It’s a conclusion I’ve come to reluctantly and fairly recently, but I think I am right.
I do quite a lot of eating out. For me, enjoyment comes from the combination of food, wine and, particularly, good company, and I don’t get as hung-up purely on the wine offering as some of my follow wine lovers. My policy is really pretty simple: I am lucky enough to drink really good, high quality wine at home, so in a restaurant I’m prepared to drink modestly unless the wine list is a really good one that inspires me to splash out. The decision is governed by the quality of the list.
There are restaurants with really excellent wine lists of course, where the wines are carefully chosen, mark-ups are fair, and where someone obviously cares. Here I am happy to spend fairly big bucks on good bottles – easily my record being a bottle of the legendary Haut-Brion 1989, but that occasion was special, and although the price was high, it was also outstandingly good value for such a wine.
But the vast majority of restaurants – even some that do very good food – have wine lists that are pedestrian. They also tend to be deliberately anonymous: big suppliers have whole ranges of wines bearing special ‘on trade’ labels that cannot be found in retail shops, specifically so the restaurant’s customers can’t gauge their true value. And they are so very predictable: whites starting with a South African Chenin Blanc and ending with a Chablis; reds kicking off with a Chilean Merlot and ending with a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In such restaurants I take the approach that I would rather save my money and try to find something that is moderately priced, but at least looks interesting.
The problem is that even with my knowledge of wine, I am still left taking a complete punt on one of these anonymous restaurant labels. The wine’s credentials might look good on paper – I recognise the grape, the region, the vintage – but the producer’s name will be fictitious (fantasy names are more common than you might imagine). There’s simply no way of predicting the quality of what’s in the bottle.
Recently I was in a very good restaurant where the food was terrific, but sadly the wine list less so. Two small glasses of a Verdicchio from the Marche were OK: lemony and simple, but OK. We then had two glasses of a Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, at £13.50 per glass, so equivalent of £50-plus per bottle. I’d never heard of the label, but took a punt as Yarra and Pinot are almost synonymous. It was truly awful, with no discernible Pinot character, and tasting like a glass of sweet, flat, cheap cola.
I thought back to a restaurant in St Andrews I’d visited the weekend before, where a glass of a Languedoc Rosé at £8.50 was one of the worst pink wines I’ve had for some time – mean, fruitless and nasty – and then again, to a new-ish casual Italian place close to my home a few days before, where a Puglian Primitivo was a travesty too, showing zero typicity, just a vague, alcoholic concoction.
Thinking back to so many recent restaurant meals, and I realised that I could not remember a single occasion when I took a punt on one of these anonymous ‘special’ labels from the list and thought, “Wow, that’s a really nice wine.” At best I’ve thought “OK, it’ll do.”
Sadly, those restaurants tend to know or care nothing about wine, only their bottom line. They rely on one of the mega drinks distributors to supply their entire list, tasking them to generate the profit margin they want as the number one priority. This puts us on a steep downward trajectory: the squeeze is on to ensure the price the restaurant pays the supplier is lower, and their profit margin bigger. Cases of cheap wine are delivered in bulk from the back of big trucks, along with the cheap beer, vodka and cider. Just another commodity.
This is precisely the supermarket model of recent years, where the powerful supermarket buyer demands lower and lower prices from their wine supplier, whose only recourse is to source a lower quality product. Thank god for restaurants who care, sourcing wines more carefully and taking the time and effort to taste and buy from different suppliers. True, 90% of customers won’t complain about their glass of Pinot Grigio, but some of us would gladly pay a little more for a wine of genuine quality.