Good Food With Bad Wine

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - May 31, 2006
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Service is always a huge issue in the restaurant world, as is the quality of food. But a recurring theme with me right now is disgusting wine.

Thirty years ago you could expect to see “jug wines” on many a restaurant wine list or in the stores. Most people weren’t as wine savvy as they are today, and the level of expectation from wine-makers, particularly in America, was fairly low. It was enough for people to drink something white and cold with fish and order something red and warmer with their steak. French wines ruled America as winemakers like Robert Mondavi began to make their mark. Around the same time, entrepreneurial wine merchants like Kermit Lynch started importing small quantities of excellent and inexpensive wines to the U.S. much to the delight of a small, but growing number of wine enthusiasts.

Today, you can find an outstanding selection of wines from America, Europe,Australia, Chile and New Zealand in most supermarkets and wine stores, but in recent weeks I’ve been in a number of restaurants that serve quite decent food - in a couple of cases really good food - but offer just a diabolical selection of wine. I’m talking undrinkable.

It takes work to find really bad wine nowadays. With just a phone call to one of the major distributors in town you’ll have an eager wine rep at your restaurant faster than an oenophile running from a bottle of Blue Nun.

And they have really good wines. Great wines. Wines that don’t cost more than $8 or $10 a bottle, wholesale.

Restaurant owners may say that price is an issue - but that’s just not the case anymore. Roberto Viernes, master sommelier, director of wine education for Southern Wines and Spirits and fellow MidWeek columnist, agrees that there are some terrible wine selections on offer.

“There are so many great, fun wines out today that I’m really not sure why people serve that other stuff any more,” he says. Here’s a great example: Pillar Box Red is a wine made by Chris Ringland, one of Australia’s best winemakers. He made the Three Rivers Shiraz that was given a perfect 100 point score by wine guru Robert Parker. Ringald’s wines are some of the most elegantly made and highly sought after wines in the world. Pillar Box Red is about $8 a bottle. There are five glasses in a bottle.

Or how about the Gysler Weinheimer Riesling - a crisp, refreshing, slightly fruity wine that pairs unbelievably well with Thai and other Asian foods. Wholesale price? Under $9 a liter.

And we don’t need a ton of expensive wines on the lists at fine dining restaurants either. Give us the choice to drink an inexpensive wine with dinner if that’s what we want. Wine list intimidation should be a thing of the past, and anyone should be able to order a $30 bottle in a restaurant without feeling that they’re being perceived as cheap. When I was talking to Kermit Lynch last month about this very subject, he was passionate: “I’m here to tell you that price is no indication of the quality of a wine,” he said. ” I just don’t understand these people who are spending $80 and $100 on a bottle of wine that will be drunk with one meal. Who are these people? I don’t know them.”

Of course we don’t want those restaurants with stunning wine lists to change - we just want those of you serving rubbish to toss it out, and those of you with nothing under $40, just add a couple of great bottles. Wishing Tree for example. I heard a ton of excuses last week when I was checking out some truly bad wine lists.

“Oh, we don’t really sell a lot of wine,” said one place with two offerings that were truly hideous.

No kidding, I thought, as I left my half-full glass on the bar.

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