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Ask a Sommelier: What Makes a Great Wine List?

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Good wine lists have certain things in common. [Photograph: Anne Larie Valentine on Flickr]

One of the most important tasks of a wine director is creating and managing a restaurant's wine list. But what sets apart a just-ok list from a great one? How does a wine director go about choosing wines and making a great list? We asked sommeliers from around the country for their thoughts.

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Lulu McAllister of Nopa in San Francisco

"I think a great wine list is one that finds a balance between personality and pair-ability. Do I have a fresh, off-dry white wine to complement a quirky seafood dish? Do I have an earthy, muscular red to pair with a traditional rich lamb dish? Do I have a more opulent white to stand up to a creamy sauce?"—Lulu McAllister (Nopa)

"Breadth and versatility is paramount in building a great wine program, regardless of whether that program is a 20-bottle, all-Spanish list in a tiny tapas place or a 3,000 selection, international list in a Michelin-starred restaurant. If I have ten bottles of white wine to play with, a third of them should probably be fresh and crisp, a third of them should be rich, broad, and toasty, and the rest should fill out the spaces in between (off-dry and high acid, round and fleshy but unoaked, etc.); and then, each category should contain wines in a couple of price points. A great wine director will put as much care and attention into selecting fifty-dollar Muscadet and Cru Beaujolais as they will into buying multi-thousand dollar Bordeaux and Grand Cru Burgundy."—Mia Van De Water (North End Grill)

"How do you go about creating a great wine list? My advice is to have a conversation with every wine drinker, including the people who are less open to trying wines that they're not use to. Also, remember the seasons. Seasonality is not just for food."—Liz Vilardi (Belly, The Blue Room, Central Bottle)

"A great wine list tells stories. Wine is a distillation of history, geography, and passion, and my favorite wine lists say something about how the grapes made it to the glass. Some lists say it with writing, but we're not dining out to read essays, so the more concise the better. Some lists tell stories with their selections or omissions. They reflect a sommelier's beliefs about viticulture and winemaking. But guests have diverse tastes and a good list shouldn't imprison them into only drinking the somm's favorites. Pete Wells called this trend a 'record-store clerk attitude', and I agree that this needs tempering. To me a great list gives you price options. Lists that are too small and cheap can tire out quickly, but if all you see is aged Burgundy above 200 a bottle, there's not much fun to be had either. I've lately seen a lot of hate towards large, comprehensive lists, and I don't get it. There's treasure to be found in there, and vintage depth that a small list can't touch! Frasca's list is brilliant: there's enough depth to splurge, but also enough to find hidden deals. There is vintage depth but it's not a laundry list. I love A16's regional focus and value, and The Boarding House's list for sheer variety."—Jackson Rohrbaugh (Aragona)

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Eric Railsback of Les Marchands in Santa Barbara [Photo: Macduff Everton]

"The difference between a good wine list and a great wine list is focus. There should be a purpose to every wine on the list. The first thing that needs to be considered is the food being served. If the wines on the list are good but don't work with the menu then you have kind of missed the point. Once you have wines selected to work with the food, the sommelier should find a way to make the list understandable to everyone. If the list is intimidating and confusing, that can push people into drinking other beverages. Make sure all the information that is needed is displayed so the guest gets what they thought they were ordering. Oh, and make sure there is always Raveneau Chablis on every list. That is a must..."—Eric Railsback (Les Marchands)

"A great wine list must first and foremost complement the chef's food and be a good representation of the style and cuisine of the restaurant. It should have options for many different types of wine drinkers, both in terms of price point and style. It must be presented clearly and so its easy to navigate for the guest. It must feature wines that are craft products and are not made industrially. When all of that is accomplished, it can reach its highest point: a work of passion for a dedicated wine director or sommelier who knows the wines well and loves sharing them with their guests."—Joe Campanale (dell'anima, L'Artusi, Anfora, and L'Apicio)

"The first step in making a great list is talking to the chef about the food. The wine should go with the food. Period. That is the essential. As for specifics: It's imperative to have bubbles on the menu. It's the perfect wine to start any meal and a wonderful thing for special occasions, toasts, and even to make an occasion that was otherwise 'normal' turn into something special."—June Rodil (Qui)

"For me a great wine list is a list that is diverse, exciting, and most of all adventurous. You go out to dinner to explore, to enjoy to have fun and to try something new. I love seeing a list that is made up of smaller great quality producers that are true to their land and with the importance being placed on the quality of the wine and not on the name of the producer or if it is trendy at the moment. Creating a great wine list is kind of like playing matchmaker—you have to think of the personalities of the food and the wine and select the options that can best go together, it's like introducing two friends that have never met before: who is going to play well with whom? I like to look at the key ingredients that the Chef uses. Are the core ingredients based on acid or fat? When working with Josh Even and April Bloomfield, the first question I asked Josh was this: describe your menu to me. He didn't even have to pause and think. Immediately, he said, "Well, I start with great salt, oilve oil, lemon, capers or anchovy—that umami thing... then add ingredients." This tells me a lot. This gives me clues to the types of wines that will pair most interestingly with the dishes. Wines with acidity, freshness, salinity, mineral qualities and most importantly—structure. [A great wine list is] not about what the sommelier prefers to drink, or whether the wine received a billion points... it is about listening to what your guest enjoys and providing them with the best options available, all while keeping it fun and enjoyable."—Ceri Smith (Biondivino and Tosca)

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