South African restaurant winelists: Strengths and weaknesses

October 27, 2014
by Anna Trapido
in Opinion & Analysis
with 1 Comment

As the editor of a major restaurant guide, I’ve eaten in many, many restaurants this year. Most of the time this is a lovely thing to do but it does diminish that “special treat” feeling that going to a restaurant ought to engender. I have begun to see patterns where others see once-off occasions. It’s the difference between being a doctor who treats individual patients and an epidemiologist who looks at the configuration of disease in populations. A doctor participates in the fear of diagnosis, the joy of recovery and the personal pain of death. An epidemiologist sees the incidence of disease as a trend. Society needs doctors and epidemiologists but they are different.

Comparing restaurant reviewing to infectious disease control in the midst of an Ebola epidemic is beyond tasteless. All I am trying to say is that those who are engaging with individual restaurant experiences can benefit from knowing what is going on at a national level. You see individual wine lists, I see a flow chart of possible problems. In what follows, I have tried to play epidemiologist and doctor i.e. engage with general trends and cite specific examples.

Those on a dinner date are often appalled at restaurant wine-list price markups. As someone who has literally eaten out more than most people have had hot dinners I would argue that some eateries have earned every penny added on to the wholesale cost and others have absolutely not done so. The average bottle of wine in a restaurant costs about twice the retail price. So what should we, the dining public, expect to get in return for the markup?

A wine list in its simplest incarnation is just a catalogue of inventory but it can (and almost always should) be so much more. The potential for a wine list to give pleasure cannot be judged by its length. Some short lists are deliciously focused while some long lists lack imagination. Whether it is one loose sheet or a leather-bound, multi-page volume, a great wine list will advance an establishment’s philosophy of eating and drinking. Diners shell out extra money for wine in a restaurant because they are paying someone skilled and well-connected for their time and their networks which allow them to select treasures that can’t necessarily be bought in the bottle store. They are also paying a premium for the proper serving and storing of said treasures. They are hoping to benefit from thoughtful food pairing advice. In short, they are attempting to buy an epicurean experience that few can create at home.

What constitutes an epicurean experience is largely subjective but there are reach out and touchable aspects integral to the realization/failure to realize this abstract state of pleasure. A restaurateur has definitely not earned the wine markup when cleanliness is lacking in a wine list. Before a diner gets to the content of a wine list they generally need to pick it up. Often tactile contact can be off-putting. On my last visit to Geet in Pretoria, the covers of the wine list were sticky and stained with handling marks (www.geetindianrestaurant.com). Geet’s local and international selection is good and there is also a useful guide to pairing Indian food and European wine but sticky spoils the mood.

Reach-out-and-touch extends to the feel of a glass on the lips. Grim, thick rimmed glasses do not encourage the enjoyment of fine wine. At Thomas Maxwell Bistro in Johannesburg the stemware does not do justice to the wine on offer (www.thomasmaxwell.co.za). It seems that the glasses are optimised for survival in the dishwasher and/or by handling by butter-fingered staff. Customer mouth-feel has been forgotten.

Whilst on the topic of glasses, wine by the glass is an essential aspect of modern eating out. The one white, one red thing doesn’t work anymore. Time is increasingly short, there is greater awareness of the role of alcohol in road accidents and the way diners chose to socialise around a restaurants table is rapidly changing. At the posh-nosh end of the spectrum, the rise of the tasting menu has seen the kind of multiple course meals that would have diners under the table if they tried to finish a bottle per plate. More casual cuisine is increasingly abandoning the traditional Western course-by-course, predictable, pre-ordained journey of one-person dishes.

Many modern meals see all the plates arriving at the same time and being put in the centre of the table for sharing in whatever way takes the diner’s fancy. The variety of tastes, textures and cooking methods involved mean that a wine that works for item may not work with another. Asians have always eaten like this so by the glass is cross culturally easier for all.

Even when the lists are not sticky and the glasses are good, many a fine wine list has been damaged by poor presentation. Emily’s in Cape Town is an iconic champion of South African cuisine (www.emily-s.com). The restaurant has a huge selection (over 800 bottles) of local and international wines listed with vintages and food-pairing suggestions. There are many by-the-glass offerings. The wine list is also notable in holding many older vintage wines at very good prices. All of the above is undermined by the wine list layout with its scruffy mismatched typography. Even nastier than multiple fonts is scratching out. At Alfie’s in Pretoria (where the Italian food is superb) most of the Italian wines have been crossed off with a ball point pen (www.alfies.co.za).

Examples of wines being spelt incorrectly or incorrectly categorised in terms of region, varietal and year are too numerous to mention. Even when descriptions are factually correct, they are often unclear and lack the information that a diner needs to receive the type of wine they are trying to buy.

Then there are those menus that are clean, clear and broadly accurate but for the fact that many of the wines on the list are not actually in the restaurant. Sheikh’s Palace Lebanese restaurant in Johannesburg has a legendary wine list (www.sheikhspalace.co.za). The current wine offering purports to include Chateau Petrus 1996, Chateau Margaux and Cristal Rosé 1995. Although it is a list which looms large in the popular imagination, anyone trying to order such a bottle is told that they are stored off site. I have never had the means to order Chateau Petrus but on a recent visit to Assagi in Johannesburg, I encountered a wine list which seemingly included a good selection of local and especially Italian wines – but the first three wines I selected were out of stock. (www.assagi.co.za).

Good wine lists tell a story. They articulate a restaurant’s vision. Sometimes this story is literally told by the sommelier/ wine director. Patson Mathonsi at dw eleven-13 in Johannesburg is the finest example of this type of wine service (www.dw11-13.co.za).

At other times the story is apparent from the selections and omissions. At French Connection, Chef-patron Matthew Gordon keeps an extensive Franschhoek-focused wine and craft beer list which fits with his locavore food purchasing policies (www.frenchconnection.co.za).

Sometimes it is a story of wealth and power. At Johannesburg’s Signature, the raison d’être of the restaurant is conspicuous consumption in every sense of the phrase (www.signaturerestaurant.co.za). The list is almost exclusively made up of big name estates with steep mark-ups. It would be unfair to criticise the mark up (which is considerably higher than the norm) because the customers actively encourage the excess.

The Test Kitchen

An “innovative, exclusive winelist” at the Test Kitchen.

Wayve Kolevsohn, Sommelier at The Test Kitchen has created an innovative, exclusive list for an innovative, exclusive food offering (www.thetestkitchen.co.za). The wine list at the Test Kitchen includes bottles that are all but impossible to find elsewhere because they were made in limited quantities. She emphasises great examples of lesser known wines ready to be drunk over older vintages from historic Cape estates and is not afraid to venture outside of the traditionally favoured regions.

Telling someone else’s story is tricky. When wine lists are written by people not directly involved in the restaurant there is often a mismatch. A restaurateur has definitely not earned his markup when he allows a distributor to “write” the list. Usually this practice results in generic, wines that suit the economic interests of a sales rep. Sometimes laziness/ lack of wine knowledge on the part of a chef are to blame but, more often than not, deals are done whereby wholesalers give discounts and cover the costs of printing. The average consumer has no idea that the wine list is dominated by one distributor. This method of wine list collation tends to serve up a one-size-fits-all selection which seldom fits anyone. At best such lists are packed with predictable, “screensaver” wines – harmless background offerings. At worst, the wines actively clash with the food style.

The one-size-seldom-fits-all problem is most marked in Indian restaurants. Jeera at the Suncoast Hotel in Durban is a superb South African Diaspora Indian restaurant with a wine list that offers standard hotel stuff, all of which would be fair for the Eurocentric restaurants within the hotel group but is not at all food-friendly for Jeera (www.tsogosunhotels.com). A single Riesling, one Gewürztraminer (neither of which are available by the glass) and one Indian beer are the best fits but there are pages and pages of unsuitably heavy reds. Such wine lists reinforce the erroneous but commonly held view that curry and wine make a poor pairing. It doesn’t have to be this way. At Bombay Brasserie at the Taj Hotel in Cape Town there has been a serious and largely successful attempt to engage with the flavour profile of the eastern food (www.tajcapetown.co.za/blog/dining/bombay-brasserie).

When it comes to the beverage options of Indian restaurants it would be unfair to put all the blame on those who write the wine lists. Even when there are food-friendly options there is a great deal of customer resistance. Curry friendly wines are by and large off-dry, fruity or fizzy which are not necessarily the ones diners most want to drink.

Whether a wine list should extend beyond wine (and indeed the definition of wine) is a matter for debate but it cannot/ should not be assumed that wine is automatically a better food pairing choice than other liquid offerings. At Shilla Korean restaurant in Pretoria there is a European style wine list but many diners prefer to drink aromatic, slightly sweet Soju Korean rice wine (012 346 3260, no web presence). Tej honey wine complements the tart dairy ayeb cheese and subtle berbere spices in Ethiopian food. Craft beer pairings are increasingly popular.

Those who do not drink alcohol should not be excluded from the process whereby drinks add to the restaurant experience. Ottoman Palace restaurant (inside the Turkish mosque in Midrand) offers a strictly halaal drinks menu which superbly complements the food (079 422 8168; no web presence). Cherry juice, pomegranate cordial, Tatlisi Aran yoghurt drink, Turkish tea and coffee more than make up for the lack of alcohol. The older waiters can and do make beverage and food pairing suggestions with aplomb.

In Durban, The Snack Bar at Spice Emporium pairs the likes of South Bihar pan puri semolina croquettes filled with chickpeas, green moong with chai gold elaichi tea, limbu pani lemonade (with a hint of black salt) or Thandai almond, rose, cardamom and pepper infused milk (www.spiceemporium.co.za).

The Test Kitchen is one of the few high-end restaurants to consider the plight of non-boozers with their superb food and tea pairing tasting menu. In many instances such pairings require more skill because those on the wagon are not judgement impaired by their choice of beverage.

Restaurants such as Bombay Brasserie, Test Kitchen, Snack Bar and are leading the way with non-sticky, restaurant specific lists. In epidemiological terms there is a high prevalence (existing cases) of wine lists where the markup cannot be justified but my research suggests that there is an encouraging downward trend in the incidence (new cases) of such disappointments.

  • Anna Trapido is the editor of Diners Club Rossouw’s South African Restaurant Guide 2015.

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One Comment

  1. Julian RichfieldOctober 27, 2014 at 5:25 pmReply

    Anna Trapido’s article superbly combines her erudition, expertise and constructive criticism.

    This article is a must read for those in the hospitality sector and those wineries who sell to them.

    How your wine is listed is part of the “sell” and needs to be done with care.

    Trapido’s article is much needed advice and I hope she produces more like this.

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