Yes, size matters, let's get that our of the way immediately. Having to slog through a weighty, leather-bound, encyclopedic list is far from ideal but so is perusing a wispy one-pager that leaves you crossing your fingers hoping there might be more options on the other side.
I will never forget when my family dined at Picasso in Las Vegas shortly after it opened in 1998. The Bellagio-based restaurant features actual Picasso artwork and has a view of the fountains that help make the hotel famous. Be careful if you go, I nearly knocked a painting off the wall just taking my seat (before any alcohol was served). It also offered (offers?) a massive wine list. Since my family always sends the list my way, I decided to take a leisurely look, hours before the reservation. Being an avowed wine geek, I wanted to find some good bottles that would make everyone happy. Even with the assistance of being able to ignore a large portion of the list due to pricing, it took me a while to make selections. I can not imagine having to do this while a crowd eagerly glanced at me and their empty glasses.
That is, at least partly, why the 'mine is bigger than yours' approach to wine lists has mostly gone the way of the dodo. Unfortunately, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. All too often these days I feel like I'm settling when ordering wine rather than feeling excited. At a recent dinner, the wine list offered only two Pinot Noirs. One under $50 from Oregon and one above $80 from California. Your selection is made if you have a budget and want Pinot Noir. While this simplifies things immeasurably for the diner, it makes pairing a wine with the food much more challenging. Of course you can find pleasure in drinking wines that may not match perfectly with the food but how much are you willing to spend for that experience?
I believe many casual restaurants are losing sales while congratulating themselves on holding costs and inventory in check. These establishments count on customers ordering wine even when they do not find something just right. If the wine list doesn't excite me, maybe a glass is enough. Perhaps the beer list is more interesting. Or maybe no alcohol hits the table at all. The biggest risk is that diners do not return after a disappointing visit.
Trying to find the perfect Goldilocks middle is not an easy task. Trying to satisfy wine geeks, people on a budget, people who need to show off and those who only buy brand names can quickly get out of control. Twenty wines is too little and twenty pages is too much, though I would much prefer the latter than the former. There is no right number of choices but it is quickly obvious which restaurants have dedicated buyers/sommeliers and which ones are ordering what their wholesalers recommend. The first step toward a successful wine program is to have a wine program.
If you want to read more on this subject, here are two good articles.
A great perspective from Jamie Goode, sharing a wine drinker's point of view.
For a detailed read about this subject from a different point of view, read this longer piece from Imbibe Magazine, written by Jennifer Fiedler. She interviews a sampling of sommeliers, including Amanda Smeltz from Roberta's in Brooklyn, where they do things wonderfully differently and offer a superb selection.