It would seem self-evident that when one goes to a restaurant it is with the intention of eating, whether it’s a burger at the Spur or a tasting menu at a Michelin star establishment.
For some, a wine list or, to broaden the scope, a beverage list, is an adjunct to the food menu, rather than an essential part of it. While it’s likely the fine diner will be more interested in the beverage/wine list, it’s not a given. Nor is it certain that the burger eater isn’t keen on picking an interesting bottle of wine, craft beer or even tot of spirits to partner it.
Yet, as social media has shown yet again recently, there has been an outcry about restaurants charging to list wines, most of which are supplied by larger producers (smaller producers quite rightly don’t and won’t participate in this sort of practice.) This often results in a boring list, one which doesn’t encourage customers to be more adventurous in their choices or even drink wine at all. How to change this?
(I’m not so naïve as to think there can be a wholesale move away from demanding listing fees, but one only has to think of Ocean Basket, which stopped the practice last year, to realise the message can be heard and re-acted to.)
Enthusiasm and even basic knowledge from the sommelier or wine steward would be my starting point, but I thought it better to get views from those on the restaurant floor. Few come more enthusiastic and knowledgeable than Tinashe Nyamudoka, Sommelier at renowned The Test Kitchen or Fortunato (Forti) Mazzone, who opened Forti Grill and Bar earlier this year, and before that owned Ritrovo, both in Pretoria. Forti also co-owns the brand Nick and Forti’s Wines with his friend, Nick van Huysteen, owner of Saronsberg, where Dewaldt Heyns makes the wines.
A pair with equal enthusiasm for wine but very different restaurants; nonetheless, food is a driving factor when the wine list is being compiled. There’s also a personal element to Mazzone’s selection; ‘Wines I enjoy, from wine farms I’ve developed partnerships and friendships with over the years.’
Nyamudoka notes that as 90% of diners choose the menu and wine pairing option (a choice of two wines for each of the eight courses), this strongly influences selections, though inspiration derives from unique wines and those drinking well. The wine list itself is a succinct, five pages.
It would be foolish and self-defeating not to include popular favourites; they are anyway more likely to have continuity on the list, given limited availability of many top wines; they feature to greater (60%) or lesser (30%) on Mazzone’s and Nyamudoka’s lists respectively.
At the same time, it’s all too easy for guests to head for familiar names, especially if they’re shy of asking about wines they’ve never heard of. I know what it’s like staring at a wine list where I have little or no idea what I’d be drinking. A short description and vintage for each wine can be an encouragement, which both gentlemen’s lists offer; physically, the lists are easily updated when a new wine or vintage is introduced. I wonder how many other restaurateurs can or bother to do that?
That aside, I can’t think of a better way than their own interaction and that of the other wine staff to encourage guests to venture outside their comfort zone. Many wine staff, not just sommeliers, attend courses on wine and service these days to ensure at least a basic level of knowledge. Two of Mazzone’s staff have WSET Level 3 accreditation, but with his own Cape Wine Academy Diploma II and years of experience, he passes on knowledge to all his long-serving staff. Nyamudoka explains Test Kitchen wine staff need to be able to taste and explain a wine in their own words.
Good choice of wine by the glass, mature wines and degustation menus paired with select wines are other ways these wine enthusiasts encourage guests to try something new. As Nyamudoka has already mentioned, the majority of diners at Test Kitchen select the food and wine pairing menu. ‘They are guaranteed to taste a wine they’ve never had before and never thought they’d like until partnered with a good meal.’
It takes more than enthusiasm to create a really good and interesting wine list, one that spans the great and good the Cape has to offer as well as the more popular favourites.
Mazzone admits; ‘Differentiating yourself from the herd,’ is the most difficult part. ‘We do this by printing maps, information, interesting quotes and by making our menu an A3 document that is exceptionally easy to read.’ ‘In my case,’ offers Nyamudoka, ‘ it’s find the balance, ie depth of mature vintages, compatibility with an ever changing food menu and wines that best showcase a specific region.’
Difficult but not impossible. Encouraging diners to be more adventurous in their wine or beverage selection can be rewarding from many points of view; requiring payment to get on the list isn’t one of them.