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How to get the most from a restaurant wine list? Act more like someone in the wine business.
Sommeliers can usually spot a fellow wine professional. Whereas most of their customers desperately scan restaurant wine lists in search of a familiar name — Sancerre, Chablis, Rioja — those of us in the wine business scan lists for exactly the opposite: the one wine that we have never heard of. We are constantly in search of something new — but we also know that an unusual wine will generally have earned its place on a list through sheer quality.
The other thing that sorts the meek sheep from the list-hopping goats is the near-invariable rule that the more diners know about wine, the more likely they are to ask for advice and vice versa. I have been writing about wine for 40 years, and qualified as a Master of Wine back in 1984, but I never hesitate to quiz a wine waiter about how various possible choices are tasting. However little or much you know about wine, it really does make sense to benefit from the advice of those who actually pour these wines regularly — and they are generally dying to share it.
Terry Kandylis is a Greek-born sommelier who has worked at The Ledbury and The Fat Duck. “People in Greece pretend they know more about wine than they do, [whereas] in London, even though more people know about wine, some of them will ask,” he says. “There are so many establishments in London that have amazing wine lists, and staff there just love to talk about them. I’d love customers to ask more questions.”
Besides, percentage mark-ups are applied much less rigidly than they once were. More and more bar and restaurant wine lists nowadays are assembled by wine enthusiasts who want to encourage their customers to drink well, so that the better-quality wines are marked up much less rapaciously than the inexpensive ones. Indeed, there is a movement towards pricing wines so that the profit is a cash mark-up rather than a percentage mark-up (adding £20 to the cost price, for example, rather than doubling it).
The Coravin wine access system, whereby wine can be extracted from a bottle without pulling the cork, has also led to a dramatic increase in the number of very fine wines being offered by the glass. Restaurants worldwide now work so hard on their offers of wine by the glass, tasting flight and carafes of various sizes, that the standard 75cl bottle is no longer the necessary unit of wine consumption.
And in Britain at least, creative importers are targeting their wares specifically at restaurants. This has dramatically increased the range of wines to be found on the lists of the many new establishments currently proliferating in Manchester, Edinburgh and London.
But this also has the consequence of littering wine lists with all sorts of names very much stranger than Sancerre, Chablis and Rioja. One group of restaurants that has taken a proactive approach to assembling unusual wine lists is that owned by wine importer Les Caves de Pyrène, big champions of natural wines. Cecile Mathonneau of Terroirs, in London WC2, admits that many of her customers had long found their rambling, enthusiastic wine lists too confusing and reports that the addition of a single page listing staff favourites has been a boon for all.
At The Ledbury and some other wine-minded restaurants, specific wine pairings have been introduced to familiarise customers with the restaurant’s more obscure wine finds.
Ronan Sayburn used to work as a sommelier at both Gordon Ramsay’s flagship London restaurant in Royal Hospital Road and The Dorchester. He sees the wine waiter’s job as sussing out the tastes and motivations of each customer ordering from the list (lists, in the age of the laser printer, having become much more concise and relevant).
In order to check out the likely wine knowledge of customers, he tended to ask them what they drank at home. “If they said Jacob’s Creek, then I’d recommend a fairly simple fruity wine — but if they said Léoville Barton 1990, it would be a different story.”
Meals have a wide range of purposes: celebration, seduction and business. Sayburn used to have a regular businessman client who would come in with a changing roster of three guests. He would always greet the staff warmly, ask Sayburn to recommend a bottle, and then routinely reject it in favour of a second choice. Sayburn worked out, after a while, that this ploy was deliberately designed to impress his guests, so took to first recommending something modest.
With Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea’s only three-star restaurant, a popular destination for young chefs, I asked how Sayburn dealt with this impecunious group. “Oh yes, very easy to spot,” he said. “Dirty finger nails, burn marks on the hands, nervous-looking girlfriends, badly fitting suits — with work, they’ve usually just lost or gained a lot of weight. We’d suggest a nice bottle of good-value wine and make sure they’re given a look around the kitchen and signed menus.”
Both the UK and US have seen an influx of keen sommeliers from all over the world, especially from France, because they can offer an unrivalled geographical range of wines to learn about. I urge you to take advantage of this — and I am reliably informed that many New Yorkers already do.
Tasting notes on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com
Illustration by Graham Roumieu
Some favourite off-piste wines
These are a few wines I have enjoyed whose UK importers are currently targeting restaurants and wine bars. Some of these wines have limited retail distribution.
• Davide Spillare, Rugoli Bianco 2013 Veneto, Italy, £15.30, 40 Maltby Street
• Lismore Estate Chardonnay 2011 Greyton, South Africa, £17, Swig.co.uk
• I Vigneri, Vinjancu 2011 Sicily, £26.49, Exel Wines, Scotland
• Gerovassiliou, Avaton 2012 Epanomi, Greece, £16.95, Noel Young
• Landi, Las Uvas de la Ira 2013 Méntrida, Spain, about £21, Bottle Apostle, Handford, The Sampler
• Kutch, Bohan Vineyard Pinot Noir 2013 Sonoma Coast, California, £50, Roberson Wine