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The top four responsibilities of a great wine list

What's the the most important job of a wine list?
What's the the most important job of a wine list?

As Denver's restaurant scene contunues its evolution into one that can compete with more widely-known culinary meccas, the wine programs at some of the city's top eateries have tightened up their game significantly, too. That's great news, right?

Trouble is, one foodie's wine list nirvana can be perceived as another's -- particularly one who's not exactly an oenophile -- nightmare. This very notion has sparked quite a debate in the wine media over the past few weeks, spawned in part by a piece from New York Post dining critic Steve Cuozzo, who laments the rise of "esoteric or pretentious lists [that] leave you stumped over what to order." Responses to his rant ranged essentially from "Right on, brother!" to "God forbid a wine list should have a point of view." So who's right? Turn the page for our take on the latest chapter in this little wine list drama.

 

Let's be clear about one thing: What makes for a rockstar wine list at one restaurant can be an epic fail at another. There are nearly endless critical considerations that must be made, including the menu, the staff who work there...hell, even the neighborhood's demographic. Don't get it twisted; even as trained sommeliers who love ourselves some bizarre wines, we are never, ever excited to see a pricey or self-indulgent list that doesn't make sense in the context of the room its being presented in. What gets us really excited are wine programs that know what their roles is -- and proceed to kill it in every one of the following ways:

  1. Supporting the food: Unless the establishment in question is a principally a wine bar, the main job of a wine list is to earn a Best Supporting Actor trophy for how seamlessly it collaborates with the menu. The Capital Grille clearly needs caseloads of full-throttled reds like merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon that can stand up to all that fat and protein; Sushi Sasa should (and does) offer the polar opposite -- beyond the de facto sake, off dry riesling and even Champagne soar. But simply choosing the appropriate varieties isn't enough. A great list will defer to the style of food, too -- which means knowing that it should showcase simpler, more straightforward (read: cheaper and more easily recognizable) offerings at a neighborhood bistro versus a proffering a lineup of spendy labels at a spot where you're likely to drop $30 per plate.
  2. Telling a story: Nearly tied in terms of importance as the preceding point is a list's number two job: to offer bottles that weave a perfect narrative uniting the menu (specifically, the provenance or inspiration of the main ingredients) and the restaurant's ambience or ethos. A nearly perfect example: Beatrice & Woodsley, who cleverly presents picks that showcase a wide array of food-friendly French reds and whites, the likes of which would have been popular during the turn-of-the-century period from which the restaurant takes its inspiration. We also applaud the dedication (and daring) demonstrated by Il Posto's program, which fearlessly offers nothing but the kinds of wine that you'd be able to order should you be actually be dining in Northern Italy (whose regional ingredients are prevalently showcased throughout the menu). But as tricky as it might be for an Italian wine novice to navigate such a list, he or she is simultaneously spared the indignity of having to shell out a bazillion dollars for a bottle whose name they may not be able to pronounce -- never mind swoon over -- more than ninety percent of Il Posto's pours are less than fifty bucks, which is totally appropriate for the laid-back vibe of both the food and the space.
  3. Pleasing the guests: This is where crafting the perfect wine list gets tricky. While staying true to tenets one and two above, a well thought-out program must also attempt to please most, if not all, of its patrons. This is about as easy a feat in the wine world as anywhere else in life -- which is to say that it's damn near impossible. A savvy sommelier or beverage manager will ensure there's something for those who want to enjoy a simpler glass of wine -- even if said sommelier would rather commit harakiri than drink something so (to their palate, anyway) banal. We definitely don't mean dumbing things down, though -- quite the contrary. For the guest who loves white zinfandel, perhaps there's a similar-in-style moscato d'asti for them to try. In this manner, the list can stay true to its intentions without alienating the less experienced wine lover -- hopefully while introducing the guest to a new wine love at the same time.
  4. Pushing some boundaries: Just because a critical function of a wine list is to delight its readers (and drinkers), there's still plenty of room left for education. After all, since when are those two concepts mutually exclusive? Axios, the newish Greek restaurant in Highland, has a list that could strike fear in the heart of even the most adventurous oenophile: it's full of Greek (aka featuring crazy-indigenous grapes that are brutally high acid) wines. But guess what? We wouldn't have it any other way...because it's a Greek restaurant, people. The wine program at the bright and shiny new incarnation of The Squeaky Bean is as quirky, fun and esoteric as the food -- which are descriptors some imbibers might feel are synonymous with "scary." So how do these two spots make sure every thirsty wine lover doesn't get lost in translation? Two words: Staff training. Servers who can confidently answer questions and recommend ideal bottles bridge the knowledge or experience gap every one of us have fallen into at one point or another -- which is what helps us all love wine a little more. And at the end of the day that -- hands down -- is the most important job of every great wine list.

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