A well-written restaurant review for me is like a pile of prettily-wrapped Christmas presents, waiting to be opened under the tree. For someone who likes food and dining out, the anticipation can be exhilarating, especially if the review is about a favorite spot, an obscure find, or an exciting new place where you just scored a coveted reservation for Saturday night, perhaps a special occasion, and can't wait to be dazzled. But then you start to read the review, and disappointment and confusion start to set in. First, why no mention of the wine list, other than a perfunctory sentence or two about the general makeup of the list, such as, 'mostly French, with the rest from the US, Spain, Argentina, and Chile.' No shit? I think everyone knows the difference between a $22 piece of chicken, and a $35 piece of lobster. But how many people really know the difference between a $40 bottle and an $80 bottle? In my experience, almost nobody. Even if you put the bottles in front of them, side by side, very few could tell which was the more expensive bottle, and why (do you know which are the good years for Barolo?). People may generally know their one or two favorites, but that's usually about it. But you'll get no guidance from your gentle reviewer. To quote a recent review of an Italian restaurant, “There are plenty of pleasing [bottles] among the many Italian and American selections....” How is that helpful? Could you recommend maybe a couple of these 'pleasing' bottles? Maybe an inexpensive red, a white, and maybe a nice pricey bottle, for those who want to spend a little more? Like a decently priced Barolo?
Another review I just read mentions the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence received by a restaurant, but not one wine or any prices are even mentioned! Although the reviewer does mention 'small vineyards' and 'distinctive, hard-to-find appellations'. Like what? Does that have any meaning to anyone? And this review was of a French restaurant, where the wines ought to be of paramount importance. How hard is it to spend a few minutes examining the list? Of course, that assumes knowledge on the part of the reviewer in the first place, but even if you're clueless about wine, why not do five minutes of research and pick out some good bottles? For example, I might mention the Puligny Montrachet 1er cru Folatieres Domaine Paul Pernot, which at $132 on this particular restaurant's list, is less than double the retail price, which is a fair and gentle markup (even though the reviewer claims that '...prices are marked up as usual.', a completely unhelpful phrase, and really, there is no 'usual' markup anymore). If you were looking for a nice splurge, there it is, and that took about five minutes of checking. Remember, at an expensive dinner, your beverages could eat up as much as one-third to one-half of your check, so some guidance is really important.
(And by the way, what is a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, you might ask? To quote everyone's favorite wine bible, it is: “Our basic award, for lists that offer a well-chosen selection of quality producers, along with a thematic match to the menu in both price and style. Typically, these lists offer at least 100 selections.” And how many restaurants receive this prestigious award, you may ask? Well, there are currently over 3000 restaurants who have received this 'award', and for a non-refundable fee of $250, you too may be eligible, as long as you have a fax number. I wonder how many places get turned down? With over 4000 restaurants comprising the three levels of award winners, you do the math. Works out pretty well for everyone, especially Marvin Shanken, publisher of WS.)
So basically you're left to do your own research before you go out, because you don't want to spend twenty minutes at your table examining the wine list like it's written in Braille, and then end up with a mediocre, expensive bottle, anyway. First rule of reviewing: your job is to reveal, not conceal.
...And that's just the wine.
COMING UP-The Name of the Game is Ass-Kissing, Name-Dropping, and Freebies.