We received notice from Wine Spectator that we will not be winning an award for our wine list. I certainly wasn't surprised. In fact I was more surprised we bothered to enter in the first place. But now I know what I only suspected previously. The $200 they charge to process your application is a big scam.
To qualify for their basic award you have to have 100+ selections, representing a number of regions. A valid criteria I suppose but this also reinforces my idea that many wine lists these days are as devoid of personality as Continental restaurants were in the early 1960's. There are certainly some out there who are doing interesting things with their list but the norm is to play it safe. Have the well-recognized, heavy hitters from Napa, a few culties from Sonoma or maybe Oregon or Washington if you're pushing the envelope, premier crus of Bordeaux, a bit of Burgundy and then a smattering of whatever the media is identifying as "hot", be it Super Tuscans, South African whites, whatever.
For us the wine list is an extension of our menu and a further statement of who we are. We are fortunate enough to have a restaurant in a well-touristed, wine producing region. Many visitors, even those, no especially those, who are well-versed in wine, are not familiar with many of the small producers in our area. We buy a lot of food from local farmers and ranchers, should we not do the same with our wines? We think so, which is why all the wines on our list come from within our county.
This works on a few levels. First, we are supporting our neighbors. Until 5-7 years ago most of the wine grapes produced in this county were sold and shipped elsewhere to be put into wines that had little to do with this place. This is still true, but the balance is changing. More grapes are staying county. When more grapes stay here, more jobs are created. When more wines are produced here, there's more for a wine writer, resulting in more exposure for the region, resulting in more visitors to the area, resulting in, yes, more jobs.
Second, we are offering a new experience for many people. You can find Opus One, or Screaming Eagle on just about any wine list, anywhere these days. Part of travel for me is seeing and tasting new things. We're getting ready to go to Mexico. I'm not interested in eating the same food I eat when I'm at home while we're there.
Third, we're offering a point of view. We have about 30 selections, every one of them available by the glass. We understand that when you're on an adventure not everyone dives in headfirst. Some want to test the waters. We also understand that some people want as much adventure as they can pack in, so we also sell everything by the half glass. This way guests can try 4 different wines and not leave drunk. And that you can try 4 courses of food and match a wine with all of them and not leave broke.
This is only a part of what I see as the evolving minefield of restaurant evaluation. There was some discussion when the Chronicle top 100 came out a month or so ago that needs to be extended. In my mind the real test is consistency of vision. First, is there a vision? Are the owners trying to say something, trying to create something, or are they just trying to turn a buck? If the latter I suggest they close and do something you can actually make money doing. If a vision exists, does it carry through in all the details? And then, does the staff treat you well and the food taste good? If one of these elements is off, something is not going to feel right.
Our place is in a working class town, in a large old Craftsman building. There's a candy store below us that you can see from the dining room. Our space is open and airy, with floor to ceiling windows on the south side. The view is of downtown and if you're in the right seat and squint you can see the ocean. It is a solid space, with integrity, built to last, representative of a time and place. The redwood on the ceiling is certainly from old-growth timber, with perfectly straight grain. If the owners of the building had purchased the place, dismantled it and sold the lumber they would have quadrupled their money easily. The wood on the floor is madrone, no longer milled by anyone because it is difficult to work with and the return too small.
With this as a backdrop we had to make some decisions about what would work in the very large space. We decided to use the Craftsman ethic as our model for the space. Functional, beautiful but unadorned. Simple but not severe. Elegant but not formal. So our waiters wear black pullover shirts, black pants and red aprons. They help each other running food and drinks but are not orchestrated, setting 4 plates down simultaneously, with ceremony. Serious, but casual.
To avoid having the space become a period piece we have contemporary art on the walls. A few pieces from one of our dearest friends that are more or less a permanent collection and a large wall with art that changes every 3 months or so. Our last show was of tabletop art. We've got butcher paper and crayons on the table and we save any artwork that looks good throughout the year. At the end of the year we plaster the best ones on the wall.
By now I think you've got the picture. We're a fun place, we take what we do seriously, but don't take ourselves seriously. In that environment it would be no more appropriate for us to present a leather-bound volume with 500 wine selections than it would for Jean-Georges to list a "carafe of house red". We're somewhere in between. We are trying to present affordable quality. Again, I believe that's part of the Craftsman ethic. Honest work at a price most can afford.
I'd say that's a fair assessment of the wines we have in our county. We've discussed deviating from our only by the glass strategy to have a few higher priced bottles available only by the bottle. But, we just don't have higher priced wines here. We top out at about $45 retail.
In all, our wine list helps us define who we are. And that to me is the only significant criteria for judging a list. Not how many selections, or how many medal winners, or whether all the significant producing regions are represented. All that takes is money.