I am dreading a big COVID cull when my next NYC’s Best Wine Bars and Best Restaurant Wine Lists are published. In some cases, the establishments will be gone for good. (Bye-bye, Aureole. We enjoyed your New York glamour for 32 years, chef Charlie Palmer. So long, The Finch! Brooklyn loved the glow of your Michelin star from your cozy brownstone digs.) In others, wine lists may have been cherry-picked to pay rent; or, in case of the pinnacle of Italian wine cellars, Del Posto, its contents will have been auctioned off by Hart Davis Hart. Elsewhere, as prime wines are sold off, there won’t be the cash flow to replace higher-end stock.
While restaurants work overtime (as if that were new) to reinvent themselves, I hope they use their wine lists to help them. One of the best ways to do this is to stop copycatting other restaurant wine lists. Just as I go to different restaurants for different cuisines and experiences, I go to different restaurants to discover different wines.
Alas, look-alike wine lists have been on the rise in New York City for more than a handful of years. That’s a shame in a city with so much diversity to draw on. How can this be? Cue the playground. To be cool, less cool somms – who perhaps are also less resourceful or possibly less talented – copy the cool somms. This is even happening on wine by the glass lists. By way of example, I had a sommelier at a prominent NYC restaurant – one of a group led by a trendy chef with both domestic and international outposts – turn to me at a conference and remark that it had just occurred to her that she should be braver in her wine choices. A few off-the-radar wines might make her list more special! She had been chasing all the same labels the other somms wanted on their lists. Seriously? Fewer lemmings! More guiding lights!
Now, besides New York City getting some of its wine list mojo back being self-serving, it’s also potentially good for the books. I hope sommeliers will consider the fact that because the same wines are on so many lists, there is far less room for different pricing and some much-needed margin. Somms need to do more than clamor for certain labels. Enough of “I don’t taste wines any more….”, which buyers say to insinuate that they know everything that’s good. Even if s/he knows the producer and wine, isn’t it interesting to see the vintage variation? Because I guarantee you that a sommelier who says this isn’t buying a wine that is intended to taste the same every year, unless it is a non-vintage Champagne from a major house that the GM or owner requires on the list.
Indeed, it’s more important than ever that wine buyers shows their creativity and business acumen. Restaurants have to have bartenders, even if the bar area is not being seated. They don’t have to have sommeliers, christened “unnecessary experts” in a recent article written by a sommelier. Just about any manager can reorder wines, but very few can do a good job of replacing them on a list.
Yet the risk of same-old-label entrenchment is real. This is especially true as restaurant closures will mean that there are more cool kid wines to go around. That is unless a cash flow-desperate distributor has “pivoted” (today’s pervasive buzz word) to allocate them to wine stores, who ordinarily might not even have a chance at “on-premise only” wines. They certainly did during the Great Recession, and I had a blast selling them to collectors at retail prices. The tricky thing about that is that keyed-in consumers won’t want to pay restaurant mark-ups for those wines any longer, especially when they can buy the wines at retail then enjoy them at home with the restaurant’s take-away dinner.
While in an economic downturn people tend to stick to the tried and tasted, the truth is that these labels are mostly known to the wine industry and wine consumer one-percenters (what I call geeks that are dialed in like pros), much less so to their diners. If diners like what somms served them before, the chances are that they also will appreciate somms’ carefully chosen new selections. An added benefit of seeking new wines for their lists is that wine buyers can help improve wine diversity not only in the NYC dining landscape, but also by keeping small- and mid-size wine distributors going.
So, when the revised “Best” lists go online as soon as they are able (New York still does not allowing indoor dining and fall is on the horizon), I hope that, even if they are fewer, they will be more diverse and financially stronger.