Why Are Wine & Cocktails Absent from Restaurant Criticism?

In an age when beverage programs have become an increasingly important part of a restaurant's identity, they remain curiously absent from restaurant reviews. Jordan Mackay gets to the heart of the issue and asks whether it's time for a change.

beverage star system illustration

The average New York Times restaurant review rarely dedicates more than 20 words to beverages.

A recent offering from the sidebar of one Times review read: “The wine list is chosen with an eye to value, with some good bottles under $60, and flexibility with food.” Another: “Small-batch spirits, a short cocktail menu and a well-priced list of mostly natural wines.”

That’s like characterizing a Bed, Bath & Beyond as having “a selection of inexpensive cotton sheets in many colors and patterns.” Not a lot to go on. But the Times is by no means alone; overlooking beverage in reviews is so common that it’s become endemic.

Unless the establishment’s concept is demonstrably founded on cocktails, beer or wine, the standard review routinely ignores all but casual mention, despite the fact that, for a growing and free-spending faction, drinking is an essential part of the dining experience. Even in reviews where beverage is more than passingly discussed, its contribution feels ancillary—rather than essential—to determining a restaurant’s merit.  Is the drinking experience not a vital part of our overall restaurant experience (and expenditure), deserving of reflection in the review?  Why does this bias exist? And is it time for it to change?

These long-standing questions came back to mind after a recent post by Michael Bauer, restaurant critic for my hometown San Francisco Chronicle. The entry—titled “Should cocktails have separate star ratings?”—responds to a reader inquiring about a review of new restaurant, Alta CA, in which Bauer brings up its ambitious cocktail program, but ultimately provides no quantifiable rating of it. Indeed, the standard Bauer review applies star ratings to the following categories: Overall, Food, Service, Atmosphere, Prices and Noise. One essential category is conspicuously absent.

Bauer explains that “the bar program is an extension of the food offerings and what I find becomes part of the food rating.” Cocktails alone deserve this respect, he writes, because “there’s a person behind the bar creating the drink,” which is not the case with wine and beer. I applaud Bauer’s transparency and willingness to discuss this. But just one question: If cocktails are a part of Food, where exactly do beer and wine fit into the equation? Are they a phantom subset of Atmosphere, Prices or Noise?

Considering the ever-ascending profile of beverage programs and their creators, the restaurant critics’ blind eye is especially confounding.

Be it parsimony in budget or column inches, a lack of institutional desire marginalizes beverage programs in reviews. And that, I believe, isn’t all. The other problem is what I call the Great Divide between food and drink. Wine, spirits, beer, coffee and tea are still specialized fields—realms of extreme geekiness—that require a certain level of expertise. While no one feels inhibition in critiquing steak frites, relatively few people can look at a wine list and tell you that the Lapierre Morgon is marked up way too high, or taste that the level of carbonation on the Anchor Steam is off or that there’s too much maraschino in the Aviation.

Consider Bobby Stuckey at Boulder’s Frasca, Joe Campanale at New York’s Dell’Anima and L’Apicio, Michael Madrigale and his big bottle pours at Bar Boulud, what Rajat Parr’s eminence meant to the Michael Mina Group restaurants and Le Bernardin’s Aldo Sohm, who routinely turns up on the Today show. Celebrity sommeliers have become draws unto themselves. The same is true for bartenders—like Leo Robitschek at The NoMad in NYC and Jeffrey Morgenthaler at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon—who have helped make their restaurants destinations for the hungry and thirsty.

Point is, in today’s competitive landscape, an ambitious restaurant undoubtedly takes beverages seriously. They hire talented sommeliers, cicerones and bartenders who go to great lengths to curate programs reflective of the restaurant’s concept and ethos. Should a restaurant not be judged on how well they execute this?

“For me, restaurants offer a single, overall experience,” says Eric Asimov, the Chief Wine Critic for the New York Times. “Food, beverages, service, atmosphere are all part of that experience and must be considered in making an evaluation.”  Beverage programs may be a more or less significant part of a restaurant’s identity, but he notes—acknowledging that he may be one of the few wine writers who “doesn’t want to read much more about wine in restaurant reviews”—that it’s “unnecessary to spend a lot of ink writing about [beverage programs] in depth, and reviewing individual bottles is a useless exercise.” He does, however, agree that while the food is the most important feature in a review that “breadth and character of beverage programs is important, as is execution, and it can be evaluated swiftly and effectively without taking too much time away from the food.”

I agree with him on all counts. My only response is that restaurant criticism is rarely practiced in the way he describes.

“I’ve often felt that I should devote more space to drinks,” says Josh Sens, the restaurant critic at San Francisco magazine, “but I don’t for a variety of reasons.” Namely, he says, he’s so limited in the space he’s given that there’s hardly room. And more importantly: only one drink is accounted for in his reviewer’s budget. But he also makes another salient point (about cocktails).

“I think there is also the sense, or at least I get the sense,” he says, “that cocktail programs all wind up sounding largely the same in print—at least if one is writing for a general audience. If you don’t have the ink to really geek out about the subtleties, it’s hard to do justice to the distinctions that are actually there.”

That observation jibes with Asimov’s point that “reviewing individual bottles is a useless exercise.” Yet overall, I think Sens gets at the heart of the problem. Be it parsimony in budget or column inches, a lack of institutional desire marginalizes beverage programs in reviews. And that, I believe, isn’t all. The other problem is what I call the Great Divide between food and drink. Wine, spirits, beer, coffee and tea are still specialized fields—realms of extreme geekiness—that require a certain level of expertise. While no one feels inhibition in critiquing steak frites, relatively few people can look at a wine list and tell you that the Lapierre Morgon is marked up way too high, or taste that the level of carbonation on the Anchor Steam is off or that there’s too much maraschino in the Aviation. Those details are obviously too granular for a specific review, but taken in aggregate or as part of larger set of data they become information I’d like to have.

Further, for the general public, wine pricing is the black box of the restaurant experience—the issue that brings the most discomfort and sews the most distrust between diner and sommelier. (And frankly, the cost of wine at restaurants is major deterrent to my dining out.) Typically only wholesale wine buyers have pricing information at their fingertips. Without it, the rest of us are unaware whether we’re being gouged or encouraged to liberally partake of the list.

A proper restaurant beverage critique that examined pricing could serve to both ease customer anxiety on the subject and make restaurants accountable for unfair pricing, and thus possibly incentivize them compete. (To his credit, Bauer occasionally attends to wine in a review, and when he does he offers a rough description of the list and even points out good deals by comparing list price to retail. Few, if any, other reviewers go this far.)

So what to do? I agree with Asimov that beverage should be perceived as a significant part of the overall impression of a restaurant, but it’s unrealistic, I suppose, to ask food critics to have such specialized knowledge. So, for now, perhaps it should be treated independently. That is not to say that beverages should receive a separate star rating, but I would welcome at least a reasoned, contextual and observant assessment of the beverage options as a whole.

Just as a restaurant reviewer’s critique may have a salutary effect on a restaurant itself, and on all surrounding restaurants, the presence of a dedicated beverage analyst could persuade many restaurants to raise their game. It would also reward the restaurants who have invested as much of their heart (and budget) in the cellar and bar as they have in the kitchen with the recognition they deserve. And lastly, it would help pair the thirsty with the good drink they’ve been longing for.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

Jordan Mackay is the wine and spirits writer for San Francisco magazine. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Decanter, The Art of Eating, Food & Wine, Gourmet and many others. He is the author of Passion for Pinot and (with Rajat Parr) the James Beard Award-winning Secrets of the Sommeliers. Currently, he is working on a book about Texas barbecue and two more books on wine. He lives in San Francisco.

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  • http://www.JancisRobinson.com Jancis Robinson

    Good topic. I would just like to speak (write?) up on behalf of my husband Nicholas Lander, restaurant critic of the Financial Times and JancisRobinson.com. Oddly enough, I happen to think he gets the balance between writing about the food and the drink about right in his reviews. He mentions the latter when it is notable in some way – from the point of view of range, quality or pricing .He certainly doesn’t ignore it.

  • Thomas Cregan

    Jordan, I agree. Restaurants will serve well-prepared, tasty food, but the wine program will be lacking. Often the red wine either by the glass or bottle will be served warm. Many high-end restaurants will not store their lesser expensive red wines by the bottle properly, citing the cost. Stemware selection and server knowledge will be haphazard. It’s sexier for reviewers to talk about who’s waiting at the bar than how proficient the bartender performs.

  • oinospell

    Bravo! Always thought beverages deserved more attention, but budgets rarely permit a reviewer’s splurge. Many places are cellar-driven rather than cuisine-driven (Rubicon and RN74 come to mind . . .. as well as many big steak houses with mega-lists, and Grand Awardish collections). If so, that should be the critical starting point. Pricing, creativity of selection, temperatures, cocktails, even ice management are keys to success more than, say, the pasta or salumi.

  • Jordon Sipp

    Really enjoyed this piece, however I believe a restaurant reviewer should have sufficient knowledge of the entire restaurant experience to speak about things like value in a wine list and execution in a bar program. At a moment when a guest may routinely spend as much on beverages as food, evaluating these aspects of a restaurant seems to be a critical part of a review.

  • workingsommelier

    “..unrealistic, I suppose, to ask food critics to have such specialised knowledge…” Absolutely not. A restaurant reviewer should be an expert in all facets of the dining experience. We are not asking them to spend top dollar.. but to just review the whole experience equally, professionally.

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