by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)
Went out to dinner and a comedy club a couple of nights ago, and my wife wanted a glass of white wine. So I went up to the bar and inquired about their white wine selection.
As is all too often the case, I was informed it was Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc. No winery names, no vintages. Just Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc. Upon further inquiry, the wines were pretty much what you usually get at most restaurants, megawinery productions.
I decided that of the four wines on offer, the Coppola sounded like it was the most promising of the unexciting selection. My wife’s critique: marginally ok, but soft and uninteresting. A fairly common critique of wines when you think about it. I have little doubt that had I picked any of the other wines, it would have been just as lackluster.
Without doubt, there are many restaurants that serve an interesting and eclectic variety of wines. But there are many more like the one we were at that make do with a stable of wines that lack interest. Why is that?
I think that the main reason for this is that most restaurants don’t have a compelling interest in wine. And if you don’t have that interest, chances are you’re going to delegate your wine selections to some distributor rep. And most distributor reps work for large distributors, which sell the major brands. And the major brands usually turn out uninteresting, inoffensive wines.
Have you been to a mall lately? If you have, I can pretty much guess the stores you found there. The regional mall has become a cookie-cutter host of stores—the mall in Los Angeles looks indistinguishable in most respects from a mall in Maine or Pennsylvania. If you want a special store that sells special products, it can still be found. But they must the searched out.
Wine is pretty much the same. While there are plenty of places that do offer wines of interest and variety, they must be searched out. You can’t just walk into a restaurant and expect it as a matter of course.
While I lay greatest blame on the way most restaurants buy wine, honorable mention must also go the consumer, who tolerates this situation. Many consumers are somewhat unknowledgeable when it comes to wine, but lack of knowledge doesn‘t require that you acquiesce in being served a wine that is, at best, bland. But obviously they do, or else restaurants couldn’t get away with serving these wines.
I commented several weeks ago about the concentration in the US wine industry. Unfortunately, this is a fact of life that isn’t going to change any time soon, if ever. It’s discomforting to think that the bulk of the wine business has more in common with Coca-Cola and Pepsi than it does with what I think of as fine winemaking. But I think we need to start thinking of truly fine wine as being a niche product that constitutes only a small percentage of overall wine production. The rest is plonk.