The Language of Wine Lists

The Language of Wine Lists

By Gillian Sciaretta
Wine Spectator
“Wherever in the world you dine, ordering the wine should be the easy part.”

Anyone who has eaten out knows that restaurant wine lists can be obstacle courses. For diners who aren’t experts in wine, they can be hard to navigate and understand. For restaurant staff, who have to keep the list current with the cellar inventory and rotate among selections appropriate to the changing seasons and menus, they can be hard to manage.

Complete, accurate information for each wine gives guests confidence in ordering.

Whether a restaurant has 90 selections or 4,000, it takes even more effort to put together and maintain an award-winning wine list. But those efforts are rewarding for many—the wineries that get their bottlings in front of diners, the restaurants that boost sales and make their customers happier, and especially the wine-loving guests, who get to discover exciting new wines or enjoy great examples of the classics.

Wine Spectator has been honoring restaurants with outstanding wine programs since 1981. This year, more than 3,750 restaurants around the world earned one of three awards: Award of Excellence, Best of Award of Excellence and Grand Award. Restaurants choose to be evaluated, voluntarily seeking validation that their lists stand out above the pack. To be considered, the restaurants submit an application, which includes a cover letter, dinner menu and, most important, their wine list.

As the director of the Restaurant Awards program and a member of the judging panel for several years, I’ve seen many creative and successful ways of making wine lists more approachable and informative to guests, from presenting them on tablets instead of paper to incorporating maps, sommelier tasting notes and even Venn diagrams. But the bottom line is that the wine list must be clear, the details correct. Meeting the basic requirements for judging (learn more about the criteria for each level) can be deceptively challenging:

To qualify for an award, a wine list must present complete, accurate information, including vintages and appellations for all selections. Complete producer names, correct spellings and the overall presentation of the list are also considered.

Why have these requirements? Well, wine is a complicated subject. In order for a guest to make a good decision when ordering a wine, complete, accurate and consistent information is necessary. A missing vintage, appellation or producer name on a wine selection can leave a guest unsure. Who made this wine? Where does it come from? How old is it?

Providing those pieces of information can make or break a decision. Leaving them out doesn’t give the wineries the respect they deserve for their efforts.

And if the information turns out to be inaccurate, say a less-successful vintage is substituted for a much-lauded one, a guest can feel deceived and the restaurant looks bad.

But when wine lists are done right, a diner should be able to eat out anywhere in the world and successfully order a bottle they will enjoy. Having compared wine lists from applicants across several continents, encompassing more than 75 countries and territories, I have seen how global a language wine is. 

Without any linguistic training, I can easily navigate my way around wine lists from our winners located in non-English-speaking countries. If you care deeply about wine, you’ve probably familiarized yourself with various words for “white,” “red” and “sparkling.” Beyond that, producer names, appellations and vintages are universal. “Sancerre” is “Sancerre” everywhere. That needs no translation. Wine finds a way of linking us all together.

I hope you choose to seek out our award winners when planning your next wine-centric meal. They have put in the effort to prove their dedication to wine. Now all you have to do is enjoy.

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