Nobody likes to stare down a hefty book of wine choices at a restaurant and pretend like they know what they're doing. Shorter, more tightly curated wine lists make more sense for staff and diners alike.
— Erika Adams
We’ve all been there: You’re in a restaurant, staring at a wine list with 2,000 names, and have no idea where to start. You quickly pass it on to the wine geek at your table like a hot potato, with a deep sigh of relief.
Goodbye to all that.
Less is now more. Last year, for the first time, the annual World of Fine Wine restaurant wine list awards included a category of “micro” lists.
“They’re a worldwide phenomenon,” says super-sommelier Rajat Parr, who’s spent the last six years traveling to co-write his new book A Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste. He recently designed a 75-item wine list for San Francisco’s just-opened Trailblazer Tavern, a Hawaiian comfort food haven and part of the Mina Group.
The shorter-is-better trend is also a huge boon for drinkers. Micro lists are less intimidating and easier to navigate, for sure. Also, there’s no room for error. “The micro list should exist just like a best hits playlist, with every option the best of its kind for value,” says Brandon Borcoman of New York’s Charlie Bird, the competition’s North American winner.
As with any new trend, its parameters are still being set, and the exact definition of a micro list is debatable. It’s short, yes, but no one agrees on what the maximum number of selections or pages should be. Master sommelier Matt Stamp of Napa’s Compline has a rule of thumb: “It’s a list on one page, with type in a font I can read!”
The World of Fine Wine finalists were a little longer than that, mostly below 200 wines on four pages or fewer.
The overall global competition winner, London’s 28-50 Maddox Street (which sadly, closed late last year), listed 159 on two pages, while Charlie Bird weighed in with 141 in the same amount of space.
Economics—high costs of rent, storage, labor, and tying up capital in increasingly expensive wines—plays a huge role in the rise of micro lists, but a zeitgeist shift from formal to fancy casual restaurants is also feeding the trend.
“Unless you’re at a grand restaurant, most people don’t want to spend time looking at a book,” says Parr. James O’Brien of Brooklyn’s Popina adds: “A short list is a way of being hospitable. It’s friendlier. Instead of lots of vintages, I should be the one figuring out what vintage is singing and put that on the list.” All this makes customer decision-making much faster and easier. Even restaurants with deep wine programs are adding micro lists. Republique in West Hollywood, Calif., introduced a two-page “Tuesday Night” section (albeit available every day), with no wines costing more than $100.
I canvassed a dozen somms with top micro lists to see how they select the wines they offer. All agreed that it’s way harder to put together something short than to assemble a giant cellar in which mistakes (and padding) are easily hidden.
“On a small list, there are no margins for error,” says Arvid Rosengren of New York’s Legacy Records. “Every wine has to be great.” A somm has to taste everything on it.
A key strategy is zeroing in on compatibility with the restaurant’s cuisine. Each wine should relate to the menu and work with multiple items—which again, makes picking a bottle way easier for diners. Anthony Cailan at the Usual in New York’s Nolita neighborhood stocks a lot of Loire valley wines because they are the most versatile with fried chicken and burgers, the two most popular items on the menu.
Flexibility is an additional benefit of very short lists. Vinny Eng at San Francisco’s Tartine Manufactory prints up a new bottle list daily, as if it were a carte du jour, adding wines from new local producers when they become available.
Affordability and value for money are also musts.
Francheska Lopez at Cafe Colette says entry-level bottles from big producers are her “top dog” wines. A perfect Chablis at a value price would be a shoo-in. Most bottles on a list, somms agree, should cost less than $100.
Sommeliers differ in how they balance wine types, styles, themes, and esoteric offerings. Marta’s list is all-Italian, but says Kimberley Cavoores, “it still has to have something for everyone—for example, wines a cabernet lover would enjoy.”
On the other hand, to the somms at 10 William Street, a hip restaurant in Sydney which won World of Fine Wine’s Australasia category, “Micro lists must celebrate exciting micro producers, or what’s the point?” They regularly field such customer questions as, ‘Do you have Susucaru?’ (a Sicilian natural wine made more famous by chef-turned-rapper Action Bronson).
Adventurousness and personality are more important than prestige, says Miguel de Leon of Pinch Chinese, who looks for lists that pique curiosity. More than gigantic wine tomes they should also tell a story and reflect the restaurant’s philosophy and point of view. Is it following trends? Does it specialize in a theme such as women winemakers, natural wines, or those from a specific region? In the best California tradition, Tartine Manufactory rewards the adventurous by listing obscure wines at really low prices.
Naturally, not all micro lists measure up.
Matt Stamp says that if you’ve seen most of the wines on the list at your local supermarket, that signals a kickback deal with a local distributor. “Others,” he adds with a dig, “are too esoteric, designed by somms who stock wines they’ve seen on Instagram for their friends.”
If the list is loaded with unfamiliar names, though, the servers should be able to discuss them. If not, head elsewhere.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.