What's With Your Wine List? Part II, the List Itself

What’s with your wine list? Part II: the format

Last month, I talked a little bit about the philosophy that drives our beverage program. This month, I’m going to talk about the list itself, that innocuous sheaf of paper that I hand you at the beginning of your meal.

A menu is a odd thing, it isn’t inherently appetizing, but it needs to catch and hold your attention long enough to ignite your imagination. What those breathy descriptions of dishes do on so many restaurant menus – “pan-seared medallions of heritage breed pork served on a bed of meltingly soft polenta…” – is whet your appetite. There’s a problem, though, in that many of those same restaurants may ask you to choose your wine based on the descriptors that tell you “Red Wines of France,” or even just “Whites.” Where food gets descriptors, wine gets facts.

Here at Journeyman, we keep that contrast to a minimum: our food menu tells you very little, only the 3 ingredients that inspired the dish (what does “carrot, barley, yogurt” mean?) & our wine list struggles to meet that same minimum of information: its primary components and flavors.

Our logic is simple, we trust that our guests know what a carrot is, or will ask if they don’t; asking about an ingredient or preparation doesn’t have to feel threatening, because everyone eats. On the other hand, asking about a wine can be pretty uncomfortable, since there’s nothing obvious to hold on to & not everyone drinks; wine is a luxury item in a way that food isn’t.

If a food menu is reading about a baseball game – where there are pitches and hits and runs (ingredients, preparations, combination) – you know sort of what to look for, even if you don’t know the teams or the score; by contrast, reading a wine list is like reading individual player statistics, because if you don’t know the player (how was the 1998 vintage in Bordeaux?), the data make no sense.

Wine labels and lists can be dreadfully confusing to look at: the same grape may be called several different things (muscadet or melon de bourgogne, for example), a wine’s geographic region may have a plethora of names (country, state, county, town, controlled appellation, etc.), the wine may have quite a few names appended to it (cuvee, winemaker, house/domaine, vineyard, etc.), and then there’s always the possibility that the wine itself is named, or the barrel in which it was stored is, or the importer has added a secondary label, or…
All of those niggling details can make it hard to find a wine you love, let alone follow it from one restaurant to the next, or from a restaurant list to your neighborhood wine shop.

At Journeyman, each wine listing gives you 5 pieces of information:
1. The winemaker OR house (whichever is more prominently displayed on the label)
2. The name of the wine (defined by the largest words on the label, sometimes the grape name, the appellation, or the vineyard name)
3. The grape or blend of grapes
4. The vintage
5. The region (state and country, roughly)

Likewise, our list is organized into flavor categories, moving from the lightest flavors to the richest. I hope that that organizational style makes it easier to find a wine that will suit your mood and meal. It’s not directly linked to courses (“white wines for fish”) but rather “white wines: mineral and ocean spray,” or “white wines: spice and resin,” to give you an idea of the flavors and textures of the wines. Each category has 5-10 wines in it, with a range of prices, and that should help you narrow your decision-making process pretty handily. The categories are pretty well fixed, and we buy wines to flesh out categories, as well as the more traditional distribution of regions and grapes.

There’s another reason for this style of wine list, which is that we hope that it makes some of the lesser-known wines more appealing and easier to contemplate. Sure, maybe you’ve never heard of Nosiola, or Poulsard, but if you see that Poulsard rubbing shoulders with a few Pinot Noirs from colder climates, or if you see that Nosiola nestled in a category alongside a Chenin Blanc from the Loire, you’ll get an idea of what they might do in your glass and with your meal.

In other words, every detail on those pieces of paper is designed to create context. The way we all talk about wine is associative, a smell might remind us of blackberries or tar, but unlike the food menu where if it says “blackberries,” that means blackberries will be on your plate, with wine it’s only a subjective impression. The more standardized context I can give for each wine – a flavor category, a grouping of wines in which a few might be familiar, the words to name a wine that match what you see on the bottle – the better I hope your chances of finding the right glass or bottle become.

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