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How to Build a Better Restaurant Wine List

Tips for Selecting, Serving and Selling Wine in the Hospitality Sector


Restaurant wine lists are often a natural reflection of the operator's commitment to the brilliant marriage of food and wine. When well-maintained and intuitively organized the wine list serves as an appropriate conversation starter between staff and customer, ideally resulting in food and wine pairings that bring out the very best in both the food and the wine.

There are a number of creative ways to tackle the design and implementation of a wine list. Some steer towards the ultra-organized, categorically naming wines by grape type and style while others take the shotgun approach with a smattering of random wines placed in whimsical fashion or under somewhat subjective titles like "floral" or "bold."

Key Components of A Successful Wine List Design:

Creating the right wine list for your operation requires steady input from multiple sources. The main menu typically drives the wine varietals and styles, the target customer teamed with the inventory budget influences the wine's price points, and the front door service staff working in tandem with the backdoor supplier relationships effectively steers both wine supply and demand.

1. Food and Wine Pairing The dominating rule of thumb in wine list design is food-pairing versatility. "Hands-down a solid wine pairing program elevates the cuisine and the overall dining experience in any establishment," shares Hillary Siebels of the Fort Collins-based Cafe Vino, where she manages the 200 bottle wine list. With that in mind, offering customers enticing food and wine pairing suggestions directly on the main menu is critical to increasing sales by initiating server-client conversation about food and wine pairing protocol. Delving into why a wine from a region works well with a particular dish provides ample opportunity for the server to discern client preferences and share wine recommendations regardless of the final order.

2. Wine Education for Staff The wines that end up on an operator's wine list must be familiar to the serving staff. The "wine when ordering" conversation is mission critical to moving an operation's wine inventory and is largely based on adequate ongoing staff training. If the server team understands the wines on the wine list, through personal tasting, food pairing and supplier interactions, then there is a natural confidence when discussing, suggesting and pairing the wines with the items on the menu. Staff training can be covered by suppliers, consulting sommeliers and even online avenues with hands-on tastings.

3. Allow for Wine Adventures There are typically three types of wine customers: the "tried and true", the "wine adventurer" and the self-proclaimed "connoisseur." Since there are several categories of wine clients in any operation, it is important to have a wine list that can handle the various wine expectations. For example, the "tried and true" wine buyer typically sticks with wine brands and wine grapes that they have enjoyed before. Varietals such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir would be important to have highlighted on the wine list for this group of consumer, in addition to familiar brands like Mondavi, Clos Du Bois and Beringer. Not wanting to risk wasting money on something new for fear that they may find the wine lacking, they commit to purchasing the wines they know and trust. Serving staff can cut perceived risks by offering wine samples from open bottles or selling half glasses at half the price.

The "wine adventurer" is the exact opposite, desiring to be the first to try the latest wine rage. They can't wait to facebook, tweet and text their most recent exotic wine discovery. Perhaps it's an Austrian Grüner Veltliner or a Soave from Italy's Veneto region, the goal is something new to them and their friends and if it pairs with their dish that's fantastic, but not necessarily the highest priority. The wine adventurer will also benefit from server dialogue and, if available, small samples or half glass options, to experience as many new wines as possible.

Finally, the self-proclaimed "connoisseur" is typically the most intimidating to waitstaff. This particular customer typically knows what wines they like and why they like them (and how to pronounce the wines that the staff fears having to say); however, they may be more likely to branch out into the higher end wines and might even offer teachable moments to receptive servers. Quality and sophisticated palate appeal are important to this client. Shafer, Mondavi Reserve, Ridge, Frescobaldi and the like would be appropriate labels to list for this target audience.

If the operation has the ability, experience and budget to target all three sectors of the wine client then go for it; however, if menus and budgets dictate the less is more approach, then variety is still key for maximizing wine sales. Consider a standard wine list of 15-20 wines, featuring five wines by the glass. Build a base of familiar varietals from major growing regions, keeping 80% of your wines targeted to the "tried and true" client, 10% specifically tailored to the "wine adventurer," and 10% of the fine wine geared towards the "connoisseur." This breakdown of the seasonal wine list will give operators the flexibility to meet a wide range of pairing and palate demands.

How to Organize a Restaurant's Wine List:

Grape Varietal or Style? Successful wine lists must be user-friendly (for both customers and staff). Whether categorized by grape varietals, regions, styles, color or price, they must be well organized and give clear descriptions of price, palate profile and place of origin. If grouping wines by regions, especially from Old World locations, offer a regional map as part of the wine list with quick facts and interesting regional wine trivia (conversation starters in themselves). The most common wine list organization strategies include arranging wines by grape varietal or style (red, white, rosé, sparkling, fortified or dessert). Listing the grape varietals under style is the best of both worlds. Consider offering a brief overview of the grape (beginning with a pronunciation guide if it's tricky), a typical taste profile, along with what food-pairings might work well. Arranging wines by perceived personality using terms like "intense" or "crisp" can be problematic as people interpret palate expressions differently and may have a tougher time finding the "right" wine for their grape expectations.

Wine Price Points It is imperative to offer good wine at fair prices with well trained staff available to suggest signature food pairings. Wines by the glass programs continue to be successful because they allow customers the opportunity to enjoy food and wine pairings without committing to the cost of the full bottle. Variations of wine by the glass programs include: wine flights (offering small tastings of three wines from a specific region or three unique versions of the same grape from different regions or vintages), half glasses (especially popular for happy hour pricing) and the always welcome customer sampling program. If bottles are already open, pouring a small sample of wine will often result in an order in part because the customer perceives both the generosity and commitment to ensuring a good wine pick for their palate.

Seasonal Changes With the international focus on local food (and local wine) seasonally-driven menus continue to be ultra-trendy and for good reason - they maximize harvest dates with the freshest offerings of produce available and tend to tie people a little closer to their surrounding agricultural heritage. Just as seasonal changes may dictate menu updates, the wine list should mirror the change of season and spotlight lighter-bodied wines with bright, refreshing palate profiles in the spring and transition to fuller-bodied, heavier styles built for heartier fare in the dead of winter.

Keep in mind that the wine list can be a marketing strategy, menu and wine school all wrapped up into one delicious tasting format. The wine list design begins with an honest perusal of the main menu, thoughtfully discerning which appetizers, entrees and desserts will pair well with particular wines is an essential building block of any successful wine program. Strategically listing wines by color or style makes for a straightforward wine finding (and buying) experience. Tableside wine education continues to be a critical component for moving wine from the cellar to the customer and largely rests on the ongoing, personal training of the operation's waitstaff. A well planned and paired wine list can become a capable ambassador for various grape varietals, regions and producers. The more customers enjoy the wine service, selection and pairing education the greater potential for repeat wine-based business.

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