THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF THE MISSING WINE
Although they could probably write exhaustive monographs on the respective merits of two breeds of pig to make bacon, restaurant critics appear unable to assemble two words on wine in their columns which leads one to the conclusion that 1) either they don’t drink wine or 2) drink it and know nothing about it or 3) don’t think it’s worthy of a mention. Last weekend I scoured the restaurant reviews of seven national newspapers - I had a lot of time on my hands - there was not a single reference to wine.
Drink is no trifling detail, however; it is an integral part of dining. Examine your bill next time and calculate the proportion spent on drink versus food. If we suppose an average of 40% is spent on wine and drink then why not a fraction of the review dedicated to the subject? Trevor Gulliver, owner of St John restaurant in London (40% spend on wine), confesses that he is surprised by the glaring omission: “It’s more than tad daft that a fundamental part of the enjoyment of the evening for so many people (drinking) does not rate a mention.” Gulliver attributes this to the current editorial vogue which highlights style over content.
The restaurant critic might postulate that wine is not a variable like food and service and therefore has little to do with the overall quality of the restaurant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wine is an artisan product and needs to be sourced, tasted and selected with as much discernment as fish, meat or cheese. A good wine enhances the meal; a bad wine leaves a bad taste in the mouth literally and figuratively. Amongst the many questions that could and should be tackled by a competent reviewer is an appreciation of the overall quality and originality of wine list. Does it accord with the food and the style of the restaurant? Many wine lists focus on one region or a few grape varieties. Does the list specialise in any regions? Is there a good selection of wines by the glass? What’s the house wine like? Is the wine served properly (nice glasses, appropriate temperature)? Is the wine service generally informed/clueless/ helpful? Are the mark-ups reasonable or grasping? Other notable points (good beers, interesting eaux de vie etc)? There is certainly plenty to write about.
Fiona Sims, writer and freelance wine journalist, says the public are much more interested in wine nowadays (this is reflected in the tremendous growth of wine sales) and food critics are missing a trick. She adds: “People need as much guidance on the wine list as the food menu”. And people do read reviews and follow recommendations by the press. Several years ago The Evening Standard, for reasons best known to them, dispensed with the services of Andrew Jefford, their award-winning drinks writer. Jefford brought a significant extra dimension to Fay Maschler’s weekly column with a separate detailed critique of the wine list of the selected restaurant of the week. For restaurateurs this was due recognition of the effort they had put into composing their lists and for the readers it provided expert valuable advice on what was good to drink and as well as the best food and wine matches.
Jefford was certainly the exception. As one restaurateur confided to me: “One reviewer can’t drink, one doesn’t drink and another can’t remember what he drank.” Most restaurant columns, particularly in the weekend newspapers, are primarily style columns, dishing up souffles of gossip. To AA Gill, for example, a restaurant is a mere excuse for a digressive soliloquy doused with self-amused solipsism. Writing may be a form of entertainment but there is the occasional duty to inform as well, to give bouquets to the worthy and brickbats to the incompetent. Gill may write as if he was inebriated but it will be only on his verbosity and the heady draft of contempt. The fact that he doesn’t drink means that wine will never figure in his column. And a reviewer who doesn’t drink is a bit like a vegetarian in a restaurant that specialises in steak. Even the more knowledgeable writers tend only refer to the wine in the context of the general mileage of drink that they have clocked up on the bill.
John Gilchrist, owner of the acclaimed Crooked Billet in Newton Longville, Bucks (50% spend on wine), has a theory why wine is absent from the reviews: “The palate of the average critic is heavily geared towards describing food; they don’t taste wine in an equally analytical way, and because they feel uncomfortable with the language of wine, would rather not commit themselves to describing it at all”.
Where wine lists are mentioned observations are ill informed, plain mistaken and downright crass. The Good Food Guide wrote about the wine selection at Club Gascon thus: “this is not the place to come if you hate the wines of South West France”, a supposed attempt at irony which brings to mind the words “lead” and “balloon”. Ignorance can take other forms such as, for example, criticising a restaurant for selling a Pinot Grigio at a certain price without ascertaining the name of the producer. Reviewers will have little or no idea of what restaurants pay for wine (unless those wines happen to be branded), yet when they do mention the subject, pontificate happily about margins without knowing about break-even points. There is, dare one say, a largely lazy, amateur approach to reviewing highlighted by a lack of curiosity and poor quality of research.
Many restaurants conversely are highly professional concerns employing sommeliers, specialist managers, even consultants, or sending their staff on courses. It is good for them to know that this outlay has been repaid. By not mentioning wine at all there is no way of differentiating a restaurant that is passionate about its product and sells it intelligently and one that takes little care or interest. Mike Dowding, general manager of The Oak restaurant in London (45% spend on drink), comments: “It’s disappointing when you make the investment in your wine list not to be recognised for it. We have bought Riedel glasses and a Eurocave to ensure that our wines reach the customer in the best condition, because when I go out I don’t like paying silly money for crap wine served in crap glasses at the wrong temperature.” The Oak has an excellent wine list. Moreover, there are many establishments where the wine shares a billing equal to or higher than the food: The White Horse in Chilgrove, The Crooked Billet in Newton Longville, The Vineyard at Stockcross, The Ubiquitous Chip in Glasgow and the sundry Hotel du Vins to name but a few, are undoubtedly destination restaurants for their respective lists.
Matthew Bradford, General Manager of the Groucho Club, describes eating out as a sacramental balance: “It’s about the holy trinity of good food, good wine and good service.” Whilst the food critics ignore wine it will continue to be seen as a separate issue rather than part of the whole experience of eating out. Meanwhile restaurateurs would prefer to be appreciated or criticised on their merits, and when the wine list is a merit, then that should be advertised. My modest proposal is to encourage restaurateurs to club together to send reviewers on an intensive wine course. A little learning may be a dangerous thing, but it’s better than nothing.