Wine Manifesto: Part 1, with lessons forthcoming
At dinner last night at a new Italian restaurant near where my parents live (which is otherwise impeccable and a gift to the region), I had a fairly bizarre wine-ordering experience. I told the well-meaning woman tasked with wine service that I was looking for a red from Trentino, it didn't have to be from Trentino but I like a more-restrained, Austrian style, that I'd had one of them on the (incredibly long and well-chosen) list and liked it, and what would she recommend along those lines? She told me that if I liked the wine I'd had before, I should have it again, or, if I would like to try something new, "everything on the list is good." The list, mind you, is more than a hundred bottles long.
Ok. Shift gears. New tactic. I like the Sylvaner from this producer on your list, known for sort of wacky, interesting wines; can you recommend something similar in style, but red? After mis-correcting my pronunciation of Sylvaner, and expressing both surprise and slight disdain for my enjoyment of said Sylvaner, she recommended first a Supertuscan and then a Rosso di Montalcino, the sort of wines that are basically the exact opposite of everything I'd been asking for.
Later in the evening, we overheard her loudly telling the table next to us that "knowing about wine is pretentious" and she didn't believe it was necessary.
But, and this is something that I've been spending a lot of time thinking about, as a large part of my job involves wine education -- the first thing I usually tell people is to find a trusted expert, whether it's a wine store with a well-curated selection and a friendly staff, a sommelier at a restaurant you go to regularly, or even an importer whose tastes match yours. Once you have a grounding, and a general idea where your preferences lie, it's a lot easier to get make sense of a hundred-bottle wine list or giant wine store.
I guess my question is what responsibility a restaurant has to its customers when its list is a) incredibly long and b) not cheap. I'm sure you could make the argument that by curating their list well, the restaurant has fulfilled their obligation -- but man, no wonder the most common question I get is how not to be intimidated by a wine list.
So, announcing wine lessons, to be posted here with some sort of recurring regularity. Keep your eyes peeled.