A Wine List is a Tool
A Wine list is strategic to any restaurant that sells wine. Creating an effective wine list is not for the feint of heart, inexperienced, or narrow-minded. And you can spot any of these characteristics from a quick scan.
Let’s go through each to demonstrate.
Restaurateurs who are cautious generally offer a very small selection of wines within tight parameters. They believe everyone who comes in the door is primarily concerned about how much they will spend. They do not want to hold inventory any longer than necessary and their focus is on the food, not the dining experience of their guests. They may be knowledgeable and even enjoy the selections on the list, but they will include wines in a narrow range of flavors, varietals and price so as not to distract from the food nor have too much money sunk into inventory. These are not wine restaurants, but sell wine because they sell beer and perhaps have a full bar, both having much higher margins. This is a prepared food business rather than a restaurant, as wine lovers might define.
You have seen these lists. They rarely display more than a dozen wines. They are organized simply by Whites and Reds, and from least expensive to most expensive. Sometimes the varietals are grouped, but not always. The staff rarely has a preference or knowledge about the wines because the proprietor has not felt it important to taste and educate them. Their jobs are to take orders, deliver food, and bid cordial gratitude and farewells.
Inexperienced Wine Buyer
An inexperienced proprietor can be passionate about wine and his list. The list can be extensive, even including a broad range of esoteric wines. In fact, it may have many that fall into this category. The prices will be all over the map as well.
At first glance, one might see this as a good thing: lots of wine and broad price points. But something is missing. The inexperienced proprietor drives the list from his personal palate. If he has a tolerant palate with preference for big reds with lots of oak, you will see many of these, but no sweeter wines for the highly sensitive taster.
Upon careful inspection, there will be lots of holes in the list. Less consideration will be given to the right wines for the menu and more for what the proprietor or wine buyer likes to drink, whenever.
Once again, the staff may be able to speak to the more popular wines on the list, but few will be trained or tasted on the many esoteric wines offered. If the proprietor or wine buyer is present, it will be a treat to ask them to comment or recommend. But if they are not, you will be in thin air for your selection.
Narrow minded Restaurateur
A list prepared by a narrow-minded wine purveyor is a combination of the above. They may have a passion for wine, but they are more concerned about the bottom-line in the short-term than building clientele for the long term.
The list may have 20-50 wines. They are organized by varietals, but only the most popular are represented: Cabernet, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and perhaps Riesling or Zinfandel. There are wines from the most popular brands. If it is an Italian or French restaurant, there will be primarily regional wines, with little consideration given to complementary New World selections.
Due to the size of the list, the wait staff may be familiar with some and comfortable making recommendations of pairings and preferences based on style. The wines will be organized by color, varietal, style and price. It will be an easy read and intuitive. There will be little for the adventurous, but you can be assured of a nice experience and the ability to repeat it.
The Well Crafted List
A restaurant with a well-crafted list is a joy to behold. First, there are many selections for the seasoned, as well as the neophyte. The selections go well with the menu, both the general and seasonal.
A strategic restaurant wine list has wines positioned early that have good margins for the restaurant, ones they want to clear out, or selections that are highly recommended for their quality. It is import as a consumer to understand this and choose the best wine for your occasion. It will also progress in flavor profile from off-dry, delicate wines to drier whites with more intensity and gradually increase in intensity and fullness to wines with substantial structure such as Cabernet Sauvignon.
A good list includes wines regarded highly by critics, journalists, and wine lovers. A great list includes wines that appeal to the wide range of taste and price preferences, but still complements the menu well. The selections are not random.
A well-crafted progressive list makes it easier to train the staff. So you can expect an informative conversation with your wait-person, wine steward, or sommelier. The list is also a tool for guests. As they become familiar with the structure of the list, they can adventure to unfamiliar wines that align with their flavor preferences based on where it is on the list.
A wine list is a map that is fun to explore. More fun is the territory it depicts. Use the list as a guide to explore unfamiliar grottos and magical chambers. You will be rewarded with shared experiences and memories to fill a lifetime.