Aspen Times Weekly: Making a Great Wine List

by Kelly J. Hayes


I have said it before, but for me the Gold Standard for a great wine list is that curated by Bobby Stuckey (pictured here) at Boulder’s Frasca Food & Wine. The 70-page list is not only simple in its design, but features a list of wines that play perfectly with chef Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson’s cuisine from the Friuli region of Italy. I could dine there every night, solo, with just the list, and learn something each time while enjoying wines that are perfectly stored and poured. There is a reason why Frasca has been acknowledged as having one of the best wine programs in the world by the James Beard Foundation.

De gustibus non est disputandum. In Latin it means “in matters of taste there can be no dispute,” sometimes interpreted as “to each his own.”

A perfect example of this ancient maxim applies when the discussion turns to restaurant wine lists. While a 5,000-bottle, multi-page tome with verticals of wines ranging from the world’s most renowned to the world’s most obscure vineyards may be manna from heaven for one person, a simple “Carte du Vin” listing a dozen local wines by the glass on a single page does the trick just fine for another, thank you. The perfect wine list is the one that simply and efficiently gives customers the opportunity to select and purchase the wine that will make their meal more enjoyable. Period.

Wine is so much more than just an adjunct to a meal. It is a fundamental dining component that can tie courses together and elevate a lunch, dinner, or yes, even a breakfast, to another level. That is the reason why we are willing to pay $12 for a glass of Zinfandel to pair with a $10 burger or $150 dollars for a bottle of white Burgundy to sip with our $40 Dover sole.

Of course, there are myriad things that go into making a wine list welcoming, fun and complete. Of that there can be no dispute.

Let’s start at the start. Before a wine list is created, before it is printed, before it is presented at the table, the most important consideration is that the people who compile the list really care about providing their customers with a great dining experience.

For that reason alone a great list must feature a selection of wines chosen with care to work with the food, the ambiance and the personality of the restaurant in which it is served. In essence, it must coincide with the mission.

While a gourmet, multi-course meal in elegant surroundings may call for a leather-bound list featuring an multitude of classic labels, a casual, contemporary neighborhood joint may be better served by a list made up of younger, less expensive wines that complement the chef’s vitality. Neither is necessarily better than the other, it is just that there is a place for each and if the proprietors are serious about the dining experience they will select the right wines for their establishment.

However, all good wine lists share some things in common. First, a list should offer some diversity with both red and white wines from at least a few different varietals and styles, ranging from lighter wines to those that are a little fuller and bolder. There should be a solid sampling of wines by the glass and thoughtfully selected half-bottles are always a nice find. Some places may focus on wines from different regions to pair with their food while others may focus on a specific region that best connects with the cuisine they serve.

It should be well laid out with some thought and consideration as to how the guest will use it. Some lists are ordered by places of origin, others by grape varieties and still others by specific flavor attributes. All can work, just as long as there is a plan and focus to the list’s design. I prefer a progressive flow from lighter styles to heavier styles in the way the wines are listed. That big, buttery Chardonnay from Napa should follow the steely Grüner Veltliner, for example, so that there is a cohesive and intuitive order to the wine list.

Personally, I like to learn about wine, so either a brief description of the flavor components or even notes about a wine region are helpful and can be educational and fun. Too much verbiage or opinions that are pithy can be a turn-off, however.

Perhaps most important are the details. Nothing is worse than a stained or dirty list. Keep it clean. And for Gaia’s sake, double-check the spelling. I know that wines from different regions of the world can be both tongue-twisters and difficult to spell, but if you want me to put down $300 for a 2008 Giuseppe Rinaldi Barolo “Brunate-Le Coste,” make sure that the spelling is as perfect as the wine itself.

Prices, while they may vary widely, are an important aspect of any component of great meal. A good list will always have a bargain wine or two that a wise wine lover can spot easily.

Of course, a good list is just one part of a good wine program. The basics of a good wine program include having a staff that is knowledgeable about the wines they serve, the glassware that is appropriate to the wines that are poured, and attention paid to the temperatures of the wines and how they are stored. Generally, if these details are attended to, the wine list will also reflect the importance of wine to the restaurant.

The bottom line is that, at the end of the meal, a diner should feel that the wine was both an important part of the experience and worthy of the price.

We all deserve that, no matter what our tastes.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at