have wines as low as $30 to $35. 

            Another way to check for wines that are marked too high is to look at the price of Beaujolais.  This wine is sold for retail at about $8 per bottle.  Restaurants obviously mark up quite a bit over retail price, but if you see Beaujolais costing $35 or more, they are marking their wines up far over what is reasonable.

            Another sign is if a wine list is lacking information.  The list should always tell you the wine’s vintage, varietal or appellation.  If they leave that off, the wine program is probably disorganized. 

            Don’t trust a wine list that looks old.  Wine lists need to be updated regularly to reflect a changing inventory.  If the list is old, then the restaurant is not keeping up to date with its wines.  Or it is not updating its list.  Either way it is a bad sign.  A good wine list will often be a printed sheet of paper, to make it easy to change once a week.

            There are good signs that can be garnered from wine lists as well.  A wine list that contains rare or creative choices is a good sign.  It means that someone is interested in wines, and looks into things that are out of the ordinary for consumers to try.  It is an especially good sign if they offer some unusual wines by the glass.  Buying wine by the glass is a good way to try out something new, without having to risk an entire bottle.

            While a wine list should have plenty of choices, it is not a good idea for it to go on for pages and pages.  If it is too long, it is not useful for a casual wine drinker to choose a wine quickly.  If the restaurant has a book full of wines, they should offer edited wine lists, with the full “book” available upon request.

            Menus that have wine recommendations in them are a good sign of an active wine program.  It means that someone at the restaurant is interested enough in wines to come up with the pairings.  It also makes it a lot easier to choose a wine for your meal, if someone has already picked out a few of the best choices.  A wine list that organizes wines by flavor, such as spicy, smooth, or fruity, is also a good sign of a well thought out wine program.

            These are all signs to watch for to get an idea of the effort and commitment that a restaurant puts into its wines and how much they are interested in making things easy to navigate and encouraging your further discovery of wines.

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