In 2015, Maxwell Leer, then sommelier with Los Angeles restaurant Hatchet Hall, unleashed a wine list so confusing and unreadable that it made the news. Unless you were party to it, the selection seemed like the ravings of a lunatic or a terrible joke born of an attempt at Internet virality.
The LA Weekly – in a review entirely dedicated to Leer’s list – called it a “cruel and maddening joke” and a “failure of hospitality” for good reason. The list provided close to no useful information and included such mysteries as “BIG RED WINE!” by the glass, #grunercoke that you could order at US$8 (S$11.34) a pop, and the slightly more informative but equally unhelpful listing “Muskateller Frizante 2013”.
In all its absurd glory, Leer’s list was inevitable. Made to steer people towards engaging the person in charge of the wine, it appears to be the extreme reaction to wine’s long history of Byzantine rituals and elitism – a world where the sommelier was feared and lists were a thousand bottles’ long, with a quarter coming from Burgundy.
Somewhere in all that, however, lies a comfortable middle, where fun, informative wine lists reward those willing to peruse as well as those who prefer to leave it in the hands of the experts. Wine lists are opportunities for restaurants to turn a profit, but they can also entertain, impress and even make statements — like the one at Chicago restaurant Spiaggia, which celebrates female winemakers and New Orleans’ Cafe Adelaide, which offers only wines from Central America.
“The most important thing is for it to be consumer-friendly. There has to be enough information: the grape, where it’s from, the vintage, and the producer,” shares Vinodhan Veloo, sommelier at Cloudstreet in Amoy Street, who brings to the table a stint at Odette and a background in news writing, and has put together one of the most interesting lists in town: a 53-pager that reads more like a magazine for vinophiles than a menu.
A typical wine list would split its contents by country, appellation and type, with the occasional, separate section for widely-grown varieties like pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon. While it’s informative, it doesn’t encourage exploration, a quality wine drinkers value tremendously.
“The older generation has much more brand loyalty — they’ll buy cases of Leoville Barton En Primeur because it’s what they enjoy drinking. Millennials spend money a little differently. They want a wine to be well-made by artisans and people with stories,” observes Veloo.
And the stories he has. Each page of Cloudstreet’s list covers a different topic. You can explore Champagne’s non-sparkling variants and discover a section dedicated to “light sans warmth”, which features wine with intensity of flavour but without high alcohol content. It’s not all esoteric, though. The key to putting together a successful list is balance. Alongside the orange wines and serious Beaujolais, a treatise on oxidativestyle wines sit comfortably beside an extended section on Burgundies, the grand cuvees of Champagne, and a verticle of Chateau d’Yquem.
Chip Steel, the beverage director at fine-dining Preludio, concurs. “Looking over a wine list should give you a sense of comfortable familiarity, but also some surprises, like how it’s always exciting to run into old friends.” Just a quick jaunt away from Cloudstreet, Preludio offers a boundary-pushing list themed after the restaurant’s current Time concept. In it, Steel explores old vines, extended maceration and fermentation, and even delves into plant genealogy.
Geekery aside, offering pleasure is a sommelier’s primary job. Says Steel, “More than anything, we want people to try a wine and say, ‘Ooooh that’s good. Tell me more about what’s in this glass’.” As long as the list isn’t so geeky that it completely turns people off, it can be a good conversation starter and help set your establishment apart.
Thankfully, wine lovers in Singapore have more than warmed up to the risks Veloo and Steel have taken with their lists. “I was worried about the traditionalists who might have a rigid mindset about what a list should be and the casual diner who might find it confusing. But all our customers seem intrigued and seem to appreciate a new perspective,” says Steel.
At Cloudstreet, Veloo has noticed something he has never before seen in his career: people reading the entire wine list, cover to cover, during their meal at the restaurant.
That’s job satisfaction you cannot put a price on.
A whole new world
Some highlights from the lists at Preludio and Cloudstreet.
01 Cloudstreet – The rise of the micro negoce
Veloo explores a relatively recent phenomenon in Burgundy: the micro négociant – winemakers who do not own vineyards but make small amounts of quality wine from purchased grapes.
02 Cloudstreet – Ribera Del Duero, old and new
One, an old guard, and the other, a young upstart. Two of the greatest estates in the Spanish appellation go head to head – if you’re willing to drop the fourfigure sums for these exalted examples of Tempranillo.
03 Preludio – A slice of evolutionary time
Steel compiles an extensive chart of the pinot grape family tree in a process involving the research of scientific journals. It includes eight wines to sample by the glass that cover a range of styles.