We’ve all been there. You’re shown to your table. You’re feeling good. Then the wine waiter (or sommelier) appears with the wine list. The table goes quiet as everybody prays that the inevitable game of pass the parcel doesn’t end with the leather bound tome in their lap. As the wine list circulates, waves of pressure and an air of intimidation sweep across the white linen. But hold on, why should one person in a black suit carrying a book cause so much hassle on what should be a relaxing night out with friends?
I’ve been travelling the world’s vineyards recently, from Milan to Madrid, from Brisbane to Bordeaux and, guess what, this fear of the wine waiter is universal. These guys in black create sweaty palms the world over. Just how crazy is that? Let’s lead an international campaign to put the pleasure back into eating out! Standing up to wine waiters, helping to change wine lists and simply asking simple questions would take the ‘rant’ out, and put the ‘rest’ back in to your restaurant experience.

Don’t get me wrong: There are some super, customer-friendly wine waiters who put you at your ease. Thumbs up! But why are others so snooty? I’ll let you in on a secret. Once you remove the cellophane wrap, many snooty wine waiters aren’t as knowledgeable as they’d have you believe. So, don’t be afraid to challenge and engage them. Ask them questions. If you have a price limit don’t be embarrassed to tell them; don’t forget that if they were in your seat they’d also know how much they could afford.

Restaurant wine lists also need an overhaul. How can they do that? For a start, make them shorter and simpler. You don’t need an inch thick, leather bound list bulging with Chateaux this, Domaine that, bodegas, cantinas, fincas and quintas. We’re out for a memorable meal with friends; not to spend half an hour ploughing through a wine novel in a foreign language.  

Just one page expertly written can put customers at ease, help them to make their choice with confidence and increase their enjoyment whilst boosting the restaurant’s bank account at the same time. It’s win-win situation for both diner and restaurant.

Let’s be honest, when we open a wine list our eyes flash straight to the price. With this in mind, one of the cleverest London lists is at Little House in Mayfair. It’s a one pager and has three whites and three reds in each of the £25, £30, £35, £40 and £50 categories. That’s fifty total wines, so there’s lots of choice. It also includes wines by the carafe and glass and, if you want to push the boat out, you can ask for their £50+ list. Brilliant!

Recently, I was staying at a Hotel du Vin, part of the unique UK boutique hotel chain and was pleased to see a selection of their wines also offered in very handy 500 ml. carafes. The easy-to-read, reasonably priced, one page card leads you effortlessly off the well worn Chablis-Sancerre-Chateauneuf du Pape track and into the challenging realms of Spain’s white Albarino grape from Rias Baixas ($30 for 500 ml. carafe), to California’s Santa Barbara vineyards for a very quaffable Pinot Noir ($40 for 500 ml. carafe). Bravo.

Another welcome move away from the traditional but so often confusing ‘wine by country’ are ‘wines by style’ lists. Categories such as ‘zingy whites’, ‘rich, powerful reds’ and ‘creamy whites’ ring a bell with customers and help them choose a wine to match their food. This stylish approach linked to grape varieties also gets my vote.   

We can also do without lists that spout long, flowery, repetitive, wine trade lingo. A few meaningful words, carefully chosen, can work miracles and educate the customer at the same time.

I’ve just returned from taking a small group of CEO’s to Champagne. We dined at the 2 star Michelin Le Parc restaurant within the celebrated Relais & Chateaux ‘Les Crayeres’. To eliminate the wine list wobbles, Chef Phillipe Mille has created three differently priced menus that include a different wine with each course -- no hassle, and no pass the parcel. It’s good to see that this set menu format so well established in small hostelries is gaining popularity in top restaurants too.   

I was recently with a client in a ‘posh’ London restaurant adding a little ‘between course wine entertainment’ to his stylish networking table when one his overseas guests handed me the bulky wine list. “Come on, where do I start?” he asked. It was a confusing, gobbledegook ‘wine by region’ heavyweight so I suggested he turn the pages to countries that represented value for money. Spain, (regions like Valdepenas, Somontano, Catalonia, Andalucía, Rueda), Portugal, (Douro, Alentejo, Dao, Bairrada), Italy, (Marche, Abruzzo, Puglia, Sicily), South Africa, Argentina and Chile are good starting points. The advice hit the spot as the guests really enjoyed the wines and the stories they held whilst my happy client saved a packet on the bill.

One far sighted restaurateur has asked me to put my money where my mouth is by creating a ‘John Downes MW, Master of Wine, Personal Selection’ wine list. The ‘keep it simple’ one page folding card comprises eight white, eight red, eight New World, eight Old World wines covering all price points and giving a helpful snapshot of the wine. It’s the first point of call for diners, has no fear factor, and offers great wines at a glance. His accountant is very happy too, I’m told!  

One more tip. It saves a lot of stress if you check the restaurant wine list online before you leave home; you’ll choose better wines, relax, have longer to chat and, dare I say it, impress you friends at the same time. The wine waiter will also be impressed but probably won’t show it – sadly some are reluctant to let their masks slip!
As you’ve probably guessed, I find many wine lists pretty useless. But it doesn’t have to be like that. My new campaign, is to promote simple, short, exciting lists around the world which include the expected and the unexpected, engage the diner and tell enough about the wine to titillate but not frighten.

Come to think of it, some restaurants must be the only businesses that strive to do just that - frighten off the customer! It’s crazy but nothing surprises me in the wine trade … wine list hell is simply part of the global “I’d like to know more but I’m too afraid to ask” wine culture. Come on all you Snoothers, we can change all that! Spread the word!

John Downes, one of only 320 Masters of Wine in the world and is a speaker, television and radio broadcaster and writer on wine. Check out John’s website at www.johndownes.com. Follow him on Twitter @JOHNDOWNESMW