A good wine list doesn’t have to be long, it just has to be, well, good. It’s a lot to ask for in most towns and cities across the country. Exceptions include world-class wine regions like Sonoma and Napa Valley. Otherwise, most wine lists are “distributor driven.” A distributor is the middle man. Some distributors are small operators who carry a portfolio of small production wines and others work for mega beverage sellers like Young’s Market and Southern Wine & Spirits.
I recently dined at a newer restaurant in Eureka, California. The main dishes hovered in the $18 to $30 range. It’s a nice place. With food and alcohol, the tab for two runs about $80. The beers offered were good but typical – some local craft beers, the usual Budweiser and a few big-name imports. The wine list, however, was tragic. It reflected the epitome of the classic worst-case scenario of a large distributor-driven restaurant wine list.
Distributors dump a lot of bad wine on Humboldt County. They get away with it because of the general lack of restaurateur and customer wine knowledge, coupled with woefully under-developed palates.
When a distributor swoops down on a new restaurant about to open its doors, he or she offers the weary, financed-drained entrepreneur the world. Here’s the typical offer: ‘Sign up with my mega distributorship and we will print all your menus for free whenever you need them. We’ll also buy all your glassware. Need plates? Cutlery? We can help you there too. Oh, and if you agree to buy from us exclusively for a year, we’ll throw in an 86” flat screen for your bar are
a.’ Boom. It’s a done deal for the completely wine-ignorant buyer. And, the wine list? Let’s just say at this particular restaurant they offered an $8 glass of Chardonnay that I can find on the bottom shelf of CVS pharmacy for $5.99 a bottle. Nasty, mass-produced California Chard to go with my $24 nicely prepared entrée. No thanks. I’ll have a fresh, snappy Eel River IPA.
On the bright side, there are a handful of savvy restaurant wine buyers in Humboldt County, California. A fine example of an owner-driven wine list is Ramone’s Café on Harrison in Eureka. Brian Ferguson and Berit Meyer are particularly clever at buying the best local offerings along with intriguing, delicious wines from around the world. It’s a tiny wine bar nestled in the back of the always busy café but it
ever disappoints. Plus, they have off sale when you just gotta have it. Other establishments with good owner-driven wine lists are Crush Wine Bar, the Plaza Grill, Abruzzi, Moonstone trio, Folie Douce and Brick & Fire to name a few.
Written by Pam Long