Wine Pages

Mike Steinberger's Wine Diarist


What Drives a Wine List?

Since moving to Portland, I've been struck by just how wine-savvy a city this is. There are few producers whose wines I crave that are not available here. And in a town with such a fantastic restaurant scene, I'm often able to find something curiously exciting on wine lists when dining out. There are, of course, those lists which don't dazzle me - and, perhaps, even, don't offer me ANY options for something appealing - at least there's usually some interesting beer to drink then.

Just like any other major metropolitan area, Portland has restaurants with wine "programs" and restaurants which simply sell wine as an obligatory (and profitable) part of the dining experience. The former group is marked by a list (long or short) of eclectic wines from a range of lesser-known regions, grapes, and producers. They often lean toward European and Euro-influenced wines, and have a staff who attempt to engage diners in a conversation about the wines they offer. The latter is often even more clearly marked by an extensive list of chardonnays, pinot noirs (a recent phenomenon), and cabernets to the detriment of other wines. Marquees (or at least very well advertised) names can typically be found throughout these lists. Some do this out of laziness, some out of ignorance, and some because they sincerely believe that's what their customers want and will buy.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have one additional component to wine lists which I rarely saw back in New York (even on Long Island) - there is a lot of local wine represented on and sold from wine lists. As one who knows me might expect, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it supports a local industry which has proven in a very short time (since the 1960s) that great wines can be made here. On the other hand, local wines can sometimes have a disproportionate representation on lists where they don't have an abvious place. Now I'm a huge proponent of the "drink what you like - don't worry about finding the perfect pairing" approach to wine and food, but I've seen far some lists at Italian restaurants (for example) here featuring far too much local wine, and far too little Italian wine. In one instance, I read a list at a dive of a pasta place where they offered ten wines total - eight local wines from touted producers alongside a pinot grigio and a montepulciano d'abruzzo with neither a producer or a vintage listed. All I'm saying is that it would be nice to see a beter balance. Otherwise, I'll be drinking a lot more beer (and don't get me started on how hoppy the local beers are).