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A Twist on This Year's Wine List

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Evoking a boisterous neighborhood block party, customers at a prominent northern Wisconsin resort restaurant have been recruited to choose the wine list for the upcoming season. Bobby (not his real name), the long-time bar manager, called me the other day to solicit samples for the upcoming wine vetting process (wine free-for-all) at Barbara's Murmuring Waters Resort (not the real place).

Not common practice here in the Badger state, a few restaurants still cling to the notion that the best paying customers should decide wines by-the-glass and the bottle selections.

Sommeliers and bar managers around the country usually follow common protocol when considering new wines. It goes something like this: restaurant owner invites favored wholesalers, sending out alerts for a new Shiraz, for example. Samples are quickly furnished and auditioned by restaurant staff and owners. Or a wine supplier contacts the restaurant, sets up a meeting, wines are tasted, reviewed, and considered as additions to an existing list, or for when wholesale changes are made.

Most often, the restaurant decision makers taste with salespeople or winery representatives rather than sample solo. Key insights emerge when buyers and suppliers get together.

Wines are evaluated for style, price, menu fit, and availability. The most astute tasters know how to buy the right wines to compliment the food, support the list, and please clients. Hitting these points takes experience and an openness to new ideas. All-afternoon drinking sessions seldom enhance the vetting process.

This is how the majority of wines make the lists of our favorite bistros, with a few exceptions.

One of the exceptions is The Wine List By Committee.

WBC is a way of awarding regular customers a level of input way beyond what occasional clients enjoy. Most restauranteurs wouldn't dream of allowing clients to decide the dinner menu, but at Barbara's, and in a few other places, clients get to rule the wine room. Could be that owners and staff lack knowledge or confidence to assemble a simple list. More likely, WBC is a way of encouraging customers to keep coming back. They chose the wines with the implicit expectation they'll be back to drink their own selections.

In this case, Bobby called me for a box of wine samples. Preferred customers will dine and evaluate these and a table full of other bottles. Suppliers - who could at least share a few remarks about their wines -- are left off the invite list. The selection process is essentially a party -- cocktails, first -- followed by a race to taste dozens of wines without discretion, family-style, with the biggest, most bold, high-impact wines usually winning out. If I don't send the box, I'm out of the game, off the list.

Most suppliers recognize the predictable structure of this sort of event and only provide over-the-top, super-blaster wines. Medium-bodied wines like Pinot Noir from Burgundy, or anything with nuance or delicate styling will of course will be missed at a table of high octane Cabernet and Shiraz. Other wines could shine and be appreciated, in the quiet calm of a regular tasting session.

After hours of cocktails, multiple glasses of huge reds, and platters of heavy food, the 2014 wine list will be set. The face of the new list? It's massive, tannic, highly-extracted, big-alcohol, oaky: monochromatic. It's a perpetuation of what only a few clients really like to drink, same as in previous years.

Many of you have had the experience while dining where a server brings a taste of an appetizer or dessert being considered for the menu. An opinion is solicited and may be considered by the kitchen. Or the manager recognizes regular diners who know Italian wine and asks for feedback on a small taste of Salice Salentino being auditioned as a glass pour. This sort of solicitation and exchange is indeed collaborative but falls short of asking a few customers to make the key decisions. A restaurant's identity -- the menus, the ambience, and the host of other elements -- is really based in the skilled carrying out of a vision, best left to the staff.