Restaurant Wine Lists


I’m not sure if this should be categorised as a Blog, or is it more of a Rant? Perhaps it’s a sad lament, a plea from the heart or a cry of despondency? You decide!

We recently went to a restaurant not far from home, inland a little from the coast of SE Spain. We were glad to be able to reserve a table. The restaurant is very popular. We’ve been ‘on spec’ a few times, only to be turned away as it was full. Indeed, if you want a table from early Spring to late Autumn, you have to reserve, and well in advance too.

The restaurant was full when we arrived, apart from our table and one other, which in fact, remarkably, was left lonely for the rest of the night. We spotted a few faces we knew and judging by the languages we could hear being spoken, there were a number of different nationalities present. I’m not sure of the nationality of the owner, nor the staff, but the cuisine is international with a bias towards good quality meats.

I try not to eat too much meat and I like fish anyway. My choice was a touch limited – as I said, the restaurant is quite meat orientated and there was a good choice for carnivores.

I was a little disappointed with my meal, though Claire enjoyed hers, but that’s not what this Blog is about. The source of my real disappointment, nay, by despondency, lay between the pages of the notably undistinguished wine list. You might have guessed?

wine list JackFryWL

I’m not a wine snob – I can’t afford to be! I don’t seek out the most expensive wines on a list, expecting them to be the best (it is still true in Spain that, re wine, you get what you pay for: the cheaper the wine the less satisfactory – the more expensive, up to a point, the better the quality).

Almost invariably I look, first, at the House Wines – there are two reasons for this: firstly, the choice of house wine will determine, for me, the interest that the owners have in their wines; secondly, this is usually the more economic option!

I then look at the rest of the list. Again this can be for two different reasons: if I’m unimpressed with the house wines (and I’m sad to say that this is almost always the case, here, and a major contributing part of my despondency) I’d like to see what alternatives there are, within my budget; also I like to see if I can be tempted by some good quality wines, some variety.

The restaurant in question failed on both counts – poor house wine and limited, predictable choice on the ‘fine wine’ list. And this, without raising, what for me is a fundamental part of a restaurant, the concept of quality wines to pair with quality food.

Why despair, you may ask? Well, I do on three counts: firstly that the restaurant in question takes so little interest in its house wines. This particular red wine came onto the market probably about 10 years ago and to something of a fanfare too. For house wine, it was good – fruit orientated, decent length, enjoyable on its own and with meat dishes.

Demand started to exceed production. The bodega caved in and started compromising: asking each vine to go that extra mile and produce more grapes; planning new vineyards and harvesting grapes for wine before the vines were mature enough. You’ve seen it before. Most restaurant clients, saw the label, ‘knew’ it was the same wine and didn’t stop to consider the quality. Had they done so, they would have noticed that the wine didn’t go by any other name, but it didn’t smell as sweet!

The cynic might suggest that this was always the bodega’s plan. Launch a new wine, using established vines and limiting their yield, thus seducing consumers. Then gradually dumbing it down. Well, I don’t know which is true, but I do know that the wine is not as good as it was and should not have been in this restaurant.

Secondly, I despair because, I’m afraid to say that so many restaurant clients are prepared to accept, what for me is unacceptable house wine. The restaurants aren’t entirely at fault. If their clients drink the wine without comment, why should they bother seeking out better wines? Why possibly restrict their profits when there is apparently no need to do so?

Part of the blame lies with us – sad isn’t it?

And thirdly, I despair because of the obvious lack of thought regarding the ‘fine wine’ list. Number one thought – get a couple of Riojas on the list, they’ll sell! Of course there’s no debate about the quality of the Rioja, it’s the name that will sell the wine. But, of course, there is Rioja and there is Rioja. Does the restaurateur ever taste the wine before it goes onto the list?


 Oh, and Ribera del Duero, that’s quite popular now – bit expensive, though. I wonder if our suppliers have a cheap one? Number two thought?!

What about, for example, some quality from the DO in which the restaurant finds itself? Do the restaurateurs even know that, for example, in the Valencia region there are DO Valencia and DO Alicante wines that consistently score far higher marks in the wine guides than many Riojas?

And what about white wines? Well, Rioja sells well . . . . .! And, yes, Rueda, but let’s stock those Verdejo’s that use cultivated yeasts designed to enhance the aroma  profile of grapes which come from very high yielding, young vines which haven’t yet got the maturity to do it for themselves. But, no, I’m giving the restaratuers too much credit here – do they even know that?!

No, it’s more like – let’s choose one of the cheaper Rueda’s, one with Verdejo prominent on the label, yes, but blended with some characterless, young Viura! What about Rueda Sauvignon – no, bit pricey that!

Please, let’s all make an effort to kick out the poor house wines, let’s not accept the mundane. Let’s hassle the restaurateurs to put some effort into their lists and seek out good quality from established areas of production but also from lesser known ones, and certainly from local producers.

Tell them that we won’t accept wines that are made specifically for the restaurant trade in an effort to keep consumers ignorant of their mark-ups. Neither will we accept poor wines whose names are hidden from us because the bodegas have renamed the same wine, just to sell to the trade!

We are aware that the restaurant has to make a profit and that there will be a mark-up, so tempt us with wines that we know as well as wines of similar (and better) quality that we have yet to discover but which we can find in the wine shops.

Will this Blog/Rant/Plea/Lament make a difference? I doubt it – but it could!

I need a drink!

Colin Harkness Feb 2015

Twitter: @colinonwine

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