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A New Wave of Wine Lists

Things aren’t just white or red anymore

There’s a lot to know about wine. It’s not black and white (or rather red or white). So, perhaps in effort to organize the wine world’s abounding chaos in a digestible manner, until recently, most restaurant wine lists have been arranged in a pretty straightforward manner, with bottles divided by provenance, wine color, or grape varietal. But as a new class of younger, hipper sommeliers move in to restaurants from New York to Los Angeles, the once stodgy scheme of classifying wine is getting a facelift.

Hatchet Hall, a newish Los Angeles restaurant celebrated for its seasonal, Southern-inspired fare, may claim the top spot for its untraditional wine list devised by Wine Steward Maxwell Leer. Here, #bottleselections are not classified in any particular fashion, instead they’re lumped into bunches dictated by the wine importer who gives them SKUs. And what patrons see on the menu is the largest word of text from each bottle.

Ordering #bytheglass is a bit less intimidating, as bottles are more classically arranged by sparkling, white, rosé and red varieties (equipped with friendly emjois). The #omakase section covers staged wine flights that Leer tailors to fit customers' orders.

While Hatchet Hall takes an unconventional approach to presenting its wines, Italian eatery Ribelle in Boston follows another unique scheme. For its by the glass program, the Brookline-based restaurant lists wines by type, completely disregarding producers. For example, White 1 has "super dry flavors of mandarin orange, white pepper and ROCKS; sleeper-creeper acidity sneaks up on you," while Pink 3 tastes of strawberry patch and bubble gum. From where do these wines hail? The menu will not share. Beverage Director Theresa Paopao says that the list was "very controversial when we opened, but three years later, it's very well received."

L to R: Wine lists from Los Angeles' Hatchet Hall and Boston's Ribelle.

For Island Creek Oyster Bar, also in Boston, mouthfeel was a driving factor. The wine list here runs light to heavy, from "Genuine Luster" to "Large as Life" for whites. "Just like our dinner menu has a dining progression, so does the wine list," says wine director Noell Dorsey. "You used to see the classical drinking progression more often in the past when dining was considered more of an event. One would have an aperitif before dinner to stimulate their appetite, then move on from lighter to richer wines throughout the meal, ending with a digestif or dessert wine." This consideration to a wine's body holds true at Island Creek, but generally in relation to white wines, as that's the color which best pairs with the restaurant's seafood-centered menu.

San Francisco's Bon Marché caters its wines to its food, too. Descriptions are meant to guide diners based on specific food orders, using descriptors like "For Savory and Gamey Meats," "For DecadenceOnion Soup, Bone Marrow, and Burgers," and "For Things With Shells." For big spenders, though, a separate column of "$100 and Up" varieties stands alone.

L to R: Wine lists from San Francisco's Bon Marché and New York's Birds & Bubbles.

Over in New York, a handful of restaurants are drawing inspiration from pop culture. At Xixa in Brooklyn, iconic women rule wine. Elizabeth Taylor, Scarlett O’Hara and Eva Perón represent the reds, meanwhile Twiggy, Dolly Parton, Coco Chanel embody whites. A rep for the Mexican restaurant explains that each woman embodies unique characteristics related to the wines it categorizes, and ultimately the decision to classify wine in such a distinct manner was to distract guests from their regular routines.

Meanwhile, at chef Sarah Simmons’ North Carolina-rooted eatery Birds & Bubbles, the team organizes its bubbles via song lyrics, movie titles, and more. Outcast's "So Fresh and So Clean!" groups lighter-style Champagnes, while "Pretty In Pink" defines rosé sparklers. "The Darker The Berry…" calls out Champagnes made from red-skinned berries, while non-vintage Champagnes are described by "Sugar Pie, Honey Brioche."

Finally, over at The Gander, sommelier-approved white wines are labeled as "Juice We’ve Been Groovin’ On," with sections divided by body: "Nice & Light," "Monkey in the Middle," and "Full Metal Jacket (or Heavy Metal)." Chef and owner Jesse Schenker turned to a more playful approach to talk about wine in effort to better explain bottles beyond producer and grape. Per Schenker, "Sometimes wine lists can be tough to navigate. These fun pages give our guests a quick and easy way to see what we've been groovin' on."


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