Whine and dine

Rob In­gram di­vulges how to ne­go­ti­ate tricky wine lists with the min­i­mum of fuss

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

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