“The experience of ordering wine off a big list in a restaurant is a little like shopping for a car,” says Taylor Parsons, wine director at République in LA’s West Hollywood. “You’re browsing in this huge selection of stuff and just kind of dreading the moment when someone asks, ‘Do you need any help?’”
This comes from a man who is sitting on a cellar stocked with more than 2,000 wines. But when handed the wine list at the table, his guests don’t really know that. They see a one-page list of 75 selections—most of which are probably very different from the last time they visited.
It used to be that the quality of a wine list was determined by the thud it made when it hit the table. But over the past ten years, it’s been proven over and over again that a well-thought-out list comprised of a couple of pages can better translate the ethos of a restaurant than something that requires a table of contents. Some sommeliers, like Parsons, have taken this idea one step further, curating a list that changes daily based on what’s on the menu or what they’d like to highlight.
When République opened almost three years ago, the idea was that Parsons would curate a new, one-page wine list from the cellar each day based on the season and the daily market menu (which is à la carte, as opposed to a tasting menu) from chef Walter Manzke. His original intention was to maintain a secondary list of the restaurant’s full wine collection in a hand-written, leather-bound book, to be provided to guests who wanted to choose from the larger stash. But the mega list was never created. In fact, there’s just one clue that more lurks beyond the daily list: an inscription at the bottom that reads, OUR LIST CHANGES DAILY. SPEAK WITH A SOMMELIER TO DISCUSS OFF-LIST SELECTIONS!
What Parsons quickly realized was that by inviting guests to inquire about wines that might not be featured, he could get them to talk with him about what they were looking for, or at least venture outside their comfort zone.
“We really want people to get out of the mode of ‘I only drink this one thing. I only want this one thing.’ We try to force their hand with cues,” says Parsons. “It’s an important statement to not have three or four cabernets on [the] list right now. We still have it, but the cue is that you should be drinking other stuff.” This “other stuff” happens to be wines that complement the food at that moment exceptionally well, rather than simply a survey of all of the wines that live in the cellar.
He’s not the only sommelier approaching the job this way. Sabra Lewis, wine director at the month-old Günter Seeger in New York City, is also working with a wine carte du jour, as she calls it, a concept that chef Seeger wanted from the initial planning stages of the restaurant. The 34-seat jewel-box space that houses Seeger’s ten- to twelve-course tasting menu leaves Lewis with just a tiny space in the basement and two Vinotemp wine fridges in the entryway that hold 800 bottles (quite small by the standards of a restaurant of this caliber).
Every day, Lewis shuttles 100-or-so wines (representing just 20 percent of the bottles she has in stock) back and forth from off-site storage based on the wines she chooses to accompany Seeger’s menu, which she receives around 2 p.m. “Honestly, the only way to make a list like this work is to have a decent amount of inventory to pull from,” says Lewis. “The carte du jour should be complete on its own—considering everything from price point to flavors to wine body and structure.”
What she ends up with is essentially a macro pairing menu: when the food necessitates white wine, the list reflects that; as the weather gets colder and the food heavier, more reds will come on. The hope is that her daily list will be something that many wine drinkers will be much more drawn to than course-by-course pairings.
While Lewis’s list is doesn’t change top to bottom on the regular, she’s found that when she replaces just one wine, it can throw off the balance of the whole list. So, what might start out as making one swap could result in having to change eight wines—a pretty substantial move on a list of this size. Creating a smaller list from a much larger collection, and constantly being forced to engage with it, “takes a skill set beyond just wine knowledge,” says Lewis, “but a deep context for what you are trying to accomplish economically and stylistically.”
A cynic, however, might argue that this model is simply a way of moving through wine inventory. After all, if it’s not on the list, it’s hard to order. But wine lists have forever been remarkably static amidst an expectation that chefs will change their menus at the very least seasonally, but often, daily. Diners have become extremely sensitive to this: Who wants boeuf bourguignon in July? Who wants tomato salad in January? Shouldn’t a wine list have the same set of expectations?
Both Lewis and Parsons admit that this list-within-a-list isn’t necessarily achievable by every sommelier in every restaurant, but the encouraging trend toward short, pert wine lists points to the idea that there’s an increasing importance placed on having one that fits food and is, thus, more malleable than the lists of yore. Not to mention the parallel philosophy that a wine list needn’t show all of its cards all of the time.
“I really don’t understand why a wine list needs to list every single thing on the menu—whether it’s ready to drink or not, whether it’s seasonally appropriate or not,” says Parsons. “There is still a lot of ‘bigger is better’ thinking out there, which, at this point in the evolution of dining, is so odd to me. Why do I need verticals of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Amarone in the middle of the freaking summer?”