Chow Town

Wine lists play it safe down in Margaritaville

Life may be laid-back in Key West, but that doesn’t mean those who compile the wine lists can’t make a little more effort.
Life may be laid-back in Key West, but that doesn’t mean those who compile the wine lists can’t make a little more effort. File photo

I know it’s wrong to complain about wine service in tourist towns; it’s a shocker if things go well and a fulfillment of low expectations when they don’t. Even at restaurants that serve smart food, with adventurous menus in beautiful surroundings, the wine list is as dull as black-and-white TV.

I have no issue with wine lists that feature large, well-known wineries. Popular wines should receive no criticism for their success; they’re popular for a reason. So that’s not the nature of my complaint.

Good wine lists offer both the familiar and the new and novel. Great wine lists give the casual wine drinker plenty to choose from, but the top lists know that there are serious participants who need a reason to read as well. Too many exalted wine lists are a plethora of exotic names and places; that’s not the ideal goal either. Instead, it’s all about balance.

So I’m hitting the restaurant scene in a beach resort town, and the wine lists read like a shelf at your local grocery store. There are more than 30,000 wine brands in the U.S. market; why do I keep seeing the same two dozen or so?

And as the surf burbles a few feet away from my table, I’m wondering why no one has thought that tourists like me might want to toss back a glass of pink wine. Really, I like pink (it’s the new black or gray or whatever) and I’m not alone. The market has made a fascinating turn from sweet pink stuff to vibrantly fruity yet dry rosé.

A few restaurants list bottles of such rosé wines, but almost none is willing to sell them by the glass. I don’t get it. I suspect whomever is writing these lists doesn’t get it either.

But the food is fun in the main. Latitudes is an enclave for the silly rich that is kind enough to let the hoi polloi (like me) visit for a few hours to snack on high-end conch fritters and crabcakes. The wine list had a few goodies on it but still no dry rosé by the glass. It’s sunny out, right? Warm too. Sheesh.

We hit Sun Sun at the Casa Marina too; it’s a beautiful spot, toes in the sand and all. The list? You know where I’m going: the Albariño. Oh, I’m sorry, sir, we’re out of that. Would you care for a mainstream Chardonnay? Not so much …

The Flaming Buoy proffers simple, tasty fare. A few things happening on the wine list, but still. Square Grouper’s My New Joint had a very good beer list and a few more choices on the wine list. But still.

On the other hand, I’m in Key West. So I should shut up. But why do you think they call us whine experts?

Wine columnist Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based master sommelier and master of wine.