Grapevine: A Guided Tour of the Evolving Restaurant Beverage List

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

Remember the wine lists of the 20th century? It was as if an invisible hand crafted the lists of every Italian neighborhood restaurant, every French bistro and every steakhouse. This monotonous uniformity fit the moment in Americans’ wine education. Offer them what they were comfortable with; don’t undermine their selections with wines contrary to their preconceptions and fixed mindset.

I am pleased to report this is no longer the landscape for many restaurant lists. The focus of the lists has changed dramatically. More and more frequently, restaurant patrons are presented with a “beverage” list that is far ranging. I am seeing lists expanded to include wines from far-flung lands and wines with stratospheric prices, including escalating mark-ups. More revolutionary is the expansion into other alcoholic beverages. Today’s beverage list may include cocktails, craft beers and global whiskeys.

It is increasingly difficult for many patrons to navigate these new lists; understanding the nuances of the choices presents an additional dilemma. In this new era, restaurants are employing a new strategy. They are hiring knowledgeable sommeliers.

This new generation of “somms” is infusing new life into restaurants. They maintain the age-worthy standards of course, but then fan out to unfamiliar territories. By personally crafting and curating beverage lists, this new breed offers diners the opportunity to experiment and seek out their next favorite wine.

Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Gen Yers and Millennials alike are increasingly wine savvy, resulting in more sophisticated wine and food palates. They are willing to spend more for the right wine to accompany a gourmet meal, and they are not hesitant to seek guidance. Why fumble through a list of unrecognizable – and unpronounceable – names when your friendly somm can be your personal guide through the maze of today’s restaurant fare?

The expanded beverage list is creating quite a buzz for many restaurant-goers. No longer focused primarily on wines, these lists embrace pre-dinner cocktails, both traditional and those concocted by the new wave of mixologists. Combining exotic ingredients (herbs, bitters, spices), they can set-up one’s palate for the dinner course or be enjoyed as an after-dinner digestif. If you’ve brushed past this section of a beverage list, take a moment to pause and peruse the offerings.

In the past, beer selections were generally non-existent on lists. Today, with the proliferation of artisanal beers, somms are increasingly pairing them with food menus. My personal experiences have validated the compatibility of a number of dishes with finely crafted beers (my current favorite: St. Martin’s Belgian Ale with a robust fowl dish).

Whiskeys are gaining a foothold on restaurants’ beverage lists. Scotch offerings are increasing, while small batch American bourbons are growing in popularity for pre-dinner imbibing. In a surprising move towards throwback spirits, small-batch Tennessee whiskeys are gaining traction on lists (I recently enjoyed George Dickel Barrel Select – with one ice cube).

Along with expanded and upgraded lists come higher-priced wines. Curated lists may focus on European fine wines not available in wine shops, with prices in the three and four digit stratosphere. For those seeking a higher level of dining, wine prices may not be a constricting factor. However, there are far more consumers who can’t (won’t) open their wallets for more than two or three (soon to be replaced) Alexander Hamiltons. This is becoming a dilemma for certain diners. Relief is not on the way.

Over the years, I’ve learned to budget my disposable income for restaurant dining towards higher priced wines without sacrificing my family’s nutritional needs or wardrobe expansion. However, I do object to the high markups on many of the wines I see on today’s wine lists. This egregious practice shows no signs of abating, although a handful of restaurant owners and sommeliers are defying their competitors with lesser markups.

The goal of every restaurant should be to find the perfect fit for your palate and your wallet. After all, a contented customer is a returning customer. And a satisfied customer is a good will ambassador for a successful restaurant.

Nick Antonaccio is a 35-year Pleasantville resident. For over 15 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine


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