Home Opinion & Analysis

Tim James: Two restaurants, two winelists

12
SHARE
Janse & Co
“Designer chic” – the Janse & Co interior.

Anna Trapido remarked in her review of Epicure that “In recent years South African diners have become accustomed to parsimonious restaurant wine lists. Two-page affairs with limited choice and little information beyond price are now the norm.” Two pages would allow very wide spacing for the winelist at the smart restaurant I went to in Cape Town earlier this week – Janse & Co on Kloof Street. There are just 35 wines: 11 white, 2 pink, 16 reds, 3 sparkling. All local, the mark-ups not outrageous, all current releases; at least the vintages are given, which is, unfortunately, far from the rule. It’s a decent range of wines, though you’d have thought that they could have found space for a chenin, given its status in contemporary Cape wine. But in terms of size, unimpressive for a fairly expensive restaurant. The glassware is very good, I should add; and the waitress offered to decant my wine (and then had to do so as the cork broke when she was opening it – but that can easily happen, I suppose).

Corkage? Well, there’s a little story. Having checked on the website that I was allowed to bring a bottle, and noted the fee of R100 (maximum one bottle per four people), I took along a wine that I felt honoured to drink – one that some restaurants might even be flattered to welcome: Duhart-Milon Pauillac 2005 (it proved excellent, approaching its prime).

When I put it on the table I was promptly warned that the corkage was going to be R250. Huh? I pointed out what was quoted on the website. Oh, the man said (manager or maitre-d’, perhaps), the rate was changed today. I murmured something, as you might imagine, and he agreed gracefully enough that the restaurant would honour the advertised charge.

As a matter of fact the website is still, three days later, advertising a corkage charge of R100. Was the man mistaken? Ignorant? Making it up as he went along?  Wouldn’t you anyway have thought that R100 is enough to charge, when you’re offering diners a miserably small selection of current-release wines?

The food, incidentally, was imaginative and good. The rather small helpings (somewhere between a standard starter and a standard main course, I’d say) meant that the waitress was not being unreasonable when she suggested we might well want to have four or five courses – the minimum order is three (R385) going up to seven (R785). Beautifully plated they were, though it’s not easy to eat bitty food with a knife and fork when it’s lurking at the bottom of a fairly deep bowl – but, gleaming down there, it looked fantastic. And the restaurant itself is very designer-chic and handsome: mostly done in matt black, with artful lighting. As it was not too cold, I won’t complain about the blast of evening wind that hit me in the back every time someone opened the door to the patio when going for a smoke or whatever. Every restaurant has a problematic table or two – unless, of course, the designer also takes mundane things like that into as much account as the decorative impact of the lighting.

For my second restaurant experience of the last week I move from inner-city chic to easy-going suburbia; well into my comfort zone and a familiar, regular pleasure: A Tavola in Claremont. A wide range of good Italian trattoria food, invariably flavourful and well cooked (the pasta a teeny bit past al dente, but that’s what most locals want, apparently) – not exactly exquisite, but it’s not meant to be, and the prices are moderate (thus endearing itself to us Capetonian southern-suburbanites, who generally don’t like paying much for dining out). Most of the excellent waiting staff have been there for many years – great testimony to various things I approve of.

If the winelist at A Tavola had been at Janse & Co, I’d have been impressed. It’s not vast – Anna’s two pages (two columns per page) would accommodate it. But it’s a list of interesting, excellently chosen wines, the work of one of the owners, David Haupt, who’s often to be seen at wine-tastings and knows well what he’s doing. Plenty available by the glass; and there’s a good selection of foreign stuff (mostly Italian) – affordable enough to tempt and reward a mildly adventurous suburbanite. There are a few older vintages (unfortunately not all the vintages are given on the list). Markups are modest, especially for the foreign selection and the “Cellar Selection” – where else in Cape Town will you find Alheit Cartology 2015 for R425, or Beaumont Hope Marguerite 2015 for R395? That’s ridiculously cheap (check the retail). Oh, and the corkage is soon to go up to R70 per bottle, and there’s never the slightest attempt to make customers feel there’s a problem in bringing their own bottles.

It’s almost as though A Tavola want to encourage diners to have a great experience including wine, and that they think they should be making profit from food rather than drink. Weird, perhaps – but I wish others could be lured into similar oddities. I also wish that more would acknowledge that, if you’re not storing wine for more than a short period, and only stocking current releases, there is no excuse to not have a decent choice available at reasonable prices.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I recently had occasion to take an aperitif at No Reservations and then eat at Chefs Warehouse & Canteen in Bree Street and while the food was excellent, I thought the wine list was erratic in terms of the quality on offer (and again short but perhaps unreasonable to expect a “canteen” to have a very long list). Surely it’s not that difficult for our best restaurants to stock our best wines?

  2. I recently visited A Tavola for the first time. I brought a bottle of Skurfberg with me, and was actually tempted to leave it unopened when I saw the winelist (reflecting now, I wish I had). A great selection, and yes, ridiculously cheap.

  3. The restaurants who “get it” in terms of the fact that you may not actually be skimping when taking your own wine, but rather seeking out food worthy of pairing with an aged / special bottle which they are not likely to have on their list, are few and far between. The number of times I have encountered waiters / sommeliers who make a point of letting you know how lucky you are they will allow you to drink your own bottle is embarrassing (even on condition of tasting it). Ironically it is often the restaurants with the best wine lists (including back vintages) that do get it and actually engage with you on wine rather than turn it into an issue (Aubergine and Rust en Vrede for e.g.). Yes there is corkage, but not a hint of making you feel uncomfortable. Tip: if you want regular returning (local) customers even out of season, follow their lead. I do not see either of the above mentioned having to offer winter or spring specials to keep things ticking over.

    • Well said, Matt. Most restaurant owners are disconcertingly ignorant of wine. Strange, concerning their choice of profession… They don’t want to spend on training or hiring of sommeliers, but they want to charge listing fees and high markups for a pathetic wine offering. 🤔

      • As usual an excellent article by Tim and always good to read Kwisp’s opinions. The owner of ‘my’ restaurant is mad about good wine. But it really does matter who your clientele are. We have a (too?) large wine list (which is partly why we don’t permit BYO), most of which is just for show considering our top sellers are (without knocking them) Buiten Blanc, Durbs Sauvignon Blanc, Simonsig Chenin and the ilk. A main course with us ranges from R98 to R225. Business model rules as well I’m afraid. We pay a huge rental and have done so for the past 16 years (one more part of why no BYO). Hence the top-sellers (the least expensive!) and offerings by the glass (24) receive large mark-ups. But the more expensive the wine, the lower the margin. We train our staff regularly but don’t believe we can justify paying a Som given our sales mix. Management gets around the floor to encourage guests to be more adventurous (and spend more!) especially with summer approaching when 80% of wine sales is white and 80% of that is Sauvignon Blanc! Deluxe restaurants should have deluxe wine lists for sure. Listing fees should be banned in my opinion. It’s a horrendous practice. Keep up the good work Tim, Kwisp.

  4. Great to see a review around the wine offerings of restaurants – list, glassware and all. Nice work.

    In fairness, I see the Janse team are really into wine and attend many tastings and give a good mark up relative to most, and they rotate offerings. They are both venues taking a real interest in providing delicious wines and should be applauded. A Tavola have been at it longer and I can only think of Black Sheep Restaurant as a contender for quality and choice vs value of the wine.

    It’s a tough comparison, though granted the corkage topic is a taint…

    A Tavola is a golden example for successful casual dining in suburbia, where you can build a point of difference through the wine program and service, and receive a wider audience and better patronage. Other restaurants should take heed in balancing all the creative effort in their food menu, with their wine.

  5. As a small business owner, a passionate food and wine geek, as well as a frequent diner in restaurants, I am empathetic about the financial pressure on a restaurant. It is a well known secret that many fine dining establishments make their margins on alcohol.

    That said, I think it is perfectly reasonable for any restaurant to have a corkage fee that is equivalent to the profit on their cheapest bottle of wine. In some cases, that may look quite exorbitant to us patrons (and give away how much that cheap Sauvignon is marked up!), but then there would be no hard feelings or bottom lines for every bottle brought in from the outside.

    It is just bad form for a restaurant to give a customer a hard time for bringing in a special bottle of wine (or 4). In Neil’s case, if the owner would make the same profit per bottle as the cheap Sauv, and our dining experience is more memorable because we got to enjoy special wine, it would be a win win!

    But of course, these policies are often not to police those who pitch with a 2005 Bordeaux, it is for the cheeky bugs that bring their own cheap wine. But a minimum profit-based policy would sort those guys out too.

    • Well said Sam. Thankfully we do make exceptions for special occasions and for special bottles. It’s about balance after all and for keeping the punter who is spending his/her well-earned money happy. My fault for leaving that out.

  6. Neil, good to know I could bring one of my fancy wine next time we visit one of your restaurant!!! :)
    Although I also agree with your comments above as I respect the fact that you are really trying to propose an attractive wine selection in your restaurants.

    For Tim, the Duhard Millon 2005 is certainly one of my favourite Bordeaux, pity I drunk them all.

    As for Janse & Co, this is certainly and by far our worst fine dining experience in Cape Town. Microscopic portions at super high prices and most importantly a cuisine we really don’t understand.

  7. Kind of a strange comparison as they have entirely different offerings, but I can’t disagree with most of the conclusions or comments. Had a very, very poor meal at Janse. Dropped an absolute fortune and we left hungry and confused. By contrast, Chef’s Warehouse (all of them) shoot for a similar style, yet routinely knock it out the park.

    As for A’Tavola, they’re nothing short of brilliant. We take our own wine AND buy off their very impressive (and well priced) list. Usually ask them to bring whatever they think we should eat, and they never fail to impress. Most importantly though, It’s the one place where I don’t care how much I spend. An evening of great food, wine, company and service has that effect.

  8. Good to have Tim reflecting on the state of some restaurant wine lists and to read the responses. It is precisely for reasons like those reflected here and the fact that most wine lists at top restaurant establishments have never really received much attention that SAWi has this year embarked on a course to attend to such lists as part of the development of the SAWi World of Fine Wines through its RestaurateurVin Laureates (RVL). This stems from the fact that wine enthusiasts and the more discerned wine lover are eager to know more. It doesn’t help much to see some accolade displayed, year on year, which seems to have been issued almost willy-nilly, as we have found. SAWi criteria were designed from a patron’s point of view. We then engage with these restaurants to help them with their presentations and wine offerings in various ways (i.e. by rectifying shortcomings and adding more innovative ideas like pre-order tiny glass drink experiences etc.) which could take customers out of heir comfort zones to try something new too. This in itself requires other aspects to be added to the list. Instead of the long tasting descriptors usually found, I for one would rather like to see short wine style indicators (i.e. less ripe delicate versus riper expressions – just 5 to 10 words) which would help to make choices on long lists easier. Nevertheless, there is more about this on the SAWi website.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here