Whine and dine
Rob Ingram divulges how to negotiate tricky wine lists with the minimum of fuss
HICH of these four statements do you find the most chilling? Good morning, I’m from the Australian Taxation Office.’’ Pull over driver, and step away from the car.’’ Dad, this is Animal. He’s asked me to marry him.’’ Or, I’ll leave the wine list with you for about 20 minutes . . . as you can see, it’s quite extensive.’’
If it’s the last, you’re far from alone. In shrink talk, you’re an oenophobe, a victim of wine anxiety. A victim, too, of the intimidatory wine list, borne to the table like the tablets of stone from Mt Sinai, and conceived of the philosophy that, if clients can’t find something they like on 68 pages, there’s something wrong with them.
Wine anxiety is regarded as so debilitating in the business environment that Wyndham Estate winemaker Tony Hooper has a nice little gig going in the US teaching wine confidence and selection to students of business schools, including Harvard.
Wine is becoming as important as golf to achieving success in business,’’ he says with a hint of mischief.
There’s even better news, though, for those who freeze like a rabbit in headlights when the waiter hands them the wine list. Events such as the Fine Wine Partners-Gourmet Traveller Wine Australia’s Wine List of the Year, and bodies such as the Australian Sommeliers’ Association, are driving a trend towards more focused and approachable wine lists.
Peter Forrestal, the chairman of judges for the Wine List of the Year awards, says: Certainly, large wine lists can be very impressive. Size alone, however, does not make an excellent wine list. Wines need to reflect the cuisine and style of the restaurant and to be neatly balanced. The design and layout is important, and diners still expect fair value for money.’’
Taking all this into account, the judges last year voted that Australia’s best wine list is to be found at Taxi Dining Room, a sleek Japanese fusion restaurant overlooking Melbourne’s Federation Square. Its list is put together by Lincoln Riley, who was named sommelier of the year at the same awards. Riley spent four years in wine service at Donovans at St Kilda, under Kevin Donovan, followed by a stint in Britain with Gordon Ramsay — who doesn’t even regard wine as a proper four-letter word — and then the sanctuary of Taxi Dining Room.
He thinks balance, diversity and a strong home state representation are probably the elements that won his Taxi list the award.
Forrestal says the judging criteria were weighted in the following order: content (45 per cent), balance (15 per cent), suitability (15 per cent), presentation (15 per cent) and pricing (10 per cent). Aside from Taxi, the awards identified the state winners as Rockpool (NSW), Isis Brasserie (Queensland), Must Wine Bar (Western Australia), Appellation (South Australia), The Terrace (Tasmania) and The Ginger Room (ACT). Taxi’s overall victory was unanimous.
Few would question the credibility and objectivity of wine list awards associated with such respected names but the same was probably true of those conducted by Wine Spectator magazine in the US, regarded as a paragon of professionalism.
That was until Robin Goldstein, author of TheWine Trials , came along. Pivotal to his book was the premise that people preferred the taste of money to the taste of wine. So he assembled more than 500 wine drinkers — from acknowledged experts to everyday imbibers — who tasted more than 6000 glasses of wine in brownbag blind tastings. One hundred wines priced under $US15 outscored wines priced from $US50 to $US150. Two-thirds of the tasters preferred a $US12 Domaine Ste Michelle Brut sparkling wine from Washington state to a $US150 Dom Perignon from Champagne.
Impish with delight at this bit of how’s-your-father, Goldstein submitted a fake wine list and fake menu from an imaginary Italian restaurant to be judged for the prestigious Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
The menu of his Osteria L’Intrepido represented a myopia of cliched Italian dishes, and his high-price
reserve wine list’’ was largely chosen from Italian wines that scored lowest in Wine Spectator reviews over the past few decades. Included were wines described by the magazine as smells like bug spray’’,
too much paint thinner and nail varnish character’’ and smells barnyardy and tastes decayed’’.
Osteria L’Intrepido, which doesn’t exist, won the Award for Excellence, as published in the August 2008 issue of Wine Spectator .
So what are the desirable elements of a wine list, and where can it go wrong? I asked some of the sharpest minds and palates in the Australian wine business to find out how to tell a smart list from a lazy one. Forrestal and Riley were happy to oblige, as was Ben Moechtar, president of the ASA and dux of a recent advanced sommelier school run by the British-based Court of Master Sommeliers. So, too, were Stephane Pommier, the sommelier at the NSW Hunter Valley’s Rock Restaurant (named best restaurant in an Australian winery by the Restaurant & Catering Association), Darren Jahn, president of the Wine Communicators of Australia, and Donna Freeman, who compiled a stellar list for Sydney’s innovative Wine Odyssey centre.
Not surprisingly, all mentioned the need for chosen wines to be appropriate to the style and price structure of the restaurant and to create a celestial synergy with the menu.
Ideally, they’ll also be exciting and challenging. Taxi, for instance, has a strong Japanese and Asian influence in its fusion of food ideas, so Riley assembled a magic list of aromatic whites from South Australia’s Clare Valley and the Adelaide Hills, through New Zealand, Germany, Austria and Alsace: around 65 riesling styles from bone dry to sweeter examples, plus nearly 30 sake and umeshu (Japanese plum wine) options. Each one has a perfect partner on the menu.
In general, wines need to be of sufficient quality and interest to make a significant contribution to the enjoyment of the dining experience. A good list is always focused, and since style flows from place there should be a good representation of relevant regions and countries. Diversity of style (flavour, structure, weight and texture) adds interest, but multiple wines of similar style also indicates that someone is paying attention to a focused food and wine synergy. And remember that while the sommelier would love to write a list of his favourite wines, commercially it would be a disaster.
Balance also outscores depth. There needs to be a helpful logic to how the wines are placed on the list. Most are listed by grape variety, some by region, and increasingly wines are being listed by flavour and body profile (crisp, fresh dry whites; smooth, medium-bodied reds). Varietal listings are fine as long as lesser-known varietals are included. Regional listings are appropriate in wine-producing districts and helpful if you are up to speed with celebrated varietal combinations.
Thoughtful varietal and flavour profile listings will generally progress from the driest and lightest-bodied to fuller, more assertive styles. Some lists have the wines graduated according to price, which generally has a negative effect as the customer will go straight to a preconceived price point and take no further interest.
As for being corkscrewed’’, overpricing is more often in the eyes of the bill-holder than in fact. Good wine service — and that embraces things such as cellaring, good glassware and staff training — all adds to the list price.
Twice the retail price is generally regarded as fair for mid-range wines but, at the top end, most would like to see a standard markup of, say, $25 to $35. And, above all, a good wine list transmits a sort of emotional code that tells you that you’re in the right place.
Fundamental to understanding a good list is being able to recognise a bad one.
The worst aren’t even deceptive: nasty laminated little numbers embossed with logo and label illustrations that telegraph the sad truth that the wines are all from the one supplier, who has repaid the favour by paying for the printing.