Checking Lists: A Critical Look at Restaurant Wine by Alan Goldfarb


Alan Goldfarb was the wine editor at the St. Helena Star, where it is said that assignment must be akin to covering Catholicism in Vatican City. He was also the senior editor for His work has appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, Wine Enthusiast, and Decanter. He’s the contributor of the chapter “Chewing on Chile” in the Travelers’ Tales book Adventures in Wine. He was also the technical editor for California Wine for Dummies.

He’s a restaurant wine consultant and advises wineries on public relations projects. (For his “Checking Lists” column, he will not promote his clients.) You can listen to his latest appearance on iWine Radio. Have a question or a comment? You can email Alan. He’d love to hear from you.

It was at Benoit in Manhattan a little more than a year ago that I was astonished by what amounted to a sucker punch to the kisser. Perusing the wine list, seeking out the best wine for the best price (which is my proclivity and challenge), I found a Rhône that was priced at $45. Looking around the bistro, I saw on the next table very nice glasses that were thin and sleek. But when I inquired of the server if he would please replace the thick, clunky stemware in front of us, he exclaimed, “I’m sorry, monsieur, but I can only give you those glasses if you had ordered a wine that was at least $100; and you haven’t.” Literal double take, then quasi-laughter, followed by incredulity.

It was the most stunning moment I’ve ever experienced in a restaurant; and this from a satellite property of the renowned Alain Ducasse. What, the server wanted me not to enjoy my paltry little wine in a better glass that would have made the wine better? Yes, glasses do matter; as does the temperature of the wine and the food it’s being paired with.

This, in essence, is what this twice-monthly column will concern itself with: restaurant wine and all of its ramifications, nuances, splendor, and foibles. Wine is an integral component of the restaurant experience; without it or sans a good list that possesses good price-to-quality ratios, without unpretentious, beneficial service, and without no-nonsense utilitarian stemware, a restaurant will not stay above the fray. After all, it’s the profit margin on wine and other alcoholic beverages that bring home the bacon and the offal. The food? There’s hardly any dough in that for a restaurant’s bottom line.

Of the food, are the wines on the list chosen to reflect the cuisine, to elevate it as well as the wine, or was it thrown together willy-nilly as an afterthought? You’d be surprised.

This space will praise restaurant wine programs, as well as call them out for egregiousness such as overpriced, mediocre, label-driven, distributor-centric wines. And nothing gets me going more than what I consider lazy wine training, i.e., a server should know the answer to the question “Is this riesling dry or sweet?” Riesling in particular runs the spectrum from fruity sweet to minerally dry and servers should be trained properly to know the difference. It’s crucial and usually expensive for the drinker, as well as the restaurant.

Is the wine served at the proper temperature? Most wines by the glass are presented way too cold, but at least one can cup the glass for a few minutes to bring the temperature down. A too cold temperature closes the wine in and restrains its flavors. Too warm? That’s a common problem in the Bay Area, especially in the two weeks or so we have our Indian summer. Here, there’s hardly any air-conditioning and most midlevel restaurants don’t have proper storage facilities, subsequently the wines suffer. If the reds are too warm, their fruit is tramped down, and the consumer tastes nothing but tannin (from grape skins) and acidity. Most likely, that wine won’t be ordered again.

Get me started on pricing? Most restaurants have markups of two and a half times wholesale. That’s fair, despite what it might seem to those of us who are not in the business. Two times wholesale, of course, is best, but many establishments bump their take up to three times, while downtown hotels rip the tourist off to the cha-ching of 400 percent margins. It’s the reason why cocktails, which offer more punch (read: alcohol) for the buck, are more popular (much to my consternation) than wine (which is usually “only” 14 to 16 percent alcohol; but that’s another subject for another time).

So as we embark on this exploration of restaurant wine criticism, I’d appreciate your feedback regarding your restaurant wine experiences. Also, at the end of each treatise, I’ll include a wine that I think you’d like, culled from lists from around the globe as I pursue my long, fantastic journey through the world of wine. Hope you enjoy it and it helps explain and enlighten some things.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: 2011 Mas Jullien Rosé, Coteaux du Languedoc
This is a big rosé from the south of France, and is perfect for fish or fowl. In fact, rosé has transcended summertime, just as Champagne/sparklers have gone beyond the celebratory paradigm. I had this beauty at Gary Danko in San Francisco recently with lobster risotto and guinea hen with kabocha gnocchi. This Cinsault-Grenache Noir blend has enough substance and backbone that if it were in a blind tasting, it could be taken for a light, albeit well-constructed, Pinot Noir. It’s full of dry fruit flavors, very nuanced, and finishes completely dry. On the list at Danko it’s $50 (pricey for a rosé but still an excellent value) and is $18.50-$23 at retail shops.