Opinion: Wine lists should balance safe with eclectic

Chris Losh

Chris Losh

10 February 2016

Those of you who read the boring black-and-white stuff in Imbibe, as opposed to just looking at the pictures, have probably realised by now that I’m generally in favour of most of the changes that are taking place on British wine lists.

Adding tasting notes; sorting lists by style, rather than by country; making them shorter and more compact: all good stuff in my book.

So it was interesting to chat with Andrew Bewes, MD of Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines about this subject at his company’s tasting yesterday.

He understood the forces driving the move to shorter wine lists, but pointed out that the trend was not without impact.

‘By the time you’ve ticked off the must-haves and covered the classics, the room for the interesting and eclectic wines is getting smaller and smaller,’ he sighed. ‘It’s disappointing when there are more good interesting wines out there.’

He has a point. Within 10 feet of where we were standing were perfectly good (sometimes very good) wines from India, Japan, Croatia, Turkey, Hungary and Greece. At a time when fewer and fewer wine lists are getting over the 50-bin mark, it’s difficult to see too many of these getting listings.

As Bewes put it: it's ‘disappointing’… and not just for the producers themselves. After all, if wineries can’t sell their products in the on-trade here, sooner or later merchants will stop importing them and then we really will be all the poorer – though I understand that few places can afford the luxury of sitting on non-rotating stock for 12 months any more.

‘I had a reserve koshu on my list,’ a restaurateur at the Hallgarten Druitt tasting told me. ‘Brilliant wine. Lovely with food. I sold two bottles in a year – had to de-list it.’

Sentiment only goes so far in any industry…

However the problem with the non-stocking of unusual bottles doesn’t lie, I would suggest, with short lists themselves – it’s the conservative (some would say cowardly) way in which venues put them together.

Bewes talks of venues ‘ticking off the must-haves’ and ‘covering the classics’. If he’s right (and evidence suggests he is) that’s a terrible way of approaching the construction of one’s wine list.

Why is there an unwritten rule that every single damn list in the UK has to have a Kiwi Sauvignon, a Pinot Grigio, a Rioja and an Argie Malbec? Sure, people might come in looking for them, but that doesn’t mean you have to indulge their every whim.

Customers might be somewhat surprised not to see many names they recognise on their wine list. But the beauty of a short list is that a) the staff can get to grips with it properly, and advise with confidence, and b) there’s more space for you to write helpful notes on the wines.

The key element, surely, is to balance ‘safe’ listings with more esoteric wines – and to have the confidence that your wine list and your staff will be able to shift them.

Bell’s Diner & Bar Rooms in Bristol (a double Wine List of the Year winner) does this brilliantly, but such creativity and self-confidence is depressingly rare, and I worry slightly that in our headlong rush towards shorter, more compact wine lists, we’re in danger of missing the point.

As I said at the start, I like shorter lists. But a boring 50-bin wine list is no better than a boring 200-bin wine list.

Time, perhaps, to focus less on the word ‘short’ when it comes to putting these compact lists together, and more on trying to include the word ‘interesting’…

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