Picture yourself in a fancy restaurant known for its wine list. The host hands you a heavy leather volume, or maybe an iPad, to peruse pages upon pages of bottle selections.
Maybe you’re in the mood for something specific, so you navigate to the category you want. From there, you focus on a country, a grape and finally, you make a selection from 10–12 bottles. But if you don’t have a predetermined wine in mind, you’re left guessing what your companions like and what will complement their meals. Sure, the floor sommelier can help, and it’s exciting to have s many options, but it can also add a layer of complication and intimidation.
Enter the small wine list. If a big tome conveys gravitas and leather-bound luxury, a small printed list speaks to elegance, simplicity and ease. Instead of flipping through numerous pages of bottles before you even look at the menu, you can order wine at a glance and focus on your date, friends or family.
If a big tome conveys gravitas and leather-bound luxury, a small printed list speaks to elegance, simplicity and ease.
But within each category, there’s likely a varied-enough spectrum of offerings to choose from—in other words, something for everyone, but not 20 things for everyone. All you have to do is decide on a style and trust that the wine director has made good choices.
What does “good” mean in this context? Overall quality, of course, but also the ability to pair with the menu. With a small list, not only is your choice easier, but the wines are more likely to complement each dish. Most chefs have a culinary esthetic, certain flavors or profiles that they favor. A sommelier who crafts a small wine list can take that into account and select bottles that share the chef’s palate.
A more narrow selection also encourages focus. Maybe a regional Spanish or Italian restaurant will pour bottles only from that area to create a sense of place. Maybe an establishment that traffics in organic, locally foraged, house-fermented foods will opt for a natural wine list to round out its ethos. As a person who can cook good food and drink good wine at home, I go out to eat specifically to get this sort of thoughtfully constructed experience.
I don’t think big lists are going away anytime soon, and that’s fine. They have their place. But I will end on the strongest argument as to why the rise of small, thoughtful lists is a good thing: They’re democratic. A lot of people find their way to wine through fine dining. A smaller list makes those early interactions accessible and enjoyable, and isn’t enjoyment what wine’s really all about?