Help Steve Cuozzo navigate a wine list

Steve Cuozzo, restaurant critic for the NY Post, has a rant about wine lists today (“Sour Grapes“). He complains about “esoteric or pretentious” wine lists, filled with Greek wines and grapes he’s never heard of and producers he doesn’t know. Such lists leave him stumped and “at the mercy of a sommelier determined to teach you a thing or two, when all you want is a nice, affordable Bordeaux to go with chicken and summer greens.”

He sure plays a good curmudgeon! But he does have a point: wine can be overwhelming and it’s common to feel swamped when trying to navigate a wine list. Some diners may feel overwhelmed with any list while others, like Cuozzo, may have taken the training wheels off and feel comfortable with certain regions (though pairing Bordeaux with chicken and mixed greens does make the reader wonder about his palate–really, try the assyrtiko.).

All the places that Cuozzo describes in his column sound like they have serious wine programs with someone on staff who has created a wine list with some wines he or she is really excited about. Rather than feeling at the “mercy” of said person, Cuozzo would be best advised to engage that person in discussion about what’s good and what they would recommend with chicken and mixed greens, hear a bit of the story of those who made the wine or how it was made. Who knows, if he did that a few times, he might even learn a thing or two about them there “esoteric” varieties, and feel more comfortable ordering wine off of such lists himself. Then the grapes would not be sour to him, and he could offer advice to his readers about how sweet it is to be armed with a bit more wine knowledge.

What do you do when you encounter a wine list dominated by wines you don’t know much about?

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57 Responses to “Help Steve Cuozzo navigate a wine list”

  1. It doesn’t happen too often, since: (a) my wife and I don’t go out to dinner all that often; and (b) I know a lot about wines, particularly esoteric grape varieties and regions. But one time recently it did happen was on a visit to Quebec City, where the restaurant featured “natural wines” from France that even I had trouble deciphering. But the experience was great, since the server was really knowledgeable, and everything was available by the glass and to taste. And I felt comfortable taking advice from her.

  2. You know, I think he’s on to something. I hate it when I go to a Greek restaurant and I don’t know what bakaliaros tiganitos are. And when I go to a Japanese restaurant and I don’t know what tsukemono is. My beer is made with brettanomyces bruxellensis? What the hell is that?

    I vote we as a blogosphere and dining people boycott anything we don’t already understand. Who’s with me?

  3. I often look for something I haven’t heard of because it helps me justify paying the markup. I at least get a new experience. Otherwise, I’ll try to order something from a winery or region that I’ve visited because the memory helps make up for the inflated price. I’m ordering at the low end of the wine list, so the main objective is to avoid ordering something widely available at retail.

  4. If there is someone in the place that knows what is on the list and can discuss it, then it can be fun and educational (especially when paired with food). Otherwise I will go to the part of the list I am familiar with. I don’t want to pay restaurant prices to experiment with unfamiliar wine varieties or regions when I can do that on my own or with the help of a knowledgeable person at a good store.

  5. Steve is a first restaurant critic I’ve ever seen who doesn’t like to taste new wines and doesnt want to take sommelier recommendations. Wow.

  6. There’s much to say about your response to my column. But for starters: to “engage” the sommelier is often impossible. As often as not, the sommelier (or whoever’s supposed to know the list) isn’t even in the house — he or she is off junketing, doing TV or otherwise MIA. Usually in such cases, whoever’s on the floor doesn’t have a clue. Take if from a critic who’s witnessed the drill for 12 years.

  7. No worries here I only BYOB which I know not all states allow but I always know I have a good wine without paying a huge markup. I do respect the handful of restaurants that actually have a good list and a fair price but I have not seen one in the Twin Cities.

  8. Oh my, there are plenty of wines I know nothing about. If this expert does not know these wines, then we are in trouble!

  9. He may mean WHITE affordable Bordeaux 😉

    Yes some wine lists are pretentious just to be pretentious, but I can’t fault a Greek restaurant for carrying a large list of Greek wines, that is just wrong.

  10. Steve, you did not complain about not being able to talk to the som / wine list guru. You complained about the need to talk to them. It’s hard to fault Dr. Vino for responding to the article you actually wrote, as opposed to one you meant to write.

  11. I didn’t “fault” Dr. Vino for anything.

  12. There’s no way that his rant could be that intentionally retrograde. Perhaps the CIVB isn’t so clueless after all.

  13. I guess it all depends on where you go. My problem is usually that the wine list is to slim and boring. If the list is large, I usually can find something I like, but not necessarily at a price I like.

  14. Steve, that is the most closed-minded review I’ve ever read (bordering on “unprofessional”). Next time, try the Friday’s or Applebee’s.

  15. It depends on the restaurant. Once at a Greek restaurant I asked for a Greek wine that I had heard of, but they didn’t have it. I am unwilling to try unknown Greek wines. At another restaurant in town the wine list was filled with unknown wines and I didn’t want to go over each and every wine with the wine steward so I just closed my eyes and picked one.
    I like it when the wine list helps you out and groups the wines as light, medium bodied, etc. or just gives a little description on the list. I don’t much want to talk to a 21 year old waiter about it and I don’t want to be asked what kind of a wine I’m looking for. I just want to explore. This is supposed to be fun, not a gauntlet to run.

  16. I find some of Steve’s comments valid, although not being a normal reader of his column, his article seems to criticize more than critique which leans his writing more toward sensationalism rather than trying to instigate any sort of change.

  17. I would love to have Steve’s problem. Most of the wine lists I encounter are boring, predictable, ‘distributor-packaged affairs, with no input at from a sommelier. I would love to see a list of unfamiliar wines from eclectic grapes/regions/countries, especially when dining at foreign cuisine restaurants. He’s just having a spoilt-brat rant because he’s finding himself too frequently out of his comfort zone, and he’s the one publishing opinion to guide others in thier choices! Keep up, or, as another suggested, head down to Applebee’s.

  18. If I can get a gander at the list online, I can obviate my ignorance. But even then, I usually end up engaging the staff and getting steered toward the oddball grapes that so irk Mr. Cuozzo – this weekend, in Vedge in Philadelphia, I got pointed to a Nusserhof Lagrein that was a pure delight.

  19. Pretty pathetic rant. This man is supposed to be a professional food and wine person and he needs a list with recognizeable producers?
    Enjoy the Terlato’s Latest swill that they have bundled with Santa Margharita in the pay for play world of simple minded wine lists!
    Or maybe a dose of Some other dumbed down corporate wine that tastes the same whether it is from California, France, Spain or wherever.

  20. […] Steve Cuozzo in a rant about wine lists that leave him “stumped.” Tyler Colman solicits advice on how to help Cuozzo avoid […]

  21. In all fairness, no one ‘forced’ anyone to walk through the doors of the restaurant. Restaurants are not just businesses, the very good ones are often expressions of their owners’ interests. If you need more time to consider the list, consider ordering a beer.

  22. Even if the somm or wine director is absent, part of the responsibility in presenting an esoteric wine list is making sure your entire FOH staff is fluent in the selections. Challenging lists and listless waitrons is unfortunate, but hardly the norm.

  23. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for stopping by and offering a comment. I’d be delighted to hear what else you thought of my posting and the suggestions offered here in the comments.

    As to your specific gripe about absentee hed sommeliers and uniformed waitstaff, that’s a frustrating situation and one that I think many diners interested in wine have encountered. But you didn’t offer that critique in your piece; instead, you focused on the composition of the lists themselves that offer grapes and producers you are unfamiliar with and faulted them for that.

    Just out of curiosity, if a friend stopped by your place on a random weeknight at the dinner hour, what would he or she find you drinking? Also, how much do you like to explore new wines when you’re not “at the mercy” of (absent) sommeliers? Do you think food-wine pairing is overrated or have you found that a great wine can elevate food?

  24. Greek wines are too acidic and alkaline??? Quite the conundrum…

  25. Hi Dr. V — i’m amused to no end by the online bile which has poured forth over my column (on many sites in addition to yours). Most comments corroborate my view that writing on the subject is dominated by wine wonks who are out of touch with the real world of dining and drinking. They are out to show off their knowledge of what in the cabaret world is called the obscure repertory, which fascinates a tiny academic elite but puts paying audiences to sleep.

    I didn’t mention absentee sommeliers in my column because I didn’t have room. Newspapers, unlike blogs, have limited space. I had to leave out, for example, that Reynards “reasonably” priced list is full of exorbitant mark-ups, like La Ferme des Sept Lunes 2009, a Rhone Syrah, for which they charged us $72 but which retails for $16-20.

    My comment in no way contradicts the column; it’s clearly a “while we’re on the subject” tributary to the mainstream of my opinion. It was you who brought up the idea of “engaging” the sommelier, so I saw fit to comment on it.

    I LOL over those who mocked my notion of Bordeaux with chicken. They proved that ignorant snobbism based on an antiquated catechism of what’s permissible endures. They’d probably piss on the 1982 Lynch-Bages I had with The NoMad’s roast chicken with foie gras and black truffles. Or for that matter the wine list at Le Bernardin, where more diners order red than white to go with fish.

    If I was fortunate enough to be home more often, you’d find us enjoying all sorts of cheap but good vintages — sometimes (not always) well-known sauvignon blanc, chablis, pinot noir, sangiovese, etc, from US and elsewhere, typically retailing for $7-15.

    I hope this clears the air!


  26. The New York Post has a restaurant critic! You have to consider the source. We should be glad he’s encouraging his readers to drink wine.

  27. to Steve Cuozzo,

    As someone who works on the “esoteric” side of a wine and who sells to customers, I must say that we should be praised for our efforts in bringing lesser known wines to customers. If every restaurant were to take the easy route of familiar brand name wines, we would exist in a world of nothing but Bordeaux and Burgundy copy cats run by conglomerate wine corporations. Fortunately we have people who are uncovering treasured wines and regions and bringing small family wineries that may not be brand name but are exceptional gems and outstanding values. Of course Burgundy and Bordeaux and pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon should exist, but so should lagrein and scheurebe and fer servadou. The majority of restaurants have accessible lists full of almost only brand name wines, so it’s only fair that it should be balanced by restaurants with esoteric lists that offer an exciting alternative to the every day experience.

    I have been to Reynard’s and was in awe of their wine list, and a intelligent insightful sommelier helped me navigate wines on the list I did not know. But then, I am a curious person who likes to learn and explore and grow, not just dwell in the easy and familiar. Which also means I have taken time to explore wine and get to know regions and been willing to try something unfamiliar and unheard of. I’ve been willing to take the recommendation of a wine based on a comparison. I have taken “risks” and experimented. I remember the first time someone pushed me to try cabernet franc from the Loire valley. iIt was unique and exciting and interesting, and completely unlike all the cabernet sauvignon in California I was inundated with. And you know what it did? It inspired me to delve further into other wines that weren’t easy and simple and on every store shelf or restaurant list. Eventually the drive to explore and learn became so intense that I switched sides, from wine connoisseur to sommelier. And now that’s what I do. Someone’s esoteric wine list brought me to my dream job, and at the end of the day I don’t feel bad that someone helped support a small family farm in Liguria rather than a corporate brand in Tuscany.

    Your column was offensive to me, the industry I work in, and the families that work long and hard hours to maintain the traditions and history of their region by creating wines that are not of everyday name and grape. If you can’t understand that, perhaps you need stop frequenting “hip” restaurants and stay in your safe alcove with the fuddy duddies. If you really can’t enjoy the world of wine and all it has to offer, perhaps a career change or retirement should be near in your future.

  28. mr cuozzo,
    your ignorance is just amazing.. how can you blame sommeliers and costumers for your ignorance..? how can you blame people for having surpassed you in their wine knowledge? the fact that you want a regular bordeaux considering how the wine world has evolved lately probably means you should retire..
    good luck with that.

  29. […] hard it is to navigate wine lists where you have no familiarity with any of the wines or grapes. Dr. Vino jumps in and asks what do you do when you encounter a wine list dominated by wines you don’t know […]

  30. I truly cannot believe this piece from the Post. The other comments about cookie-cutter wine lists and boring offerings are too true.

    82 Lynch bags and roast chicken is splendid. In fact Cornas or Etna Rosso would be my go-to’s for the same dish though I wouldn’t toss well-aged Bordeaux by the wayside.

    It appears that Mr. Cuozzo may be protecting his job as he bashes the younger generation. The one that has moved to online media and away from traditional mediums. The generation of the future and one that is yearning for education and something new while still keeping a foot in the traditional. Hence the rise of craft beer as well.

    I would be interested to see what Mr. Cuozzo classifies as “esoteric.”

  31. From his column: “…That’s as useful as iTunes suggestions to buy a song based on something else you liked. Music doesn’t work that way; neither does wine.”

    I disagree. Music does work that way, and so does wine. I’ve spent a goodly part of my time on Earth talking to customers about what they like, and, based upon that information, trying to find wines they’ll enjoy. How else would you do it?

  32. Oh, and here’s the actual list, if anyone’s interested:

    Reynard wine menu

    Cool list, although some of the markups are just absurd. ($42 for Peyrassol rosé? Please!)

  33. You say, “I had to leave out, for example, that Reynards “reasonably” priced list is full of exorbitant mark-ups, like La Ferme des Sept Lunes 2009, a Rhone Syrah, for which they charged us $72 but which retails for $16-20.”

    Just to clarify, the Ferme des Sept Lunes wine on the Reynards menu is the Saint-Joseph, for which they charge $72, but which actually retails for $37. The $19 retail wine you’re thinking of is a less expensive vin de table Syrah made by the same winemaker called “Le Glou.”

    Twice the retail price is a pretty standard markup for restaurant wine, as steep as that may seem. And while it is understandable to confuse two wines made by the same producer, it seems to me that you should do a better job of fact-checking before you spread misinformation that might affect a business’ reputation.

  34. Steve,

    I know these esoteric wines are tough and confusing, but the retail price you cite for La Ferme des Sept Lunes 2009 is for their relatively inexpensive Vin de Table. If you want to step up for the (better) St. Joseph, you can find it in NYC retail at Flatiron for $36.99.

    Maybe Tyler can help you navigate these difficult issues.

  35. Sorry, Matt, my posting was interrupted by a call, and I crossed you.

  36. Interestingly, in an odd bit of synchronicity I just wrote a piece for my PB .com gig that posted yesterday, the subject of which is navigating wine lists.

    But I went the other way an interviewed a master somm to get advice, because my experience with sooms seems to be exactly the opposite of Cuozzo’s…

  37. But I do eat chicken with old Bordeaux from lighter vintages. ’81 Ducru and the roast chix, why not?

  38. I didn’t see this mentioned, and I don’t want to repeat some one else, but I think the real problem is that one man’s esoteric may be another man’s familiar and vice versa.

    In reading Steve’s article he mentions Bordeaux as a common item, but it’s important to remember that something as common to us as Bordeaux may be to the common person may be esoteric to them (a former roommate thought Bordeaux was a grape, but she’s not in the business nor does she drink wine.)

    I think the harsh, and slightly visceral, reaction to Steve’s article may be because some one in his (‘your’ if you’re reading Mr. Cuozzo) enviable position of making a living writing about something you care about is to make the esoteric familiar to those who read the column. To shy away from that and reject it is only to fail the readers.

  39. Yes, steve, we MUST explore nearly extinct varietals from Savoie. For the same reason that we must preserve art, or smell a flower, or close our eyes and taste a sauce. Sliding out of our comfort envelope under the guidance of practiced and instructed minds, the outliers in their vocation, that is the point of adventure and experience. If you would like only to eat and drink what you know, there are countless Applebees and Olive Gardens eagerly awaiting your reservation.

    Cheers to the voracious pursuit of the intangible. To the somms and chefs who give themselves to the craft. To our cherished moleskines filled with worn pages and scratchings of the great vintages, hidden gems, secret recipes and wild ideas. To the insanity that breeds innovation, and conjures greatness out of life’s most basic elements. To being the keepers of cherished knowledge and almost mystical skills of flavor and creation.

    Never stop creating. Ever.

  40. What do I do when I encounter a wine list dominated by wines I don’t know much about? I ask for guidance and then I try one. It’s just like going to a restaurant with a lot of food items that aren’t familiar to me. I ask the server. Who knows, I might have a great new experience. IF I don’t, then I just chalk it up as an educational experience.

    I think it’s kind of fun to learn about new wines and new food. There are a lot more places that offer filet mignon and Opus One than there are places that have new and exciting food items and wines.

    Steve, crawl out of your shell and branch out a bit. I’d be just as clueless about the food on a Greek menu as I would about the wine, but I ain’t scared.

  41. What do you do when you encounter a wine list dominated by wines you don’t know much about?

    I ask the Sommelier to do his/her job in pairing the wine with the meal to the best of their availability.

    I want to try it all before I die.

  42. that seems like a really well curated wine-list to me. i’m espescially surprised someone who drinks 82 Lynch-Bages would complain about the prices, because an ’82 Lynch Bages would be far and away the most expensive wine on that list.

    To answer the original question – when I encounter a list of unfamiliar wines, I look for a region I like and pick a price I am comfortable with. If it seems like the som is focusing on certain regions, I will give those some extra attention.

    For this particular list, I would go for a Gamay, Muscadet, or Sparkling wine in the $40-$50 range. Done. That was easy

  43. My master once instructed me about the dark forces of the NY Post. He also once said: “Drink gamay you must, for the beauty of wine in aromas and lightness it is.”

  44. Oh yeah! And who is still surprised with absurd restaurant markups on wine? Such an old rant, but very few folks doing anything about it. On that note, I’d rather pay that 42 sheckles for the rhone syrah, than for something ridiculous like Meridian pinot noir.

  45. Left to their own devices, how many teenage kids would read and come to love Tolstoy? Not many. Thankfully, there are professors, whom we pay to challenge us. Does Tolstoy suck? To a 19 year old kid who just tucked into his or her first chapter? Probably.

    Should we then leave Tolstoy to the elite, and celebrate instead books that speak to our laziest intellectual sensibilities? Of course not.

    Sommeliers should turn people onto new wines, when the wines are good and they work with the food. A wine list should be personal to the restaurant, and present value and excitement to the guest.

    A vocal minority of quality restaurants take their wine lists as seriously as their food. When a guest reserves a table at such a place, they had probably come prepared to (potentially) try something new. When they’re not in the mood to be challenged? They should go to the remaining 99.5% of restaurants in whatever city they reside, where on any given day, they may enjoy a warm glass of Acacia Pinot Noir with their ahi tuna tartare. Plain and simple.

    To whine about the lack of domestic/conventional wine (blah, blah – this got boring in Ellenbogen’s Slanted Door days) or what have you on a serious, mid-size list is entirely tantamount to throwing a tantrum when there’s no burger on the menu… or to the kid who thinks Tolstoy sucks.

    Your article sucks, Mr. Cuozzo.

    And who the hell says “wine wonk”?



  46. Dave – Thanks for the link to the Reynards wine list. I think it looks like so much fun that I’d have trouble deciding just one wine to order.

    Incidentally, Pete Wells reviews Reynards in the Times tomorrow. He doesn’t seem particularly bothered by the wine selection, calling it a deep “cellar of offbeat and affordable French wines,” adding that “indie French wines” preceded “weird and cool dessert wines.”

    I see Ryan Sutton at Bloomberg liked it too, calling it “lovely.”

    It’ll be interesting to see if the list is a good fit with the diners. I bet it will be.

  47. Yes, it does indeed seem as if CIVB has more to spend that the Greek Wine promotional body…
    Where is Steve Raye when you need him!

  48. I think Cuozzo makes some fair points in his column. What I cannot believe is that those points comes from a wine critic. That’s astonishing. He sounds like the less curious wine critic ever.

  49. It happens many times, in that case I prefer to ask for advice to the waiter. They usually know better, if they don’t know what to say then I go for price. I never take the cheapest but one among the 5 wines with lower price. This way I don’t feel like a fool by my lack of knowledge. BTW nice magazine!!


  51. Thanks for the opportunity to comment on Steve’s article since I don’t seem to be able to on its own site. I am very surprised and disappointed that a wine writer would submit such a piece. Almost all Greek wines at a Greek restaurant? Great! As others have said, is he also upset when he doesn’t recognize some offering of food on a menu? I relish the idea to learn about a new food or wine, and if they go together, all the better. I understand the point, but I think he takes it way too far, to the point of seeming absurd when coming from someone who writes about wine. Insulting people who put together thoughtful lists of wines that pair fantastically with the cuisine of the restaurant is really low. Catering to the lowest common denominator is a problem in so many areas, let’s not say it *should* also happen with wine.

  52. […] you remember Dr. Vino’s blog post about NY Post restaurant critic’s problem with the wine lists (they are too esoteric to his […]

  53. I like to find unique “unknowns” on wine lists; however the “unknowns” usually offer a great value to the consumer. Too bad many restaurants mark these “unknowns” up 5 times their cost. Do your customers a favor. Sell more wine = lower your mark-ups. We will all win!!
    Don in Beantown

  54. There are far too many great wines being produced from all over the world at various price points to be disappointed in any list. It is the vision of who ever does the buying to create a list that offers a broad selection of varieties/$/styles as long as there the staff is trained to relate certain lesser known selections’ style to more mainstream grapes i.e. pinot grigio, chardonnay, sauv.blanc, cab sauv, syrah and zinfandel. If you don’t know, you better ask somebody, that’s why certain restaurants have polished reputations and others are gimmicks. Service is quintessential regardless of how good the food is, and wine knowledge is encompassed in the subject of service. So please have a conversation, mention specifically your desired price point, and be prepared to have a memorable experience. It is the intention of any staff to give the people what they want regardless, so speak to them and let them guide you to what you’re gastronomic epiphany. Any do yourself a favor, please stop reading the new york post for restaurant reviews. This article is evidence that Mr. Cuozzo possesses sheltered tastes and seems content to live the rest of his life without discovering new experiences.
    Brian, Philadelphia

  55. @anon somm
    Your response to the original article is almost as offensive as the article itself. First off, you work in the hospitality industry and hospitality is not something that you’re putting off. Further, I agree with your point about wanting to support small farmers (I do too) but often times those wines are picked up/shipped/distributed by ENORMOUS companies that piss on the wines they sell. The Reynard list is not something to be in awe of. It’s one person’s work. And that work was respecting the ingredients she was working with. And as far as your little personal journey. No one cares about you and your opinions, you are writing a blog response and a somewhat boring one at that. Why don’t you go back and delve into that little realm of pineau d’aunis and cot. The most important thing you can do in your profession (the same as mine) is be hospitable and humble, LISTEN to your guests and offer them good advice. Although my list probably shares some 30 selections with Reynards, everynight I try to train my staff to focus their energy on guests happiness, not be so self-satisfied with my profession and how **GREAT** I am for having what I consider to be good taste in SOMEONE ELSE’S life’s work.

  56. […] also gets pummeled pretty harshly in the Dr. Vino blog, where author Tyler Colman criticizes him for being unwilling to learn about new wines. (Cuozzo […]

  57. Great blog! Sorry to get off subject, but since Nashville is getting a lot of press lately, I’d like to find a great sushi restaurant or Japanese restaurant in Nashville TN. Have you heard of any good ones? There’s a new one called Nomzilla Sushi Et Cetera, but I’ve only seen a few reviews. Here’s the address of this new Nashville Sushi Restaurant , 1201 Villa Place, Suite 101 Nashville, TN 37212 – (615) 268-1424. Thoughts? Thanks!


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