This month, Chris Losh sets his sights on wine lists and finds a world of unnecessary complexity. Does it have to be this way?

Regular readers of this column may have picked up on the fact that I’m not entirely comfortable with technology. We can rub along, but it’s an uneasy truce – and the fault-lines in the relationship become painfully apparent when things go wrong and I end up having to speak to experts.

In these situations, my attitude becomes a mixture of defensive bombast, suspicion and passive-aggressive stupidity that’s probably best summed up by the never-ending thought cycle: "You’d better not be taking me for a ride... Are you sure you’re not taking me for a ride?... I’m so helpless, please don’t take me for a ride."

I mention this because I suspect this is how I would guess 90% of the restaurant-going public the world over approach having to order wine in a restaurant. And, having recently had to go through several hundred wine lists for UK-based Imbibe magazine’s Wine List of the Year Competition, I can understand why.

Frankly, most wine lists stink.

Oh, I’m sure they look okay from the point of view of the guy who’s put them together. But, coming at them as a punter? They’re stodgy, over-long, inaccurate, and impenetrable.

No wonder your average member of the public finds ordering wine in a restaurant an intimidating experience. There’s peer pressure (because they’re often choosing for a group); price pressure (because restaurant mark-ups inevitably make mistakes expensive) and ego pressure (because of the need to look at least vaguely competent).

Given all this, it’s hard to imagine a more unhelpful system than simply handing someone a vast list of domaines, quintas and cantine, organised by country of origin. It’s like trying to choose a washing machine from the serial number.

A few years ago, Gerard Basset MS MW OBE – one of the most respected sommeliers in the world – conducted some research into exactly this for his MBA. He took a medium-sized wine list for a country restaurant in the UK and arranged the 200 or so wines on it in three different ways: traditionally, with the wines arranged by country; by grape variety; and split up into broad stylistic type – ‘light and aromatic’, ‘rich and oaky’ and so on.

After presenting these different lists to a large number of restaurant customers, it quickly became obvious that the ‘stylistic type’ list was the one they preferred, followed by ‘grape variety’ with the ‘traditional geographical’ layout last by some distance.

This, of course, makes perfect sense. When ordering wine, most people are trying to find something that will, broadly speaking, go with the food they have ordered – or, at the very least, be in a style that they like. Stylistically-separated lists enable customers to browse with confidence, and might even encourage them to experiment a little. 

This would be good news all round. Countries like Greece, Slovenia et al have terrific food-wines at decent prices, but who walks into a restaurant thinking "I fancy a bottle of something unusual and Balkan this evening2? Hidden away at the rear-end of the wine list, anywhere that’s not France, Italy or Spain is at an inherent disadvantage, relying heavily on a hand-sell from the sommelier. But, put them in a ‘Fresh and Zesty’ section along with Kiwi Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio, say, and the fear-factor evaporates.

It’s one of the more infuriating paradoxes that the people who put the wine list together take such pride in the ‘personality’ of their creation, with left-field wines a not insignificant part of the process. Yet, they structure the list in such a way as to make it massively unlikely that these wines will ever be ordered.

Go figure.

To be fair, over the last five years, I’ve seen a growing number of wine lists that actively try to make life easier for their customers, with stylistic divisions and tasting notes for many of the wines. Admittedly, many of the tasting notes are a) too long and b) little but a stream of tastebud-consciousness, but at least they’re trying.

You’d think that such progressive thinking might be being driven by the younger generation. But in fact, age seems to have less to do with it than attitude. I had a particularly frank ‘discussion’ the other month with a young Italian sommelier who was implacably opposed to wine lists being helpful. Even worse, he implied that they should be actively unhelpful.

The way he saw it, customers should ask him for advice, and anything that might circumvent his position of authority was to be avoided. So, the more impenetrable the better.

My attempts to point out that an inclusive list would not cut him out of the process, but merely be a starting point for customer/sommelier dialogue, only one in which the customer was on a slightly more equal footing, fell on deaf ears. In his mind, the omnipotence of the wine waiter (and subservience of the customer) were non-negotiable. 

It was a depressing exchange, not least for the unshakeable certainty of my early-30s interlocutor in his viewpoint. Reasonable arguments bounced off his burnished insecurity like gnocchi off a rhino’s rump. 

In an era where the public expect to have access to information, such hoarding of knowledge, done, as far as I can gather, to protect one’s own job, is dangerous, not least because it plays on the knowledge gap between customer and server at a time when the former feels decidedly vulnerable.

Having worked as a booze hack for 20-odd years, it’s been some time since I felt like that, but I got a taste of it recently when presented with the sake list in a Japanese restaurant and ended up putting myself entirely at the mercy of my waiter. How did I feel? Stupid, embarrassed, vaguely resentful...

Restaurants might not like to hear it, but the way most lists are set up, that’s how the majority of customers start their evening out. 

Why do you think the on-trade sells so much Rioja and Chablis? Because punters are scared of talking to their wine waiter, but lack the knowledge to make an informed decision themselves. So, they panic and default to the safe option. 

Wine lists have to change. The wine industry and the restaurant-going public deserve better.