A restaurant wine list is more than that wrist-challenging leather-bound tome the server presents to you with the dinner menu. It's more than a casual stapled collection of pages, and it's more than a simple chalkboard.
A little respect, please?
In most restaurants, the wine list has a carefully aligned construction -- its components determined with the kind of care, thought and balancing we can only hope is brought to a congressional hearing, not to mention a little serious tasting. And that kind of routine applies to the wines offered by the glass as well.
All of this can require considerable financial outlay. Noel Morreale, a partner in Fiamma, a steakhouse on Hertel Avenue, says it can run at least $130,000 for what he calls "a world class cellar."
So, how do restaurateurs come up with their wine lists?
Morreale, who has designed lists for Las Vegas restaurants, says certain wines are definite necessities.
"You have to have a Chardonnay, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Merlot, an Italian red, a Syrah," he says. "And in this market, you have to have a white Zinfandel or other blush wine, too. You have to have sparkling wine, as well."
He says you also need at least two "price points" for each of these wines. Fiamma features, for example, Chardonnays from $18 to $130; sparkling wines from $29 to $315.
The Fiamma wine list makes it easy for diners to experiment, too. The "white" section is divided into categories -- wines that are "crisp, refreshing and food-friendly," some that are "aromatic and fruity" and some that are "richer, full-bodied with some oak."
The reds are portioned into "elegant and balanced; food flexible," "soft, smooth and rich," and "iron fist in a velvet glove."
Each of these headings has at least 10 entries, with a wide price range.
Dave Cosentino, on the other hand, has a much narrower focus on the wine list at his Trattoria Aroma on Main Street in Williamsville. "My restaurant theme is authentic Italian, and my wine list is 100 percent Italian," he says. "It gives a clear direction to what the cellar is trying to do."
And how about prices?
"Well, $30 a bottle is sort of an aggregate around the country," says Cosentino. His list features bottles as inexpensive at $22 and as high as $220. ("Oh yes, I sell a dozen or so of those a year.") Cosentino plans to open another location soon, on Bryant Street in Buffalo, with an identical menu and wine list.
And then there's J.J. Richert, who this spring plans to open a restaurant on Kenmore Avenue called Torches. He's in the very midst of designing his list.
Richert is thinking of prices between $14 and $50 per bottle, and $4 to $7 per glass, but he's also seeking variety.
"It will be a small list of bottles you might not be able to find at your corner liquor store," he says, but they will all have a Wine Spectator rating and we'll try to be diverse.
Why has all of this become so complicated? Several local wine consultants will tell you that Western New Yorkers are becoming more savvy about what they drink.
"A few years ago, people would ask, 'Am I drinking wine with dinner or not?' But that's a given now. Now the question is which wine do I want?" says Mike DePue, the former sommelier for Ultimate Restaurants (Bacchus, City Grille) who is now the upstate consultant for a New York City-based wine importer.
"It's getting beyond Merlot and Chardonnay," he says, speaking of the varietal wines most diners are familiar with, the ones that have been on the tip of the tongue (or the palate) for so many years.
And the trends on local wine lists?
"The trend is not to follow a trend," DePue insists, but he does like to talk about reasonably priced French wines like those from the Languedoc, Provence and Macon. He talks about wines from Argentina (especially Malbec) and from Chile; of Portugal and, still, from Spain.
Brett Blumberg, director of fine wine sales in Upstate New York for Service Universal distributors says he is "a big fan of democratic wine lists." Blumberg talks about the wines of Argentina and Chile, too, but he also mentions -- are you ready for it? -- China.
"China has already more acres under vine than Australia," he points out.
And how does he help a restaurateur design his list from all of this?
"You want a wine list in harmony with the menu stylistically, and then there's the price point. You look at the size of the restaurant, its storage capabilities and the entree price."
One broad framework for what Blumberg calls "the hot zone," the place where most of the wine sales will come from, is to multiply the price of the average entree by one and a half.
It's not enough to have a good wine list, of course. You have to sell it, too. That means merchandising. It's growing in importance in this new wine world.
At Fiamma, guests are impressed with the glass floor at the door, which gives a view of the 1,600-bottle wine cellar.
At Trattoria Aroma, Cosentino trains his staff to give samples. "Try this. It will go perfectly with your fish," they might say.
And as for Torches, Richert says he'll spend lots of time with his staff, also.
"Every wine has a story," he says. "And my servers must have knowledge of that."