Praise The Thoughtful Wine List

Today I feel like writing about semantics, because the words we use matter (“natural” wine, anyone?). A month ago Jon Bonné put up a piece on “The Bay Area’s incredible shrinking wine lists” where he commented:

Years ago, restaurants like Square One and Zuni Cafe pioneered that balance of fancy and fun. Later came Nopa, with its wildly diverse collection of more than 250 wines assembled by wine director Chris Deegan, with everything from Swiss Chasselas to Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir. It had all the length of a fancy list, with none of the pretense, yet it now feels big by comparison to the svelte lists at, say, Piccino or Bar Tartine.
That reflects another theme mirrored in our dining habits: a communal fatigue with endless choices. The success of focused wine shops like Biondivino in Russian Hill or Dig in Dogpatch shows that we’re ever more content to let someone else curate for us.
So while the list at Perbacco remains an encyclopedia of Barolo and Barbaresco, it has always seemed beholden to expense-account Financial District customs. When Barbacco opened just two doors down in 2010, then-wine director Mauro Cirilli devised an avant-garde selection – on iPads, no less – that veered toward Slovenian Ribolla Gialla and Oregon Gamay Noir.

This piece generated a mild furore over short vs. inclusive vs. comprehensive wine lists among the thirty or so people who actually read and comment on the wine blogs I follow.

Thursday, a wine rep acquaintance re-tweeted a consumer’s lament: “ack! so sick of ‘_____ curated the wine list.’ no they didn’t. they made the wine list.”

My response was: “‘Curating’ is 1 way to make a wine list. Letting the SWS rep write it for u is another. I’ll take curated.”

My wine rep acquaintance thought that in my response I might be broadly bagging on wine reps. On the contrary…

Wine reps are some of the hardest-working people I know in this industry.

Wine RepThey are often passionate, knowledgeable, witty if not outright funny, deeply cynical, simultaneously self-assured and a bit insecure, and sometimes slightly self-destructive—not unlike some of the winemakers and chefs I have known over the years.

The ones that I find the most fun generally work with smaller, well-curated books, ones where they know the products and the producers well. Then there are the reps that work for big, corporate distributors, companies with giant books: thousands of SKUs covering more beverages than wine. Overhearing their conversations, the orbital center of these reps’ worlds is how many boxes—doesn’t matter “boxes of what”—they move in a day/week/month/quarter. The most self-aware of these reps have described working for these companies as “soul-sucking.”

It’s not much of a secret that, outside the bubble of hip and trendy fine dining, most of the restaurant wine lists in this country are written by reps working for big distributors, reps who receive incentives based on how many boxes they can move of the products their overlords bought the most of and paid the least for. I’ve been on the inside of this industry for a while. I can sit down at one of these dining venues, browse the wine list, and often figure out in a couple minutes which corporate distributor wrote it for them. And those lists are B O R I N G.

Only slightly less bad are the lists where someone at the restaurant actually selected the wines, but purely according to bottom-line driven criteria. The worst of this class are the buyers who bring on whatever their reps show them that is wet and cheap—and then they mark it up 3x or more, and the average bottle price is still around $30-$40. At the other end of this spectrum are the lists that have been selected solely based on name recognition, with anchor wines like Rombauer Chard and Silver Oak Cab—still bottom-line driven and heavily marked up, but with an average bottle price somewhere north of $100. Cougar Town - Jules & Big Joe

The consumer who is sick of curated responded to me on Twitter with: “‘curating’ is not 1 way to make a wine list. ‘selecting’ is. ‘selecting’ is not ‘curating.'” Yeah, dude—from what I wrote above you can see that I agree selecting is not curating.

I think the guy’s point more than likely was that he objects to the semantic connotations of curated. It does sound a bit pretentious. It also stretches the literal meaning of the word, but not that far. A wine list that has been not just selected, but also interpreted, organized, dynamically overseen and thoughtfully presented by a content specialist can properly be described as curated.

And whether that thoughtful list is long or short, and described as curated, or simply as assembled, such a list is instantly recognizable to me, and infinitely preferable to one that’s just been selected, much less one that was written by a rep for a large distributor.

6 thoughts on “Praise The Thoughtful Wine List

  1. Ron Washam, HMW

    As one of the bozos who used to “curate” a wine list under the pretentious title of “Sommelier,” what I care about when I go to a restaurant I’ve never been to before is that they have ONE wine that I want to drink that’s in my price range. I don’t care if they have ten wines or eight hundred, if it’s put together by a Southern Wine and Spirits rep or an MS (is there a difference?), if it’s been selected, curated, spoofulated, or defecated, I just want to drink something good.

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      Agreed. It’s more likely down to my personal preference, but I bet I am more likely to find a wine I want to drink in my price range on a list curated by a bozo like you than I am to find one on a cookie-cutter list dictated by SWS.

  2. Thomas Pellechia

    …words, words, words. The purpose of words is to communicate thoughts, ideas, and actions. If whatever word one uses does not perform the function require of it, then it is not a good word to use.

    “Curator” does sound high-falutin’ and so, it is not doing its job well.

    In any case, I am with Ron regarding a wine list. There have been many times when I drank beer with my dinner, thanks to the lack of even one drinkable wine worth its price–I never questioned whether the list was curated, selected, printed by a gorilla, or perpetrated on me by one of Ron’s a low-life sommeliers.

    Admittedly, I, too, take a quick look at a wine list to see if the distributor had printed it; it helps me to start thinking about which beer to drink,

  3. John M. Kelly Post author

    “Curated” is the meme of the moment, thanks to the press releases being generated by Gilt Group and Lot18. Oh well – this too shall pass.

    But high-falutin’? Really? I’ll stick with “pretentious” especially when applied to a collection of wines, or clothing. High-falutin’ implies that we dumb everything down to the level where the average values voter is comfortable. A fine art collection may be high-falutin’ but the idea that it has been curated is not pretentious in that context.

    And while I have often had a beer or a cocktail rather than support a cookie-cutter wine list, I’ve noticed that the beer and liquor selections at this sort of restaurant are equally bloodless and uninspired.

  4. Thomas Pellechia

    What, you don’t like Miller water? Picky, picky.

    I hear that Anheuser and Miller might merge–all I could think of to compare with what the product results might be is the taste of Niagara Falls.

    As a noun, curate refers to the clergy; as a verb, it refers to organizing, sifting through and, finally, SELECTING, which means that by using the word “selecting” one can cover all the bases–one hopes.

    1. John M. Kelly Post author

      As a noun, selecting is not the end of it. Overseeing, preserving, interpreting, and presenting in context are part of “curating” as well.

      SABMiller Molson Coors merging with Inbev AB? That would be some merge. Sort of like SWS and Glazers, but writ LARGE.


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