Wine List Agony

Be Your Own Sommelier


We’ve all been there. You’re shown to your table. You’re feeling good. Then the wine waiter (or sommelier) appears with the wine list. The table goes quiet as everybody prays that the inevitable game of pass the parcel doesn’t end with the leather bound tome in their lap. As the wine list circulates, waves of pressure and an air of intimidation sweep across the white linen. But hold on, why should one person in a black suit carrying a book cause so much hassle on what should be a relaxing night out with friends?
I’ve been travelling the world’s vineyards recently, from Milan to Madrid, from Brisbane to Bordeaux and, guess what, this fear of the wine waiter is universal. These guys in black create sweaty palms the world over. Just how crazy is that? Let’s lead an international campaign to put the pleasure back into eating out! Standing up to wine waiters, helping to change wine lists and simply asking simple questions would take the ‘rant’ out, and put the ‘rest’ back in to your restaurant experience.

Don’t get me wrong: There are some super, customer-friendly wine waiters who put you at your ease. Thumbs up! But why are others so snooty? I’ll let you in on a secret. Once you remove the cellophane wrap, many snooty wine waiters aren’t as knowledgeable as they’d have you believe. So, don’t be afraid to challenge and engage them. Ask them questions. If you have a price limit don’t be embarrassed to tell them; don’t forget that if they were in your seat they’d also know how much they could afford.

Restaurant wine lists also need an overhaul. How can they do that? For a start, make them shorter and simpler. You don’t need an inch thick, leather bound list bulging with Chateaux this, Domaine that, bodegas, cantinas, fincas and quintas. We’re out for a memorable meal with friends; not to spend half an hour ploughing through a wine novel in a foreign language.  

Just one page expertly written can put customers at ease, help them to make their choice with confidence and increase their enjoyment whilst boosting the restaurant’s bank account at the same time. It’s win-win situation for both diner and restaurant.

Let’s be honest, when we open a wine list our eyes flash straight to the price. With this in mind, one of the cleverest London lists is at Little House in Mayfair. It’s a one pager and has three whites and three reds in each of the £25, £30, £35, £40 and £50 categories. That’s fifty total wines, so there’s lots of choice. It also includes wines by the carafe and glass and, if you want to push the boat out, you can ask for their £50+ list. Brilliant!

Recently, I was staying at a Hotel du Vin, part of the unique UK boutique hotel chain and was pleased to see a selection of their wines also offered in very handy 500 ml. carafes. The easy-to-read, reasonably priced, one page card leads you effortlessly off the well worn Chablis-Sancerre-Chateauneuf du Pape track and into the challenging realms of Spain’s white Albarino grape from Rias Baixas ($30 for 500 ml. carafe), to California’s Santa Barbara vineyards for a very quaffable Pinot Noir ($40 for 500 ml. carafe). Bravo.

Another welcome move away from the traditional but so often confusing ‘wine by country’ are ‘wines by style’ lists. Categories such as ‘zingy whites’, ‘rich, powerful reds’ and ‘creamy whites’ ring a bell with customers and help them choose a wine to match their food. This stylish approach linked to grape varieties also gets my vote.   

We can also do without lists that spout long, flowery, repetitive, wine trade lingo. A few meaningful words, carefully chosen, can work miracles and educate the customer at the same time.

I’ve just returned from taking a small group of CEO’s to Champagne. We dined at the 2 star Michelin Le Parc restaurant within the celebrated Relais & Chateaux ‘Les Crayeres’. To eliminate the wine list wobbles, Chef Phillipe Mille has created three differently priced menus that include a different wine with each course -- no hassle, and no pass the parcel. It’s good to see that this set menu format so well established in small hostelries is gaining popularity in top restaurants too.   

I was recently with a client in a ‘posh’ London restaurant adding a little ‘between course wine entertainment’ to his stylish networking table when one his overseas guests handed me the bulky wine list. “Come on, where do I start?” he asked. It was a confusing, gobbledegook ‘wine by region’ heavyweight so I suggested he turn the pages to countries that represented value for money. Spain, (regions like Valdepenas, Somontano, Catalonia, Andalucía, Rueda), Portugal, (Douro, Alentejo, Dao, Bairrada), Italy, (Marche, Abruzzo, Puglia, Sicily), South Africa, Argentina and Chile are good starting points. The advice hit the spot as the guests really enjoyed the wines and the stories they held whilst my happy client saved a packet on the bill.

One far sighted restaurateur has asked me to put my money where my mouth is by creating a ‘John Downes MW, Master of Wine, Personal Selection’ wine list. The ‘keep it simple’ one page folding card comprises eight white, eight red, eight New World, eight Old World wines covering all price points and giving a helpful snapshot of the wine. It’s the first point of call for diners, has no fear factor, and offers great wines at a glance. His accountant is very happy too, I’m told!  

One more tip. It saves a lot of stress if you check the restaurant wine list online before you leave home; you’ll choose better wines, relax, have longer to chat and, dare I say it, impress you friends at the same time. The wine waiter will also be impressed but probably won’t show it – sadly some are reluctant to let their masks slip!
As you’ve probably guessed, I find many wine lists pretty useless. But it doesn’t have to be like that. My new campaign, is to promote simple, short, exciting lists around the world which include the expected and the unexpected, engage the diner and tell enough about the wine to titillate but not frighten.

Come to think of it, some restaurants must be the only businesses that strive to do just that - frighten off the customer! It’s crazy but nothing surprises me in the wine trade … wine list hell is simply part of the global “I’d like to know more but I’m too afraid to ask” wine culture. Come on all you Snoothers, we can change all that! Spread the word!

John Downes, one of only 320 Masters of Wine in the world and is a speaker, television and radio broadcaster and writer on wine. Check out John’s website at Follow him on Twitter @JOHNDOWNESMW

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: jsb1396
    350548 73

    Please share the link to your 1 page folding wine list....
    Thx in advance.

    Jul 07, 2015 at 9:46 AM

  • Snooth User: S McKenna27
    1298564 33

    Wherever possible, I do go to a restaurant's website and check out their wine list. My friends usually ask me to pick the wine, and this way, I can think about what we're eating and make a suitable choice from both a taste and cost perspective. Loved the column!

    Jul 07, 2015 at 10:16 AM

  • Snooth User: syoung51
    176730 11

    I like the ad running at the bottom of the page - "New Wines of Greece" very timely ----hopefully the old vines survive the economics and the politics !!

    Jul 07, 2015 at 10:43 AM

  • Snooth User: Paul888
    1885652 6

    Great piece John - Thanks

    Jul 07, 2015 at 11:10 AM

  • Good suggestions. Perhaps restaurateurs will follow them. My main gripe with most restaurant wine lists is the prices, which are usually triple retail, sometime more. I understand that restaurants rely on wine sales to pump up their bottom lines, but I'm past the point where I will pay $45-$50 for a $15 bottle. My preference is BYOB places, but if that's not possible, I do my best not to get carried away and enjoy the better bottles at home.

    Jul 07, 2015 at 1:42 PM

  • Snooth User: Goodlife11
    457084 324

    I like your article. I think you could do a hybrid approach, I like the 'leather tome' at times, since it makes me branch out. However, sometimes I prefer the Cliff's notes version instead. I think it should fall the sommeliers to provide both options. That way your can peruse the full list, or browse the truncated list for a less intimidating experience. Plus, then the sommelier could periodically change the shirt list to incorporate various wines from their overall collection, thereby broadening their customers' palettes. The leather tome is to the cork as the shorter list is to the screw cap. Both are functional, good ideas, and have their place, but one clearly carries more wine romance with it than the other.

    Jul 07, 2015 at 2:13 PM

  • Snooth User: pamela2
    Hand of Snooth
    348797 10

    Good points but I don't know where you've been dining lately to say that most sommeliers are there to impress. It has not happened to me in years. Have a little knowledge about your own taste, be able to explain what you are looking for as well as your budget with the somm', and you're in for a treat.
    Also, I personally disagree on presenting a wine lis by grape variety. For one thing, many good wines come in blends. And grape varieties taste entirely different depending where they are grown. You cannot enjoy wine without having a basic knowledge of geography and history. This is what makes wine a different beverage from liquor and sodas.

    Jul 07, 2015 at 2:43 PM

  • Snooth User: lshomer
    942284 7

    In London, many years ago, Fat Duck started wine pairings with their somewhat unusual cuisine and dishes. Takes all the guess work out of the leather bound voluminous wine bibles that are usually served up at Michelin starred gatherings. Today, I find many places in the States that do the same thing. Can get a bit expensive, but like Trois Mec in Los Angeles, they give you two different price point pairings. That is very sensible. In Osaka we went to a two star restaurant that paired non-alcoholic beverages with their prix fixe, and that is a novelty. One gets Ciders and fruit juices that one did not know existed and in some cases the chef made the non-alcoholic beverage to complement the dishes. That is creative.

    Jul 07, 2015 at 5:17 PM

  • Snooth User: Beachblues
    687490 26

    If I find the bottles priced out of sight, I go with a glass or aye two.
    That being said, a lot of times you can get a taste of a wine before ordering a bottle to be sure you will enjoy it.

    Jul 07, 2015 at 8:35 PM

  • I NEVER let a somm intimidate me! I probably know almost as much as they do and more importantly, I KNOW WHAT I LIKE! I might ask a question about a particular wine or ask for their opinion on which of two wines is the best choice in the moment, but I never feel the least stress in their presence.

    Jul 07, 2015 at 10:16 PM

  • Very informative information an commentary to assist in w.ine selection which obvious.lybleads to major enjoyment

    Jul 07, 2015 at 10:30 PM

  • Snooth User: steve666
    392767 156

    I get so much bad advice from waiters and wine stewards that I generally do not ask. I always bring my own wine and in Northern California I have never been told I couldn't do so except at a place that had no license. My wine collection is rather middle class, but having a collection allows me to drink 2001, 2004, 2005 Riojas, rather than 2010-2013, or 2001-2008 Tuscans, rather than 2010 to 2013. No need to buy expensive wines, just wines you like that are likely to improve with age, and almost all do improve.

    Jul 08, 2015 at 12:55 AM

  • I have to agree with Pamela2. Personally, I want the wine list and my friends usually defer. Unless there is a wine I know and love at a price I can afford, I usually ask for the sommelier's advice. I find that 9 times out of ten they are friendly and informative and most do not try to push a more expensive wine than I can afford. I have had some really delicious pairings and broadened my understanding of regions (particularly in France!) of which I had no knowledge.

    Jul 08, 2015 at 10:25 AM

  • Snooth User: Karen Wall
    1891503 20

    A note to restaurants that post their wine list on their website: Keep It Updated! I can't tell you the number of times we've reviewed a restaurant's wine list only to find that what was shown online doesn't even resemble the list in the restaurant. This results in disappointment and a poor first impression.

    Jul 08, 2015 at 7:02 PM

  • My spouse and I never let the Somm intimidate us. If faced with a leather-bound tome, we may peruse it for favorites, but usually ask for something to complement our food in our price range. I don't ever recall being disappointed.
    We also enjoyed the wine & food pairing at another Relais & Chateaux property, in Carmel, CA. Many unique wines (at least to us) were served.

    Jul 09, 2015 at 6:03 PM

  • I run the Torraccia del Piantavigna, a winery in Alto Piemonte in Italy. I agree totally with your comments. Even after over 20 years in Italy and many of those in the wine trade I sometimes enter a restaurant and find that there is hardly a winery on the list that I know. This is particularly true in regions which I do not often visit. Given that there are over 200,000 wineries in Italy from hundreds of different regions with thousands of grape varieties this is hardly surprising. Going it alone in Italy can be a minefield.
    The moment of selection of the wine and its tasting is for many one of the most daunting moments in life where the individual's status as an educated and sophisticated individual can be wrecked in front of a gloating public of his closest friends or business associates just when he or she is trying to make a good impression. I spend a lot of time with sommeliers and also participate at some training sessions for the various sommelier and barmen's training courses. I always try to insist that they have a proactive role. The client that picks the first wine off the list that he knows will not remember the wine experience in that restaurant, the sommelier that helps the client by introducing an outstanding local wine will make the whole meal a unique experience for everyone involved and the restaurant will draw the benefit. After all we don't need a sommelier if he is not going to give advice.
    With a growing but still little known winery from the little known areas of Ghemme and Gattinara, I am constantly confronted by restaurants and highly professional wine stores who tell me that they think my wines are wonderful but that won't buy my wine because nobody knows them. My reply is that if they are convinced of the quality the fact that nobody knows them is a huge advantage. It allows them to offer something to their clients that they haven't already tried. How else can high priced wine stores and sommeliers justify their existence if not by imparting their knowledge to those that they serve,

    Oct 02, 2015 at 7:53 AM

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