I was in an account earlier this week, where the buyer had just taken over from a waiter that was handling the wine list. The new buyer was a pretty savvy guy that clearly knew what he was doing. He and the sales rep I was with were having a pretty hearty laugh at the current wine list. I immediately sympathized with the former buyer. The list was chock full of classic rookie foibles. It was a wasteland of Cakebread, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Cutrer, Banfi and Jadot. Clearly the big guys had gotten to him. Thing is, it looked an awful lot like the first wine list I wrote, and the wine list that seems to repeat itself over and over. Odds are, if you've ever written a wine list, your first one sucked too.
The above mentioned wines are fine on an educated buyer's wine list. They can often give safe harbor for the intimidated customer and can be used to fill specific needs. This guy had no idea the interplay between all of these mainstream selections. They are all safe harbors, playing it safe turns the wine list into a grocery store aisle. Rookie buyers need to be able to write a list, no matter how bad it is. They will learn. I remember thinking when I was writing my first few lists "I hope I don't make an ass out of myself on this one". The poor waiter whose list they were cracking hard on was written as a safety move, the catch 22 is, he didn't know enough about wine to write a good list yet. Damned either way.
How do they get better? Simple. It's up to us to educate the rookie. Not with propaganda, but with interesting and diverse samples. It's our responsibility to show rookies wine, even if it makes no sense in their establishment. Not for them to buy, but to help them expand their horizons. Help them figure out their palate, and what works for them. In our world, their is nothing more rewarding than putting together the best wine list of your life, and that's usually each subsequent one after the first.