It’s no secret that a wine list can be both a significant revenue stream and a customer draw for a restaurant. How thoughtfully a restaurant compiles and presents their list can determine whether or not a customer orders a bottle, opts for other beverages, or even chooses another establishment.
While there is no right or wrong way to put together your list, there may be some approaches that make more sense than others for the specific atmosphere and/or clientele of your restaurant. Regardless of how you approach the fun of putting together a wine list (and it should be fun!), below are a few things to keep in mind as you taste your way to a great list.
Is Your Wine User-Friendly?
Your wine list should be appealing and approachable at first glance. How the information is organized — and even what font you use — will be a factor in maintaining your customer’s interest. Also consider how someone who may not be very familiar with wine will be able to navigate your list with relative ease. Usually wine lists start off with sparkling wines, moving on to whites, reds, and lastly, dessert wines (if available).
Categorizing the wines by easy-to-identify groupings, such as by country or region (USA/Napa Valley, France/Bordeaux) or by varietal (Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon) will help customers identify the types of wine they like more quickly and with minimal frustration.
Regardless of the grouping you choose, wines should be listed progressively, with the lightest wines listed first, followed by medium-bodied and full-bodied wines. For example, in the reds category, you might list your wines in the following order: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache Syrah Merlot blend. This will make the list easier for diners to peruse and pair with their meals.
You could also sub-categorize within each grouping with descriptors indicating the intensity of the wine, such as “light and fruity” or “big fruit and full-bodied.”
Message on the Bottle
Along with clear organization, how much information to include about each wine is also an important consideration. At a minimum, you should list the wine varietal, the wine’s producer, the region of origin, and the vintage date, such as: Shiraz Cabernet, Penfolds Koonunga Hill, South Australia, 2015.
You might also consider adding brief tasting notes for each of the wines. While this may be cumbersome for more extensive lists (see below), a bit of descriptive information will give customers a sense of the wine’s style and personality, and empower them to make a choice without feeling like they are at the mercy of the wine director or server.
This is especially true if your list features wines made from less well-known varietals or regions. Even just a few words, such as “off-dry, light and fruity” or “full-bodied, plum and spice notes” can tell a customer a lot about a wine. You might even include gentle suggestions about food pairings, such as “goes great with fish” or “complements rich foods.”
More is Not Always Better
There will be varying schools of thought on this but generally speaking, no one likes to feel like they just got handed a homework assignment after asking for the wine list. There’s a lot to be said for a targeted, thoughtfully chosen list of wines that are well-organized and can guide the customer though the options.
You might also consider whether your servers and bartenders can navigate and manage a voluminous wine list, especially if you don’t have a dedicated beverage director who can serve as a point of contact for both staff and customers.
If you know your customer base relishes the challenges of combing through a multi-page tome for hidden gems, then by all means go for it. Otherwise, if there are truly special bottles that you would like to have on offer that may not be for everyone, consider offering a reserve list.
Consider Your Brand
When it comes down to task of actually choosing which wines make the cut, you’ll certainly want to consider the tone, atmosphere, food, and clientele of your restaurant, and have the wines you select be an extension of that vision. If your restaurant focuses on modern plates and you cater to an adventurous crowd, you might want to feature wines that from regions that aren’t well represented, such as Greece, Israel, or South Africa, or unusual styles, such as orange wines. If your restaurant is more oriented toward Mediterranean-influenced dishes, you might showcase Italian and Spanish wines.
While there are many thematic directions you can take with your wine selections, keep versatility in mind. Make sure at least two wines on your list pair well with each dish on the restaurant’s menu. Not every wine on the list need be specially selected for the food, especially if your restaurant’s menu changes regularly, but having a few solid pairing recommendations will send the message that some sincere thought was put into both the food and the wine.
Find the Right Price
In addition to name or grape recognition, price is often a driving factor for how customers choose their wine. No one likes to look at the wine list and feel like their only option is to buy an expensive bottle. Likewise if someone’s looking to splurge, it’s no fun if there’s no room to explore.
Include a selection of wines in every category at a variety of price points to accommodate a range of budgets. This is also a chance for your beverage director or sommelier to demonstrate that outstanding bottles of wine don’t have to come with an outstanding price tag.
How a restaurant determines the price can be done in a number of ways. Many in the industry use a mark-up of three times the wholesale bottle price, while others consider pricing in relation to the cost of entrées. Also pay attention the cost of wines by the glass, making sure it’s cheaper to buy the bottle than several glasses of wine.
That Personal Touch
Your servers and bartenders will be the first and best advocates for your wine list, so be sure they know what the wines taste like! Customers will have a much more satisfactory experience if their server can confidently describe the wines and guide the customer through the list.
As always, tasting is key to deepening your knowledge of wine. Taste your wine to develop a great wine list, and encourage your staff and customers to do the same!
Want a cheat sheet on how to train your staff to sell wine?