Some days I long for the time when wine lists were simple affairs: a little New World chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, some Old World Burgundy and Bordeaux, a bit of Chianti, some Barolo, some Chianti, perhaps a selection of Barolo and Barbaresco, some Chablis and Rioja, and it was done.
Those days seem forever gone in a world full of Master of Wine graduates, Master Sommeliers and all manner of Wine & Spirit Education Trust-trained restaurant staff, all with the world of wine at their fingertips or keyboards. Maybe at their fingertips is too strong an analogy for the goofball, government distribution system in B.C., but in most normal jurisdictions you can buy just about any wine in the world and have it on your restaurant list the next day.
If you haven't notice, a lot of restaurants have shifted their focus away from most of the known wines of the world to the unknown. Their cover story is excitement, discovery, let us show you the way, maybe even educate you a little bit although a cynical patron might think the less you know about wine the more they can charge for it.
Last week I was dining at the famed Slanted Door in San Francisco where, from start to the finish, the staff was amazing and seemed to know every nuance of every wine that was on the list. That said, you'd need a PhD. to navigate the wine list. Matching wine to Vietnamese food is a skill and in part explains a lot of the list, but looking around the packed room it's hard to believe that, as good as it is, the Nikolaihof Im Weingebirge Grüner Veltliner Smaragd 2013, Wachau, Austria at $69 is a real go-to white wine. In all there were 10 grüner veltliner on the list, seven more than the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch lists for our entire province.
Restaurants say they want to excite their guest, not challenge them, but it's hard not to feel a bit intimidated by an aromatic white wine selection like a Vignai da Duline 'Chioma Integrale' Malvasia Istriana 2014, Friuli, Italy $82 or a sparkling Minimus Pet Nat of Muller Thurgau 2015, Oregon $52. There's no substitution for a great staff because you could never pull off a wine list like The Slanted Door's without one. Don't get me wrong — I was excited to peruse the list but exhausted by the end of it.
When I look around B.C. today the lists are different than they were a decade ago. Most are thankfully shorter. There's more wine by the glass and while there's much to choose from worldwide, the best lists still pay homage to the likes of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon — labels that "brought us to the dance," to mix my metaphors.
Sixty to 70 wines are plenty for most customers, especially if the list fits the food, which is the best trend of all. I know if I spent a couple of weeks in a restaurant watching the dishes going out to the table and coming back again, it wouldn't take long to craft a list that works for the chef and the customer. Notice I didn't mention the wine director. It's not that we don't care what you like but in the end, it has to be about what the customer likes.
As a customer you should never be intimidated or fatigued by any list. If you don't understand the list or can't find a wine you want to drink, tell the server about your favourite wines and give them a chance to suggest something similar in style from the list.
Each year the Vancouver International Playhouse holds its Wine Program Excellence Awards for restaurants in B.C. and Alberta. The goal is to reward restaurateurs who make the effort to produce an original and creative wine program, one that offers well-selected wines that harmonize with the food. The program should also encourage all staff to have significant wine knowledge that they can share comfortably with diners.
The winners are often a surprise to those who think that bigger is better, but those days are gone. The festival judges believe that "a good wine list brings in customers. A great wine program in a restaurant encourages customers to come back for more — more choices, and more delightful and memorable experiences." As it happens applications for the 2017 Wine Program Excellence Awards are open to all restaurants until Nov. 1 at www.winefest.ca.
In Whistler, you have the opportunity to try several award-winning wine lists. Alta Bistro topped local purveyors in 2016 with a gold-medal list flaunting three passions: food, wine and sustainable sourcing. Silver medals went to a pair of restaurants that have literally hand-selected their wines for over two decades. Araxi and the Rimrock Café have been torchbearers regarding wine lists yet have managed to shift and shape their lists to remain current.
Basalt Wine + Salumeria took home a bronze for what is a very good wine list in the making. Mixing New World headings like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir with Old World ones like Spanish Grapes or Italian Grapes or Syrah/Shiraz and Southern France — friendly and demystified but not at the expense of the selections.
B.C. restaurant wine lists have come a long way despite having to work under a draconian and punitive system that has them paying the same price per bottle for their liquor as consumers do in retail stores. Let's hope restaurateurs have enough energy left to change the most ridiculous wine regulations in the world before the world goes somewhere else.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com.