In Defense of “Big Fat Wine Lists”

David Lynch is a James Beard Award-winning sommelier, and in the September issue of Bon Appetit magazine, he writes what is, in effect, a eulogy for the massive restaurant wine list.

You can read the entire column here, but in summary, Lynch contends that diners are much better served by a well-selected, single-page list than a thick book that can span 25 pages or more.

Lynch calls his new, preferred approach “curating rather than collecting,” and notes the result “reads like a menu rather than a list, which is the whole point.”

He then makes an assertion with which I strongly disagree: “The idea that a great cellar must be a ‘deep’ one is on the way out.”

Actually, I don’t disagree with it. As a matter of fact, it’s probably true. But I do take exception to it.

I’ll get to my concern in a moment. But first, it’s only fair to acknowledge the restaurant owner’s plight in this scenario. Imagine an in-motion set of dominoes as I explain the current state of affairs…

  • A deep wine cellar, meaning one with dozens or perhaps even hundreds of selections, is very expensive to develop. Great wine, with few exceptions, costs a lot of money, even at wholesale prices.
  • It also costs money to store wine. That restaurant wine cellar, in pure business terms, occupies a certain amount of square footage, which the restaurateur is paying for in the form of either a mortgage payment or a rent payment.
  • It costs even more to store wine properly. Maintaining the cellar at a constant proper temperature almost always requires refrigeration, and refrigeration requires an investment in equipment and results in a higher utility bill.
  • During America’s recent tough economic times, people have been eating out less, and when they do eat out, they’re less likely to spend a lot of money on a bottle of wine. An unsold bottle of wine does nothing to help a struggling restaurant’s bottom line.

I get all that. But that’s not the argument upon which Lynch bases his desire for more concise wine lists. Rather, he points to the public’s preference, and quotes a friend who told him, “I don’t come to your restaurant to read a book.”

I also can understand that point of view. And there’s certainly value in a wine list that is selected primarily to match specific dishes on a restaurant’s menu. I have had numerous meals at restaurants where the menus included suggested wines next to each entrée description, and have rarely been disappointed by the pairing.

Okay, enough “acknowledging.” Now it’s time to explain why I disagree with Lynch’s assertion that a smaller list is a better list, and why I hope he’s wrong about long, comprehensive lists being “on the way out.”

For most of us, the only time we’ll ever have a chance to taste one of the so-called “cult wines”—those that are highly allocated, and available only to a winery’s mailing list, making them as rare as Green Bay Packers season tickets—is at a restaurant. If we’re willing to pay the price, we can taste the wine.

The same is true of older vintages. Most of us have neither the space nor the money to invest in a high-tech home wine cellar in which we can age bottles for decades as opposed to years, or years as opposed to months. But when we go to a restaurant with one of those “big fat wine lists,” such opportunities typically are abundant—again, if we’re willing to pay the price.

Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to experience numerous restaurant meals that were made particularly special by an older or especially coveted bottle of wine. A wine that was selected from a “big fat wine list.” I’d hate to see such experiences relegated to my memory should Lynch’s belief turn out to be true.

How about a compromise? Let those restaurateurs who are so inclined keep those big wine “books” and well-stocked cellars, and at the same time, encourage them to develop a single-page list such as Lynch prefers—one that highlights a range of wine types and prices, and with each selection keyed to one or more menu items.

Such an approach, it seems to me, would offer diners and wine lovers alike the best of both worlds.

What do you think? Do you prefer shorter restaurant wine lists? Would you miss the big books if they went away? The comments box below awaits.

Posted in Editor's Journal
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