How some restaurant wine lists intimidate even food pros

  • Choosing a wine off a restaurant menu can be daunting.

    Choosing a wine off a restaurant menu can be daunting. Getty Images

 
 
Updated 3/5/2020 11:39 AM

The language of wine can be intimidating. Wine lovers have our own vocabulary, complete with foreign words that can be difficult to pronounce. We boast of tasting a cornucopia of flavors that seem mystical and obscure to normal drinkers. And we can spot a wine noob if they hold their glass by the bowl instead of the stem, say "RISE-ling" instead of "REEZ-ling," or describe a wine merely as "smooth." Most of us want to share our enthusiasm and love of wine; others, unfortunately, judge.

All this leads to the stereotype of the wine snob lording knowledge over the rest of the world. And of course there's the snooty sommelier who intimidates diners with an impenetrable wine list and an imposing demeanor. Most sommeliers I've met here in Washington and elsewhere take great pains not to live up to that stereotype, but the negative image seems to be alive and well.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In a recent Twitter rant, Helen Rosner, food writer for the New Yorker, excoriated a restaurant for its head-scratching wine list. "I am an actual professional restaurant eater and I still have no ... clue which of the many many words on a wine list is the one word I'm supposed to say to indicate that this is the wine I want a glass of," she wrote.

She posted a photo of part of a list offering white wines from France's Loire Valley, Burgundy and Alsace. The first two listed were "Didier Chaffardon 'Chnaplo´d'" and "Le Haut Planty 'Gwin Evan'" -- not very helpful if you aren't familiar with those producers and their wines. Most of the others were similarly opaque. I did not recognize any of the wines. A few Google searches confirmed that the list featured small-production natural wines. So even knowing that the burgundies would be chardonnay may not tell me much of what the wines would be like.

Rosner did not identify the restaurant, nor did she respond to an email requesting further comment. But her tweet unleashed a maelstrom of comment and criticism, and her replies over the next two days provided lots of fodder for discussion. Plenty of people agreed with her take, but others accused her of anti-intellectualism as well as plain old ignorance about wine.

"This isn't about knowledge, it's about communication," she replied, barely able to contain her exasperation at the "word soup" of a typical wine list.

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Alice Feiring, a writer and champion of natural wines, chimed in, agreeing that the list was opaque and "grossly overpriced."

"They just tell you the name of the wine, or its vineyard or specific appellation," Feiring said. "You'd need to be postdoctoral wine to get through this one."

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells described the restaurant list in question as "a nice one" and "a prelude to a conversation." He acknowledged, however, "there ought to be a better way to strike up a conversation with customers."

Many of Rosner's tweets focused on the discomfort of diners when faced with a wine list.

"I am absolutely thrilled not to recognize a single ... word on your wine list, I just want to know WHICH OF THE MANY WORDS IS THE ONE TO CALL THE WINE so that we can have a conversation wherein you, a genius wine person, tell me, a humble moron, what the words mean," Rosner wrote.

The back and forth included several suggestions for improving wine lists, such as using bold font for key words, adding bin numbers or other clues that would help customers avoid the "mumble and point" approach to ordering wine. Rosner seemed eager for any approach that might offer a diner a clue.

"Virtually every time I ask about a bottle, at virtually any restaurant, I take a shot in the dark about whether to refer to it by its varietal, appellation, cuvee, color -- and almost always I'm corrected by the server to whatever the staff uses as shorthand," she tweeted.

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