Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Is the Wine List on the Way Out?

My review of the Peninsula Grill, one of the old standbys of high-end downtown Charleston dining,   just hit the streets in the City Paper.  Right before that, I visited The Grocery, Kevin Johnson's hot new restaurant, with its big wood-fired oven, everything local and hyper-fresh, lots of in-house pickling and preserving, and all the other hallmarks of the New New Southern style.

There's quite a difference between the luxurious fine dining style of just a decade ago and the more informal, ingredient-centered local cuisine that is currently on the rise. And, it's not just the the food: the level of service, the atmosphere, the dress code are all changing, too.

And that led to this thought: is the wine list a thing of the past?

Not serving wine, mind you, but having a huge wine cellar and a sommelier (or multiple sommeliers) and not a wine list but a wine book, those big leather bound things with brass trim that you strain to lift and hold awkwardly in your lap as you turn one heavy page after another.

At The Grocery, the wine list is just two pages, able to fit, front and back, on a single piece of paper, whites on one side (seven by the glass and two dozen bottles), reds on the other (five by the glass and thirty bottles).  At The MacIntosh--another of the hot new spots--the selection is a little larger, approaching 100 bottles, but it still fits comfortably on both sides of a single sheet of paper. Compare that to the older Charleston Grill, where sommelier Rick Rubel's acclaimed list runs over forty pages.

So buy, sell, or hold the future of the wine list?  If I had to choose, I would have to say, sadly, "sell." The trends just seem to be moving against it.

Some restaurants, Wine & Spirits Magazine reported recently, are now replacing their big leather books with iPads, which makes it a breeze to swipe and tap your way through thousands of options and has the added advantage of being easy to read even in the dimmest dining room.

But it's not just the physical form of the wine list that may be its downfall.  The whole dining culture just seems to be moving away from it.  The newer hip restaurants are putting as much emphasis into their beer selection and cocktail "programs" as they are their wine cellars.  Beer-paired dinners have been hot for a couple of years, and now cocktail-paired dinners are starting to pop up, too.  (I just experienced my first one a few weeks ago at the Charleston Wine + Food festival.)

But, ultimately I think the demise of the wine list will follow hand-in-hand the disappearance of the coat and tie from the restaurant dining room. More and more people simply have no desire to dress for dinner; some just prefer wearing their regular casual clothes, others are actively uncomfortable and awkward in a tie and are intimidated by environments where they are expect to wear one.  And they are equally uncomfortable with a massive leather bound wine list with a lot of names and countries and dates that mean nothing to them.

That, ultimately, is what I think will be wine's downfall. For far too long wine has maintained an imposing, intimidating stance, one that suggests you need years of study and a dense insiders' vocabulary to not seem like a total idiot. The nine thousand regions of France, all those years, and--of course--those three- and four-figure prices mixed right in with the regular stuff, making us feel like cheapskates for settling on a lowly $75 bottle.  And then there are wine tasting columns that offer "helpful" advice for novices like this: "Learn the meaning of wine terms like fruit forward, smoky, chewy, structured, bright, jowly, citrus, effervescent, creamy and fatty." Holy crap! How long will that take?

Countless sommeliers have made the case that this simply is not true, that there's no reason for regular Joes to be intimidated when ordering wine at a good restaurant.  Just be cool, say what you like or don't like and your price range, and let your wine professional guide you.  By and large I think that's true: in the world of fine dining just a little confidence goes a long way.      

But I'm not sure the average restaurant goer agrees. Curious nugget from the Wine & Spirits piece on the iPad wine apps: at Manhattan's SD26, wine director Paul Guerzon used to have 3 sommeliers working with him.  Now that they've introduced the iPads, he works the dining room alone. Which suggests that in large part the role of the sommelier has served simply to help confused diners navigate the large, overwhelming list of regions and vintages.  Certainly there are a some patrons who value the knowledge and guidance of a trained sommelier, but it seems most just want to quickly narrow it down: Red [tap] Cabernet [tap] $50 to $99 [tap].  Done.

And that raises the question of whether the sommelier is going the way of the travel agent, but that's for another time. For now, I think, suffice it to say, expect to order your wine from a single sheets of cardstock more and more often in the upcoming years.

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