Monday, May 21, 2012

Learning from the Las Vegas Wine Lists Left Behind

It used to be that a restaurant in the Loire Valley would carry wines from the Loire in its cellar, while a restaurant in Piemonte would carry wines from the Piemonte in its cellar. Diners passing through ate the cuisine of the place and paired it naturally with the wines from that place. The idea that a single restaurant wine list in one particular place should contain what are perceived to be the best and greatest wines from around the world, what you might call a Las Vegas Wine List, is fairly new. A grand restaurant located in a metropolitan area might have in the distant past carried the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux, but Burgundy, Bordeaux, Barolo, Brunello, California and Australia? And with large vertical depth in each? That would have been largely unheard of before the 1980s, and rare into the 1990s. This was the kind of list that became very popular in the late 1990s and into the new century, as operators and consumers associated luxury with variety. But today that kind of wine list is becoming increasingly rare again as restauranteurs balk at the high costs involved in maintaining large inventories.

As wine lists shrink in size, and there are fewer globe trotting lists, decisions must be made as to what stays on and what goes. It is no longer true that a list just by the nature of its sheer size will have wines to suit every taste. It is also more true than ever that tastes in wine differ. Whether a wine director chooses to specialize or not is usually a very conscious decision. I would say that today there are what might be thought of as two kinds of smaller wine lists: the Duck and the Decorated Shed.

The idea of an architectural choice between the Duck and the Decorated Shed was postulated by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour in the 1977 book Learning from Las Vegas. The concept of the Duck was exemplified by a building in the shape of a duck that housed a poultry store.

The Duck announces what it is in its design.

If you open a Duck wine list, you see wines that are in keeping with the theme of the venue, and perhaps wines that are unique to that list or at least rarely seen elsewhere because they wouldn't fit in somewhere else. The Duck kind of list often has a geographical focus. A Duck might focus on the wines of Southern Italy, for instance. Opening that list you would find a plethora of wines from Southern Italy. If the restaurant were itself in Southern Italy, then this would just be called a wine list. If the restaurant is somewhere else, then this is a Duck. Just as real ducks tend to be more noticeable out of water, Duck wine lists tend to stand out more when they are far away from their geographic source of inspiration. A Duck might also be grouped around a grape variety or process. For example, a Duck wine list might be composed entirely of Rieslings or Orange wines. But what Ducks have in common is that they announce what they are by their content.

Ducks eschew broad choices in favor of appealing more readily to a certain audience, and hope to win over that audience so assuredly that business remains strong, even if the group is limited. Since Ducks take a noticeable and even obvious stand in one direction or another, they to stick out from the general run of restaurant wine lists and get as a result more press coverage.

The Decorated Shed announces what it is on the cover of the list.
With a Decorated Shed wine list, you can't tell from the content alone what the theme of the restaurant is. A Decorated Shed is in the same form everywhere, from city to city and restaurant to restaurant. It is the sign outside the restaurant that tells you where you are. A Decorated Shed has a certain set number of parallel lines and a certain set number of perpendicular lines. The parallel lines come from the belief that since the food is somewhat Italian, or German, or French, there should be on the list some Italian, or German, or French wines, while the perpendicular lines comes from the belief that since customers regularly ask for other kinds of wines, those should also be there on the wine list.

The Decorated Shed has the benefit of being easy to understand by a large number of people: they have seen this same setup before. The Decorated Shed thus engenders a fair amount of comfort, which is exactly the quality that makes them so appealing at the fine dining level. Where the emphasis is on service you can often expect to find a nicely Decorated Shed. It is also true that Sheds tend to better accomodate groups, especially business derived groups where not everyone shares the same tastes. But as lists are now smaller it can be difficult for the staff to keep each different item stocked in a feasible proportion. There is less room in the Sheds. That challenge is perhaps counterbalanced by the thought that Sheds are less likely to see their moment pass as fads change, a real danger with the Duck design as Ducks can be shaped around a single idea.

When you choose your dining desinations are you picking Ducks or Sheds?

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Ducks.