How do you really read a restaurant’s wine list?

I recently met wine professional Caitlin Perlman.

Originally from Berkeley, Calif., Perlman now lives in Wellington and is an integral part of the local wine scene, working at Wine Sentience, where founder and director Stephen Wong MW created a hub for wine education, a consulting firm in world-class wine services, and a place for wine lovers to share, learn and have fun.

I chose Perlman’s mastermind for his work creating wine lists for restaurants.

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What is the objective when you start writing a wine list?

The point of any wine list is that there is no knowledge base needed to access it. I don’t like the idea that wine has become a great thing that you try to conquer just to get a glass of chardonnay you like.

So, when creating a list, we start by asking ourselves: who could come to this restaurant? What questions might they have? What is the ideal experience we would like them to have?

And then try not to talk to anyone while selecting wine styles that help highlight those points.

Kelsey Knight/Unsplash

“With a good wine list, price is not an obstacle to drinking well.”

What is an example of this thought process?

Take someone looking for a classic chardonnay. We try to unpack what this person might mean. What we find is that by “classic chardonnay” they generally want something a little more oaky, a little more buttery.

It’s about having something on the list that fulfills that, but also making sure it’s a wine we’re proud to serve. And definitely avoiding being cynical and offering that person something just generic and cheap that we can cash in on because we fail to give them the experience we hoped they would have.

Do you have to spend a lot of money to enjoy wine?

In reality, wines made by the types of small producers that we are passionate about cost more to make, and it is a reality that prices are going up.

But I reject the idea that if someone only has $60 to spend, they should be offered something more commercial and less exciting, something that’s not going to open a new door to wine for them. On a list, there should be wines at all price points that do this.

A restaurant’s wine list is one of the few places where restaurants can have a decent margin and turn a profit, but it really has to be in order to offset the terrible margins and high costs of running a restaurant. restaurants in general.

So yes, putting good wines on a list at a reasonable price is a challenge. And, with a good list, spending more money will get you something that is perhaps more technically refined, structured, and complex.

But with a good wine list, price is no obstacle to drinking well. It should always be possible.

How to read a wine list and how can a waiter help you navigate it?

I’ve looked through some wine lists from places in the US, and there seems to be a tendency to be incredibly esoteric, as they require some sort of deep insider knowledge to even begin to skim through. I do not like it.

A good restaurant wine list shouldn’t just be filled with wines of the genre enjoyed by the person writing the list. I think wine lists giving you some “comfort cues” are really nice; add little notes or appendices that might capture someone’s interest.

But it’s the people who serve you who are your best insight. Go back to that customer looking for a classic chardonnay. No matter how well written the wine list is, there’s always a chance they’ll point to a bottle of chardonnay made without sulfur, matured in a clay amphora, kinda funky and reductive, and very tart. .

This is where a good waiter or sommelier might say, “this is a great chardonnay, but if you’re looking for something classic, check out this one that has that bit of oak and butteriness you might be looking for”.

Or even better, vice versa, a good waiter or sommelier can read someone who is after a bit of adventure and can suggest something that has those classic notes, but takes the drinker somewhere else. This is really where you get added value as a diner in a restaurant.

How did you get into the industry?

I have been surrounded by wine most of my life. Wine has always been part of our family life. It was normal to have a bottle of something from Bandol en Provence at our table, long before many people knew or cared what it was.

But it never really occurred to me that I could do anything professional with wine, until after a “not great” semester at UC Santa Cruz pursuing my literature degree American.

I got a scholarship in a culinary program in the Languedoc region in the south of France. The best thing is that the school found me an internship as part of the curriculum, as an assistant sommelier – I was a cellar rat! – in a restaurant in a ski resort in the French Alps.

This is where wine went from something just there to add a bit of sparkle to your dinner, to something nuanced and intriguing, and something people really took seriously as a hobby and a career.

For a month I did nothing but fill water glasses, but I loved watching the head sommelier help people choose wine, and people react to his tasting – and then being able to try all these remarkable wines after the service. I was hooked.

When I got home, I finished my papers at the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS), but I was ultimately uncomfortable with how male and female applicants were treated differently, and how , especially for women, appearance was considered a virtue alongside hard work. and professional knowledge.

That’s part of how I found my way into the then flourishing world of natural wine, where people cared much more about my knowledge of wines from the French Alpine regions than how I did my makeup. I haven’t looked back.


Caitlin and I chatted over a bottle of Clos du Tue-Boeuf, Frileuse, which is a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon from Loire Valley natural wine icon, Thierry Puzelat.

We found it on the list of a great Puffin natural wine bar in Wellington (it’s a bit rare at the moment, so best to contact the Maison Vauron importers).

A little funky to start with, which quickly changed in the glass and proved delicious with soft cheeses and dips. Toss it a bit in a carafe before drinking it.

Block Chardonnay from Neudorf Rosie, $45

You’ll have to wait until the 2021 vintage is bottled to try the Amphora Aged Chardonnay ‘Rosie’s Block – 25 Rows’. In the meantime, get your hands on this one before it also sells out.

As mentioned by Caitlin, an already great chardonnay producer, pushing in new directions. Super drinkable at this price too.

Château de Mérande, Her Highness Dogfish $44

From the French Alps where Caitlin first found inspiration to pursue a career in wine.

Chateau de Merande makes classic examples of unique wines from the Savoy region at reasonable prices. An excellent starting point for an incursion into this relatively unknown region.

About Michael Brafford

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