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Where Is The Wine In Restaurant Reviews?

By John Lenart in Food on Nov 13, 2014 8:00PM

Webster's Wine Bar (Photo credit: Webster's Wine Bar)

Even though the number of paid restaurant critics and publications that print their reviews has declined significantly in Chicago over the past several years, you have to admit there are still some pretty darned good critics writing about restaurants in this town. So, while we have this quality writing about the restaurant scene, why is it that virtually all of these critics avoid discussing one of the most integral parts of a dining experience: wine? We have world class sommeliers overseeing great wine lists, yet, when you read a review of a restaurant you're lucky if there is a sentence or two committed to the wine list.

What got me to thinking about all of this was a recently published review of Webster's Wine Bar in The Chicago Reader. In it, the author presents a fair, educated look at the food at the new location of this Chicago mainstay. Yet, wine was never discussed. In fact, in this four paragraph, 366-word review, the word wine was used exactly twice; once when identifying the restaurant being reviewed and once when mentioning Telegraph Wine Bar, the former resident of the space, and that's it. I mean, c'mon, it's a wine bar, wine is critical to the experience here; you have got to talk about it a bit. As a friend of mine pointed out, if someone had written a review of Hopleaf without mentioning beer there would be a revolt. It's not like the author is averse to writing about beverages. She does fantastic work in writing about beer and cocktails. So again, why not mention the wine? I'm just sort of flabbergasted by it. It's a wine bar. And not just any wine bar. The Wall Street Journal named Webster's Wine Bar one of the top five wine bars in the entire country.

But really, this is just one example of an epidemic of ignoring wine in restaurant reviews in Chicago. Why is that? I don't get it. Phil Vettel will occasionally grant a sentence or two to wine as he did recently in his 3-star review of MFK. But in reality that's about all a consumer can expect to read about wine programs at restaurants in Chicago. And that's just not right. I mean, the sole purpose for publishing restaurant reviews is to help consumers make informed choices when it comes to spending their dining dollars. Look, when I dine out, I'm likely to buy a bottle of wine and I'd like to have some information about the wine program at a restaurant I'm considering. But it's just not information I'm provided often enough.

To take a deeper look at why this culture of restaurant critics ignoring wine lists exists I turned to Michael Nagrant, dining contributor for Redeye and local freelance journalist.

Chicagoist: It seems that wine is ignored by restaurant critics in Chicago. Why do you think this is?

Michael Nagrant: Partly for the same reasons no one makes multiple visits to restaurants when reviewing or the same reason we see less super-high end reviews. There is no money to support the endeavor. In general, no matter the publication, I have either had no budget for alcohol or a budget for a couple of glasses, beers or cocktails. Forget about bottles. A decent single bottle at typical mark-up is at least a third of my review budget even if I had a general budget that could be used on food and wine.

Also, given the choice to spend my money on something that’s crafted and composed by the restaurant, aka a cocktail, vs something the restaurant curated only, i.e. wine, which I could procure for home consumption, I’m more likely to choose the custom thing I may or may not be able to make myself.

Why would I pay 300% mark-up for something I can buy at Binny’s and serve to myself for much less? It’s not just wine. I mean when you’re charging $7 for a bottle of Allagash White, I’d rather just buy a four pack and drink it at my dining table on my own time.

Most writers are also very young, which isn’t to say young people can’t have experience. Certainly Alpana Singh knew her stuff when she became an MS at 27. But, most folks a few years out of school (and this is who most modern food journalists are) are just getting their bearings about food, and have only been drinking (non-swill) legally for little while.

Also, besides guys like Richard Betts, Terry Theise and Gary Vaynerchuk, most wine discussions are steeped in off-putting terminology and dusty aphorisms. If I’m in my twenties ready to drink good stuff, I’m more likely to be attracted to the testosterone-imbued adventures of Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione or the weed and psychadelics-fueled culture of Three Floyd’s than I am of the effete posturing of Wine Spectator’s Marvin Shanken.

C: While being able to purchase wine for consumption during a review would certainly help, I don't think not being able to purchase a bottle should prevent the reviewer from taking a look at a wine list and writing something about it. It's a list, reviewers could easily read it and point out strengths, weaknesses, or values on it. Why do you think this doesn't this happen?

MN: I agree. I try to do this when it's warranted. That being said even if it's not a matter of budget, word count is also way down in journalism. If you only have 500 words to review, you're more likely to focus on the food for the bulk of that 500 words. Writers have to make choices they didn't have to a decade ago.

C: Have you ever been directed to not write about a wine program in one of your reviews due to word count?

MN: Never.

C: Is it possible that more isn't written about wine at restaurants because of ignorance or indifference to the topic?

MN: I take my craft very seriously. And for me that means a commitment to knowing about wine. I certainly read a lot. I subscribe to Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate online, etc. I talk to sommeliers all the time. I try to drink a lot when I'm out. I have a dedicated wine fridge in my house. I can probably blind taste Champagne really well. However, the truth is I'll forget more about food and ingredients and technique than I'll likely ever know about wine. Wine is an expensive proposition and it's not supported in the same way food is.

C: As a restaurant critic, when at a restaurant that serves wine, how do you view wine's role in the dining experience? Is it different than say, the role of cocktails or beer?

MN: It used to be you avoided beer at a good restaurant unless you were Uncle Billy. Instead you started with a cocktail or an aperitif to establish your bonafides as a regular James Bond or Holly Golightly, and to open up the palate (though Charlie Trotter would say you’re killing your palate), and then eased in to wine as a companion to food. Today, with the astounding and well-crafted variety of cocktails and beer available, you can pretty much construct a food and liquor, or food and suds, pairing that rivals a wine pairing.

C: When reviewing a restaurant, have you ever written about the wine program? Why or why not?

MN: Whenever I see a killer Alsatian Riesling selection, lots of food friendly stuff, say gruner veltliners, or stuff from Alto Adige, I get excited. Whenever someone’s serving crazy stuff that’s amazing, say Slovenian veliko bianco, like Alinea did at times, or crazy Spanish dessert wines like Liz Mendez at Vera, I try to throw down some sentences about the effort. I loved what Tim Graham and Chad Ellegood were doing at TRU a few years ago where sometimes food menus were constructed in response to the wine and not vice versa. When I drink a fruity acidic bottle of Bodegas Zudugarai 2013 “Antxiola” Getariako Txakolina, like I did at MFK recently, I cannot wait to evangelize (although ironically I did not drink this when I reviewed the place, only when I returned).

C: In general what's your view of wine lists in Chicago restaurants?

MN: At the high end, there’s still a commitment to trophy wines. Champagne lists are a Moet and Roederer shrine, when they really should be temples to grower-producers. At the low-end it’s a minefield of Kung Fu Girl riesling, questionable Spanish Cava and cheap pinot noir that misrepresents everything pinot noir really is. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a decent carmenere. Are there people doing great and unique stuff? Sure, like I said, Vera, MFK, Next, etc. But it’s the exception, not the rule. Of course, these are the same places that have an idiosyncratic voice in the food they’re serving, too.

So there you have it. From what I garner, wine often gets left out of restaurant reviews due to cost, space limitations, lack of previous exposure to wine, or perhaps because it's not something crafted by the restaurant. As a wine lover I still struggle with some of this. But at least now we have some clarity about why wine lovers can't get a bit of information from restaurant critics about what we find an important topic. If you're a restaurant reviewer reading this, please note that there are a lot of your readers looking for information about the wine lists of places you review. How about a little love?