How can you tell a good wine list — one that’s been curated by a knowledgeable sommelier — from one slapped together with whatever the restaurant’s buyer found on sale?
Too many consumers think that an expensive wine list translates to a good wine list. This is far from the truth. Any restauranteur can slap an astronomical upcharge on a subpar bottle — or a whole wine cellar — and claim "elite" status, but it doesn’t automatically make any of those bottles taste any better.
Similarly, a wine list that looks like a bargain often isn’t. A restaurant may heavily discount wines that they over-purchased and didn’t turn out to be winners. Or they may be clearing out their stock of unpopular vintages to make room for more. Or maybe they just bought a lot of cheap, bad wine.
The first sign that a restaurant is likely to have an excellent wine list is if someone is personally responsible for the wine purchasing. A dedicated sommelier or wine buyer takes pride in his or her work and will be more than happy to discuss the thought process behind each purchase with a dinner.
Another sign of a good wine list: It makes sense with the restaurant. If a restaurant has an old-world vibe, expect to see global touches on the wine list. If a restaurant is known for fresh, light cuisine, there had better be an exceptional selection of crisp whites on the list. If a restaurant is known for heavy comfort food, it’d be strange if they didn’t also offer a range of full-bodied, robust reds. (Champagne, of course, goes with everything.)
And yet, the list shouldn’t be focused to the point of being exclusionary. A good wine list has depth and breadth, both in terms of varietals and in terms of pricing. There will be high-end bottles and affordable bottles, but the sommelier (assuming there is one) will have put as much thought into the more affordable bottles as he or she did on the high-end bottles. Just because something is less expensive doesn’t mean it should be bad!
When in doubt, ask. Ask if there is a sommelier or wine buyer on staff. Ask if you can speak with him or her. And then, cheers!