The Myth of wine lists: restaurants can offer bargain discoveries

Not all wine lists are created equal. Some aren't created at all, in fact; the wines on them are more or less distributed. By that I mean more than a few restaurateurs know heaps about food but only a pittance about wine. They put themselves in the hands of a large distributor or two to compile their wine list--with all the business agendas you can imagine in that scenario.


The Myth of wine lists: restaurants can offer bargain discoveries The winners are the behemoth wineries, which carry weight with their volume--the names that bring on deja vu when you pick up the list in a new bistro. Of course, big doesn't mean bad. And meeting old friends in new places makes you feel safe. But is that what you want on a Friday night, in a buzzing restaurant, with a plate of potato-crusted scallops on wild greens in front of you? With the plethora of wines around us in the West, we can do better than safe.

An A-list

The least familiar-sounding wine list I've come across recently is at seven-month-old Myth in San Francisco. Partner Marc Cohen, a New York doctor turned Napa vintner, had the preposterous-sounding goal from the beginning of offering "wines you can't find anywhere else in the world," at a markup 20 to 30 percent less than other restaurants. He brought in wine director Alex Fox (formerly wine educator at Niebaum-Coppola winery) to help pull off such a collection. It took serious legwork--months, if not years, of off-site tasting duty--plus connections, end-of-vintage deal making, and just plain chutzpah.

Still, obscure bottles don't sell themselves, even if they're a bargain. The success of Myth's list depends on ready information, on Fox's unpretentious, near-religious table-side testimonies--and on customers meeting him partway, according to Fox.
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"Pick me out a red" doesn't get him far enough. To ferret out just what kind of red would curl that diner's socks with the sweet-bread and shiitake salad he's ordered, Fox needs to know whether he generally likes light or full-bodied reds. "It's not 10 questions," he says, "just 2 or 3. And don't worry if you don't have the right wine words. Just tell me what you normally like to drink at home, and I'll find you the best bottle, at the lowest price, in that style." (Unless you want to spend more, presumably.)

And how does Myth deliver on value? "We just decided to make less money on the wine," says Cohen. "It's an economy of scale--we sell more." And apparently they do: He says their wine sales make up a substantially higher percentage of their gross than most restaurants'.

Of course, Cohen and Fox are covering their bets: They stock a few familiar names too. (They're not out to take away that comfort zone for anyone who would come undone without a Cakebread Chardonnay at hand.) But they're more interested in peddling the great unknown. And they're counting on us to want to go there.

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