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Where Is The Wine In Restaurant Reviews? (Part Two)

By John Lenart in Food on Dec 11, 2014 8:00PM

In a recent article, I explored wine list commentary in restaurant reviews with RedEye dining contributor and freelance journalist Michael Nagrant in order better understand why restaurant critics seem to ignore wine lists in their reviews. The article was driven by a review of Webster’s Wine Bar published in The Reader which never once mentioned the wine program. After my piece was published owner of Webster’s Wine Bar, Tom MacDonald, made a comment and offered to discuss the topic from the point of view of the restaurateur.

I have said numerous times that part of the problem with wine, particularly in Chicago, is that the industry as a whole does a poor job of getting the word out to consumers who are listening. A friend of mine once astutely pointed out that this is one place the craft beer industry is kicking wine’s ass. I asked MacDonald about this as well.

Chicagoist: When it comes to restaurant reviews wine is often not mentioned at all. Why do you think that is?

Tom MacDonald: Honestly I think it is the result of the fact that very few restaurant critics these days are genuinely wine savvy in a serious way. It takes an extraordinary amount of work - literally years of reading, tasting, studying - to be a real expert or guide on wine. And it seems to me that the media outlets themselves don't value it (meaning they aren't willing to pay an expert's salary). I also believe it is partly our fault as well as consumers—in this age of iPads and iPhones, our attention span may be getting too short—if it doesn't look great on Instagram, it gets ignored. It's not the end of the world, of course, but we all know that a great wine pairing can make a meal much, much more memorable and enjoyable than that meal would be with a glass of water or, god forbid, iced tea, and therefore, it really is a shame that reviews are ignoring wine (and other beverage) pairings when a restaurant takes the time and effort to provide them.

C: As the owner of a wine bar having wine talked about in a review is important to you, tell me why it's important not only to a wine bar, but for any restaurant serving wine?

TM: It's simple—wine, more than any other beverage, can truly enhance a meal and, when properly paired, make the dishes taste dramatically different (and better) than they do on their own. This is restaurant 101 stuff; everyone should know this. The Greeks knew this 2,500 years ago. And it doesn't include just wine—many places in Chicago put together their beer and spirits lists to specifically pair with items on their food menus. Let's face it, it's a lot of fun to make the effort to have the right drink with a dish. It's a lot more fun than all the other drudgery involved in owning and managing a bar/restaurant. It's what keeps all of us in the business coming back for more punishment every day. And I would assume a restaurant reviewer likewise would be genuinely interested in exploring food and beverage pairing. Otherwise why not write about something else? It really is baffling to me. And I don't think it requires 1,000 extra words, but a serious writer should be interested in what the beverage program is all about and give it some mention. After all, unless the review is on a BYOB, it is, quite literally, half the story.

C: In my interview with Mike Nagrant on this topic he said that reviewing a wine list was often a matter of cost. I countered by saying that in order to review a list one didn't have to drink it. Clearly critics can simply read a list and see strong and weak points. What points do you think restaurant reviewers ought to consider when looking at a wine list?

TM: I've told beginners in my wine classes for years to take the simplest, easiest course of action when choosing wine at a restaurant—ask your server. If the restaurant takes their wine program at all seriously, the servers will have solid recommendations. They will have been trained by whoever runs the wine program and, hopefully, will be able to provide a match that works. And if the chef truly cares, he or she will also have been involved in tasting wines and suggesting the best pairings. A serious chef takes beverage pairing quite seriously, as they know that the wrong pairing can make the dish taste funky if not downright awful. I know it all too often doesn't work that way (chefs focus on food, the somm focuses on wine, and there isn't much real synergy), but ideally selecting and tasting wines with the food is a process that should involve the entire staff. Not only to get that killer match that makes everything shine but likewise to avoid mismatches that can make the food taste off. So, long-winded answer: if the reviewer doesn't care to comment on the wine list, he/she should at a minimum let the beverage director him or herself add a few words about the selections, why they were chosen, what the basic philosophy is, etc. Without doing so is, in my opinion, being lazy and doing a disservice to whoever is reading the review; they aren't getting the full story.

C: Do you think customers really care enough about wine that it ought to be part of a review? Why or why not?

"Ignoring the beverage program is ignoring half the story."
TM: Absolutely. As long as the discussion is simple, interesting, informative and entertaining. Too often people are intimidated by the whole wine pairing process if not outright frustrated. If poorly done, it seems stuffy, snobby and perhaps overwhelming. When done right, it is pure fun. Part of the problem is that customers too often think they need to know everything, memorizing producer names, vineyard names, grape variety names, best vintages, etc. This is a shame and it is both the restaurant staff's responsibility and a reviewer's responsibility to keep it simple, interesting, and approachable. And not to beat a dead horse here, but once again, ignoring the beverage program is ignoring half the story.

C: In your comment on my article you touched on how Chicagoans are big on the latest craze, which you correctly pointed out as being beer and cocktails. What is it you think the craft beer industry is doing that wine isn't to win over these consumers?

"The typical image of a winery owner is some stuffy old man in a suit who made a fortune in banking. This is unfortunate, because the vast majority of wine makers and winery owners I have met are humble, simple people."
TM: Making it fun and unintimidating. It helps that no one feels threatened or intimidated by beer. And it helps too that beer guys and gals tend to be laid back and fun to hang around with. And there's an added energy with the craft beer movement due to the fact that it's all so "new" in a way, being both innovative and experimental. Let's face it, there are a few too many wine professionals out there who come across as being pompous and arrogant (if not full of shit). Not many in Chicago, mind you. It's great that wine is so complex and I personally have always enjoyed the mental challenges of really knowing your stuff when it comes to wine—it takes a lot of study. But wine professionals can be their own worst enemy if they allow their knowledge to appear pedantic and elitist. I don't think I've ever met a brewer who was wearing a fancy suit and tie, but the typical image of a winery owner is some stuffy old man in a suit who made a fortune in banking. This is unfortunate, because the vast majority of wine makers and winery owners I have met are humble, simple people. Most refer to themselves as being nothing more than grape farmers, which is true. But it's an image issue and the beer folks have done a great job of "keeping it real" if you will.

C: As an enthusiastic wine consumer, and now as a wine writer, I am always looking out for great things with wine, whether it be an event, a release, some cool tasting, or a wine maker coming into town. To be honest finding this stuff is not an easy task. Yet, when it comes to beer I hear about stuff like this all the time. Obviously, things are going on in the wine community in Chicago. Why are we not hearing about them and what can the wine industry do to better connect with Chicago consumers?

TM: Part of it is geographical. There must be dozens and dozens of breweries within 150 miles of Chicago, not to mention the several breweries within the city limits, so we have a lot of traffic with beer that is legitimately local. But since we don't really have local wine, all of the wine traffic here is ultimately an exercise in someone's national sales goal (the same can be said of many of the beers & spirits, of course). There's nothing wrong with that, it's just the way it is in much of the US. The good news is that in Chicago you can pretty much get your hands on any wine you want—we are an important market, and we get tons of wines you simply can't find in Indianapolis or Minneapolis (or any other "-apolis"). The bad news is that it can be overwhelming. Your local wine shop probably has several hundred, if not thousands, of different wines to choose from. The world of wine is dramatically more varied and complex than that of beer and cocktails. And I'm not bad-mouthing beer and cocktails; it's just the truth. One little example is the fact that there are over 2,000 distinctly different grape varieties grown and made into wine in Italy alone. Getting your arms around wine can be mind-numbing. This is why we need intelligent wine writers to help guide us and give us some tips. And most importantly, we need writers to remind us to forget trying to know everything but, rather, to have an open mind and experiment and enjoy.

As for not hearing about wine events, I think the trade itself could be doing a lot more. Events tend to be geared only towards wine professionals (buyers), and the various distributors generally do not collaborate, so those events are usually only conducted by one distributor promoting their selections. The market for beer, wine and liquor is extremely competitive, so it's understandable in a way, but I do have to tip my hat to the beer folks for being much more willing to put together a big, fun, raucous beer fest with numerous distributors involved at the same time. That's the way it should be. I think it would be amazing to have similar events for the wine world. Imagine a giant tasting of, say, the wines of Argentina, representing wines from the entire country regardless of the distributor, with big fat steaks cooking over a huge wood fire Francis Mallman-style, live music, a real party, tango 'til 4 am. It could be fantastic for all involved, but I get the sense that there is a bit more hesitation to collaborate within the wine trade than that which you see with the beer folks.