I got a text from a good friend last night- he needed my help. See, he's a captain of industry; a steel man. He's like Henry Rearden, only gentle and real and not an asshole. But he needed my help. He had a dinner planned for clients, and he wanted a little advice from his sommelier friend (me) on which wines to serve at the dinner. They were going to a fine seafood restaurant in San Diego. I've never been to the place, but it seems nice- if cows were fish, it would be The Capital Grille.
I told him that I'd check out their list online and get back to him. I was honored that he needed my help, and it was just the kind of thing I like to do late at night instead of going to bed. I was on the case. I have many tasks that I have been putting off for months, but this particular one got pushed right up to the top of my priority list. Goddamn it, I didn't ask for this weighty responsibility, but you don't refuse a call like that. The whole U.S. steel industry was counting on me.
I checked out the menu- it looked good. It was teeming with seafood that boasted specific origins: Morro Bay rockfish, George's Bank scallops- these guys seemed to know what they were doing. The wine list was quality, but not exciting.I was rife with popular favorites that the expense account diners would shell out for and suck down, but there was not much interesting for the diner who was tired of big-name California chardonnays- no Fonsalette, no white Rioja, nothing we haven't seen before.
At least on the list that I saw. And I say that quite literally, as the list that I was checking out online clued me in to the existence of a Captain's List, which I could see whenever I wanted- I just had to ask my server.
Ah, the Captain's List: that regal tome of vinous trophies. That epic of purchasable status and gustatory joy. Have you, good sir, ever perused a Captain's List? Do you even know what a Captain's List is? Hmmph. Well, as the saying goes, if you have to ask what a Captain's List is, then you likely have not attained the fiduciary status to procure the libations documented therein. Now beat it and go Occupy Wendy's, you disgusting unscrubbed hippie.
The Captain's List, or Reserve List, is an addendum to a restaurant's wine list that contains the establishment's most expensive wines. I'm sure that someone out there might have a more nuanced definition, but that's what it is. You are most likely to find one at what I would term a "traditional" fine dining restaurant, and especially at a fine steakhouse. The kind of place with white tablecloths, the kind of place that charges six dollars for bordelaise, the kind of place with $14 sides of lyonnaise potatoes; that's where you'll find- or be fortunate enough to be offered- a Captain's List.
During a recent conversation I had with a Master Sommelier/restaurateur who has a neo-fine steakhouse here in Nashville, he stated that "fine dining- as we know it- is dead." He of course qualified this, acknowledging the existence of places like Per Se and Quince and Gary Danko- places that hang their toques on a luxe experience, and aren't going away anytime soon. Fine dining is obviously not dead, just as the symphony and the ballet and the opera go on and on and on. But he had a point: those chef-driven places draw diners who want to see what the chef has dreamed up, not fogies who want to shovel staid, mistake-free favorites. Today's "cultural omnivores" can afford to eat at fine restaurants, but they do not eschew tacos and hoagies as the monied classes of the near past may have snubbed such lowbrow fare. These just another part of the rich tapestry of current tastes. As such, quality beats prestige, every time. We want good, period, whether it's foie or pho.
Enter the Reserve List, a relic of a bygone era. Please let me know whether there exists a good reason for such a list, other than making the host of an expensive dinner's pecker perk up a little when he, obviously disappointed in the plebeian wine list, dramatically snaps it shut and conspicuously asks the waiter, "Do you have a reserve list?" Everyone else at the table is either impressed, extremely envious, or rolls their eyes so hard they catch a glimpse of their brainstems.
I racked my brain trying to think of other obvious or legitimate reasons for a such a list- why should these wines exist in their own gated community when their whole raison d'être is to be purchased and consumed? Maybe it would make it easier on those with more expensive tastes who know that they don't want a wine that's under $300 or $500 or whatever the Captain's Threshold may be. But wouldn't that just be a tacit admission that you have no idea what you like, so you use price as your as your criterium instead of and educated preference? Or it could be that, since you always spend at least $300 on wine, you can't be inconvenienced by having to skim over the many inferior selections burying the qualifying wines, in which case: you're an idiot, fuck you.
Maybe it's because the sommelier does not have time to reprint the whole list every time a certain vintage goes away. No, that can't be it, since it is much more likely that the cheaper wines on the list turn over and change vintages more than the rare and exclusive ones.
Here's the real head-scratcher of the whole thing: you're there, aren't you? Seated and hungry and looking at the menu in a restaurant that charges $16 for a side of mushrooms and $38 for five scallops. You're obviously there to spend the kind of money that they're asking for, right? You're in the game, so why should you have to jump through an extra hoop to find out what their full plate of offerings consists of? Do they make you ask for a Reserve Menu, so you can see how much the dry-aged côte de boeuf and the osetra caviar are? No- it's all right there in front of you, because you are there to choose from everything they offer. It's not a free trial that requires you to upgrade to "paid access."
The most expensive wine on the "regular" list I was parsing for my friend was a 2004 Dom Perignon- $395. Quintessa cabernet was the most expensive still wine at $295. Who do they think would be interested in the Dom that would not be interested in Krug at $450? Who would buy the Quintessa that would rule out Araujo at $500? Who's to say they wouldn't want the- well, I don't know what they have- It's not on the list I saw.
If you're leaving some of the highest-priced and lowest-selling wines off because you are trying to keep the list to one page, okay- that makes sense. But that's not the case with most of these places- their regular lists are extensive, and it wouldn't put them out to add their rarest or priciest bottles.
I would file this enduring phenomenon under "reasons people hate wine." This file is thick, and we have years and years of snobbery and affectation- and examples just like this one- to thank, and hopefully to peel away. Wine is just another part of the meal. Groceries, not art (I read somewhere). Choosing a wine for your meal is not as important as choosing where to go to law school or which doctor is going to lengthen your schlong.
Some of the ceremony of wine looks like effete theater to the uninitiated: the label and cork presentation, the swirling, the slurping. But there are damn good reasons to do these things. They just require a little explaining. But I can't explain this one.
There will always be expensive wines and cheaper wines, and I'm all for variety. I know what I'm paying for when I buy an expensive wine, and I know what I'm declining when I buy a cheap one. But this artificial segregation, this prior restraint, this "you dare not even look upon our best wines" attitude is a bullshit relic of a dead era, and deserves to be dumped.