Up until this year, I had been a strong admirer and customer of great wine lists, but had never had an occasion to truly analyze them or compare them. I had come across great lists in my travels around the world, but hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about what made them great other than that they had wines on them that I wanted to drink. My point of view about great wine lists, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Stewart and perhaps oversimplify slightly, was simply that I knew one when I saw one.
That all changed this year when I became a judge for the World’s Best Wine Lists competition run by the esteemed World of Fine Wine magazine. As a judge, I got paid to review literally hundreds of wine lists from around the world through several rounds of judging, culminating in a final set of deliberations in London this past April.
The results of that judging were released to the world yesterday. So who has the best wine list in the world? I’ll spare you the suspense — it’s Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York City. There were several contenders for this final top honor, across three continents, but in the end, we judges agreed that Eleven Madison had all the things a great wine list needs.
But what are those things? We didn’t have a set list of criteria as judges per se (though we had some general guidelines to look for diversity, depth, etc), but our discussions readily revealed that we all considered many of the same things when forming our opinions about the quality of what we were judging.
Having spent the time I did in this process, and learned a lot looking through the wine lists of the world, I thought to capture what I think are now my official criteria for great wine lists. Not good wine lists (which will invariably meet a few of the criteria below), not excellent wine lists, but truly great lists.
Of course, great is relative, by which I mean that you can’t compare a 50 bottle list at a fabulous little bistro to a 1000 bottle list at one of the world’s great destination restaurants. That’s the reason that we judged in categories of short, medium and long lists. I’m going to stick with those categories for a moment, because they each have some criteria that are unique to their formats.
SHORT WINE LISTS (25-200 selections)
Short wine lists are exercises in curation, and can sometimes be quite thrilling even with their limited scope of offering. But there are a few things that all short wine lists need to get right to be truly great.
While much larger lists have some room for exercising the “something for everyone” argument that might land some lower quality wines on the list, a world-class short wine list can’t have any crap wines on it. And by crap I mean grocery-store-level, massively produced and distributed wines. Good short wine lists can have those wines on them. Great short wine lists cannot.
One of the failings of smaller lists can be the fact that they easily become a mishmash of different things that all get thrown together on a page and seem less like a list and more of a random collection. Small lists need some coherence to them. A strange-attractor, to use a term from Chaos Theory, around which the wines flutter. This can be a regional emphasis, a stylistic emphasis, a suitability to the cuisine, or simply the strong vision of the sommelier, but whatever it is, the list must feel like it has a sensibility to it.
The next level above “crap” in terms of evaluating the selections on a wine list must certainly be boring. Boring is unacceptable at any size of wine list, but it becomes particularly acute in short wine lists. The best short wine lists are interesting. In some ways this quality is not wildly different from the coherence I’ve described above, but I do make a distinction between the two. A list can have coherence, but still not be very interesting. Even better than interesting, of course, is exciting. There’s nothing better than sitting down to a wine list and feeling like a kid in a candy store.
MEDIUM WINE LISTS (200 – 500 selections)
Medium wine lists are mostly what we encounter in the fine dining restaurants that you and I visit with some frequency. These lists have a couple of key things they need to get right in order to be truly world class.
If you’re going to put together a 350 bottle wine list and you want it to be great, you need to nail the concept of having something for everyone. You need to accommodate the diner who just wants their buttery Chardonnay or their Big Red Wine, as well as the wine geeks like me who want something interesting and exciting.
Variations on a theme
With a substantial list, a sommelier has the opportunity to approach wines of a certain type from different directions. Whereas on a short list you might have a handful of sparkling wines that couldn’t possibly represent the range of different kinds of sparkling wines that exist in the world, with a larger list you can. This should not be taken as a need for comprehensiveness (something that only comes into play when dealing with the largest of lists), but there’s no excuse for having 15 to 30 selections of sparkling wine only to have them all be from California, Spain, and Champagne, for instance.
Perhaps the most important feature of the mid-sized wine list is balance. It is far too easy for this sized wine list to get lopsided with an emphasis on only one kind of wine, or only one region. Witness the wine lists at many good steakhouses that (for obvious reasons) have a handful of whites and sparking wines, and then page after page of Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux Blends. While these kinds of lists may indeed give their customers what they want (always a good thing, especially when wine programs contribute the most to the bottom line), they generally don’t measure up to being world-class lists.
Likewise, some balance must exist between older vintages and current vintages on a mid-sized list, which should be able to afford to host some older wines for drinkers looking to experience wines with age on them.
LONG WINE LISTS (500 selections or more)
My wine-collector friend Jack has gotten to the point where he hates 200 page wine lists, but I don’t share his aversion to picking my wine out of a tome that takes some time to page through.
If you’re gonna go big, you have to go broad. If you’ve got 150 pages in your wine list then you better have wine of all types from all over the world in it. Yes, even if you’re the most expensive Italian restaurant in New York, or a three-star Michelin restaurant in France. You can have an emphasis or a genre that drives the bulk of your wine, but you need to cover the world in addition to comprehensively covering your genre.
The biggest wine lists need depth as well, which usually translates into two main areas: producers and vintages. When you’ve got a massive wine list, you need to be able to show off a wide variety of producers for a given wine style or region, and you need to have older vintage examples in most of your main categories of wine.
Truly world-class wine programs of the largest size have the buying power, if not the tenure of relationships, required to get access to wines that are difficult to obtain. While not strictly required to qualify as world-class, the top lists around the world all contain treasures of one sort or another, be they very old vintages of some wines, or merely having some of the smallest-production, most sought after bottlings on the planet.
As noted below, value remains an important component of every wine list, but the world’s most impressive wine programs can usually be distinguished by the existence of some amazingly attractive pricing on some wines. This tends to be more true in restaurants with a tenured and very senior wine director or sommelier than it does in, say, the biggest luxury hotel destination restaurants. But anyone who loves wine and gets paid to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of it every year for their guests invariably has the opportunity to buy a little of this, and a little of that, and sell it for a song just because they adore it and know others will too. On the other hand, you also have restaurants like Bern’s Steakhouse, whose wine buying has been so constant and so deep that they can offer old vintages at three times what they paid for them and still have the wines be incredibly inexpensive.
ALL WINE LISTS
Then there are things that all wine lists, no matter how big or small must possess in order to be world-class.
While it means something different in the context of a boutique Italian restaurant aiming to serve wines that traditionally pair with its food versus a Michelin three-star destination hotel restaurant, diversity has to be there. The best lists showcase a diversity of producers, of grape varieties, of winemaking styles, and, ideally, of vintages.
Prices remain the trickiest consideration in judging a wine list, because they are so contextual and so subjective in some respects. High-end destination restaurants where diners are paying hundreds of dollars for their meals often have very expensive wines on their lists, and fewer inexpensive wines because people coming to the restaurant often want to splurge a little.
Conversely if you’ve got a casual restaurant concept with a 50-bottle list, you’d better have some reasonably priced wines of every category on your list.
But more than prices, the question of value remains a key consideration. Of the lists we examined, the average markup hovered somewhere around the 2x retail-price range, which is what anyone who dines out regularly has come to expect. There were extreme examples on either end of the pricing spectrum, however. Billy Crews Restaurant in New Mexico distinguished itself for having the lowest prices on Domaine de la Romanée-Conti wines I’ve ever seen, for instance. While towards other end of the spectrum, Superior’s Steakhouse in Louisiana wants to charge you $420 for your $135 (retail price) bottle of Krug Grand Cuvee.
As an aside, Krug Grand Cuvee seems one of wines most susceptible to price gouging in the marketplace. I’ve seen it as high as $650 in some places.
Design / Readability
You’d think as someone who makes his living in the design field, I would have spent a lot of time examining wine lists from a design perspective, but you’d be wrong. When I’m out to eat I’m paying attention to the wines and to my dining companions, not to the typography of the wine lists. Sure, when the lists are particularly poor in their design, I have gotten frustrated, but that’s different than spending the time to consider the typography and layout with a designer’s eye.
Being asked to do so in the context of this judging was very interesting and gave me a great appreciation for restaurants that truly take the time to design their lists, as opposed to simply choosing a font and hitting the print button. The right choice of fonts, weights, styles, and the layout of the content on the page can dramatically affect the ease with which diners navigate the list. One of my favorites this year from a design perspective was Blackberry Farm’s list, with its impeccable typography and information hierarchy. It’s a long list to be sure, and made longer by a dedication to preserving white space and groupings of wines, but it is a joy to read from a purely design perspective (and a damn fine list in other respects as well, I might add).
Accuracy / Attention to Detail
For many it would go without saying, but you’d be surprised how many wine lists don’t actually list producers, vintages, or appellations on their wine lists. With so many different types of wine in the world, it certainly is a chore to make sure that wine names, regions, and grape varieties are spelled correctly, but sommeliers don’t get a pass just because diacritical marks are a pain in the rear. Writing Blaufränkisch without an umlaut is quite forgivable, but spelling it wrong, or worse yet, not telling me that’s what the wine contains is not acceptable.
Inventory also falls in the category of accuracy. As judges of lists on their own merits we did not and could not verify that the restaurants actually have the wines they put on their lists and are willing to sell them to diners. While I’m not suggesting that padding wine lists is a common practice, I’m sure it happens, especially in the context of award programs like the one we judged.
Don’t get me started on restaurants who put their wine lists online but don’t include prices.
NICE TO HAVES
And finally there are the things that aren’t required to make a wine list world-class, but that I think are really great to strive for.
No matter the size of the list, providing some information to the customer beyond the vintage, producer, region, grape variety, and price proves most welcome. The most simple example of added context might be an organizing principle for the wines according to their flavor profile (though admittedly this is easier to do with shorter lists). I love it when wine lists include information about regions, about producers, and about the wines themselves. During this year’s judging I fell in love with the list at Love Tilly Devine in Sydney, which, in addition to having an absolutely killer selection of wines , offers very nice passages about certain regions or producers or grapes that convey the devotion of this restaurant to its wine program.
Fun / Originality
Having a fun wine list may not be appropriate for every restaurant, but damn if the world wouldn’t be a better place if people had a little more fun with them from time to time. The lack of fun in the conception of most wine lists makes the lists at places like Terroir Tribeca and Cowboy Ciao stand out like sore thumbs. Both of these wine lists might trigger shudders of horror by some, as they’ve both sacrificed readability and findability for an expression of intense personality, but I say bring it on. The wine world needs more wackiness.
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What do you think? Are there other things that make for a great wine list? I’d love to know your opinions.
Image of woman with wine list courtesy of Bigstock