Plus a critical case of natural wine vapours…
Note: these are the opinions of Doug Wregg and do not reflect those of Les Caves de Pyrene as a company.
Every time Jay Rayner mentions wine in his Observer restaurant column a fairy falls down dead from shock. Not just on account of his splenetic perorations about natural wine, but a shock generated by the fact that restaurant critics (as a genre) so seldom refer to wine in any way, shape or form in their columns.
Drink is no trifling detail, however; it is an integral part of dining. Examine your bill next time and calculate the proportion spent on drink versus food. If we suppose an average of 40% is spent on wine and drink then why should not even a fraction of a review be dedicated to the subject? It’s more than tad daft that a fundamental part of the enjoyment of the evening for so many people (drinking) does not rate a mention.
Where wine lists are mentioned, observations are ill informed, plain mistaken and downright crass.
The restaurant critic might postulate that wine is not a variable like food and service and therefore has little to do with the overall quality of the restaurant. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wine is an artisan product and needs to be sourced, tasted and selected with as much discernment as fish, meat or cheese. A good wine enhances the meal; a bad wine leaves a bad taste in the mouth literally and figuratively. Amongst the many questions that could and should be tackled by a competent reviewer is an appreciation of the overall quality and originality of wine list. Does it accord with the food and the style of the restaurant? Many wine lists focus on one region or a few grape varieties. Does the list specialise in any regions? Is there a good selection of wines by the glass? What’s the house wine like? Is the wine served properly (nice glasses, appropriate temperature)? Is the wine service generally informed/clueless/ helpful? Are the mark-ups reasonable or grasping? Other notable points (good beers, interesting eaux de vie etc)? There is certainly plenty to write about.
Certain reviewers may write as if they are inebriated but it will be only on their own verbosity and the heady draft of contempt.
As one restaurateur mischievously confided to me: “One reviewer can’t drink, one doesn’t drink and another can’t remember what he drank.” Most restaurant columns, particularly in the weekend newspapers, are primarily style features or digressive soliloquies doused with self-amused solipsism. Writing may be a form of entertainment but there is the occasional duty to inform as well, to give bouquets to the worthy and brickbats to the incompetent. Certain reviewers may write as if they are inebriated but it will be only on their own verbosity and the heady draft of contempt. The fact that he doesn’t drink means that wine will never figure in his column. And the critic who never imbibes is a bit like a vegetarian in a restaurant that specialises in steak. Even the more knowledgeable writers tend only refer to the wine in the context of the general mileage of drink that they have clocked up on the bill. It may be that the palate of the average critic is heavily geared towards describing food; they don’t taste wine in an equally analytical way, and because they feel uncomfortable with the language of wine, would rather not commit themselves to describing it at all.
Where wine lists are mentioned, observations are ill informed, plain mistaken and downright crass. Ignorance can take forms such as, for example, criticising a restaurant for selling a Pinot Grigio at a certain price without ascertaining the name of the producer. Reviewers will have little or no idea of what restaurants pay for wine (unless those wines happen to be branded), yet when they do mention the subject, pontificate happily about margins without knowing about break-even points. There is, dare one say, a largely lazy, amateur approach to reviewing highlighted by a lack of curiosity and poor quality of research.
Many restaurants, conversely, are highly professional concerning wine, employing sommeliers, specialist managers, even consultants, or sending their staff on courses. It is good for them to know that this outlay has been repaid. By not mentioning wine at all there is no way of differentiating a restaurant that is passionate about its product and sells it intelligently and one that takes little care or interest.
There is, dare one say, a largely lazy, amateur approach to reviewing highlighted by a lack of curiosity and poor quality of research.
Eating out as a sacramental balance, the holy trinity of good food, good wine and good service. Whilst the food critics ignore wine it will continue to be seen as a separate issue rather than part of the whole experience of eating out. Meanwhile restaurateurs would prefer to be appreciated or criticised on their merits, and when the wine list is a merit, then that should be advertised. My modest proposal is to encourage restaurateurs to club together to send reviewers on an intensive wine course. A little learning may be a dangerous thing, but it’s better than nothing.
Which leads us to the latest Jay Rayner intervention, waving his natural wine schtick. Increasingly over-ripe for parody JR’s now finding himself on distinctly schticky ground. To some extent one may take his utterances with a healthy dose of sulphur powder – he only does it to annoy because he knows it teases etc, but whereof he knows not, thereof doth he fulminate. Noisily. And it’s now very boring. All this repetitive handwringing makes him sound like a crustifarian bemoaning the mores of the yoof of today.
My modest proposal is to encourage restaurateurs to club together to send reviewers on an intensive wine course.
I think it is fine for a restaurant to advertise the fact that its wine list is compiled according to specific criteria. If the emphasis is on naturally-made wines, then the intention evidently is to appeal to customers who enjoy hand-crafted rather than industrial wines. That is not a problem. The art of the skillfully-assembled wine list is rather to have a range of choice of naturally-made wines, to take account of diverse moods and tolerances.
Jay Rayner associates winemaking with dogma, as if to say vignerons are content to make faulty wines out of perverse political choice. In the world of wine there are indeed faulty wines (conflating natural with faulty, however, is lazy journalism); there are also extreme styles, and then there are wines that taste straight as a dye – and every style and shade in between. To ignore this wide spectrum is to demonstrate the slenderest of knowledge of the facts.
Thereafter it boils down to the actual wine in the bottle/glass and how we respond individually to its charms or otherwise. Wine will be (should be) unpredictable – unless it is made according to denaturing recipe and therefore can never be more than it is. What Rayner may find offensive or undrinkable I might find singular and captivating; what he believes is acceptable and commercial, I might think is totally undrinkable. Even so, to generalise about natural wines as if they are all much-of-a-muchness, shows a complete lack of understanding about wine, both about how it is made, and how it may taste.
To ignore this wide spectrum is to demonstrate the slenderest of knowledge of the facts.
Rayner’s operatic dislike of natural also begs the question whether he judges food by the same criteria. One assumes that he is a fan of unpasteurised cheese – so a smelly runny camembert is not only acceptable, it should be the very raison d’etre of the cheese. And game – should one not expect it to smell – and taste – gamey? Should we tolerate tripe and andouillette? Maybe the Durian fruit is somehow incorrect for being what it is? For someone who probably has unpasteurised food taste-preferences, Rayner seems to go for the full homogenisation-hog on his wine choices. They are his wine choices, but let’s not pretend they are any more sophisticated than those of the person who says: “I don’t know much about wine, but I know what I like.” Instead he adopts the predictable position of one who doesn’t know (or care to know) why low-intervention wines have become so popular, which is to attribute it to some sort of misguided hipster chic.
There are two clear choices for restaurant (and wine) critics. One is to entrench yourself in your prejudices; the other is to try new things with an open mind and certain humility, maybe even to do a little research into the subject. Mark Twain said: “Write what you know.” I would say: “Find out about what you don’t know and give yourself authority to write.”