Following requests from my peers and industry colleagues, in this LinkedIn post I shared the important factors to keep in mind while compiling wine lists for restaurants. I hope the readers of this blog will also benefit from the points discussed in the article.
A wine list is not just a menu with aesthetically laid out items and prices. Apart from being the face of any wine program it is also a document which demonstrates an organization’s wine vision. What do you wish to achieve from your wine program? Is it just revenue which drives your wine selection or the intangibles are also equally important? Does your portfolio indicate a special focus on quality and professionalism? And above all, how do you differentiate the quality of your wine offerings from that of your peers and competitors?
Following are the five key points to keep in mind (among some general ones) while compiling a restaurant wine list aiming to be in the top league:
Focus on your niche & USP: Every wine program must find its niche to be able to stay relevant in a highly competitive market. It can be just one unique feature or combination of features, but something that sets your wine program separate from the rest is key to achieving the first step to credibility in a market flooded with run-of-the-mill offerings.
What does your wine selection excel in? What do you offer different from your competition
which creates a positive impression in your guests’ mind? And finally, what role does the wine list play in creating an exceptional dining experience?
Let’s look at a few common ones which top sommeliers use as their menu’s USP:
# Wine paired prix fixe or chef’s tasting menus
# Great wine-by-the-glass program with a mix so meticulously crafted that it appears to be a fantastic mini list within the list (don’t forget, high by-the-glass sale always brings more revenue due to higher volumes they are able to generate)
# Unique tasting samples with food teasers
# Super niche wines to complement equally exclusive cuisine
# Handpicked and specially sourced rare wines
The possibilities are many, one has to decide what works for them the best considering the business objectives, customer profile and the overall F&B concept of the restaurant.
Achieve that elusive balance: One of the hallmarks of best wine lists is the all-important balance of vital components which go into their making. Be it a synergy between regions/appellations, a proportionate distribution of grape varieties and blends, a fair representation of styles and types or even a good mix of price points.
Of course a lot depends on the restaurant’s profile and the cuisine served but on the whole a well-harmonized wine list adds immensely to the organization’s wine culture. It also heightens your guests’ comfort level while navigating through the list and in deciding about which wines to choose.
Move beyond clichés: Some wisdom about wine lists are well and truly past their use-by date, while a few are overused to the extent of being monotonous and predictable, and some fall under the veritable ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ adage. Sticking to them can prove to be a hurdle in creating great wine offerings.
Take for example the most widely held view about the size of inventory/portfolio – lot of menus, in the name of depth and variety, offer thousands of choices to guests. But is it really necessary to to carry so many labels to achieve your business goals (remember a large inventory not only locks in valuable cash but can also proves to be a logistics and maintenance nightmare)? Not if your wine team has perfected the art of deriving the most from a lean but well-balanced menu.
Ensure flawless & effective communication: Imagine a wine list which scores big on design, layout and product offerings but lacks in its ability to effectively communicate and connect to the reader because of sloppy mistakes – mostly owing to negligence but also due to ignorance. The most common irritants are the spelling errors (Voignier, Romani-Contee, Marlboro, Bordeux & Cabernet Suavignon are the most common ones I have encountered). This is followed by inaccurate categorization of wines, like a Pommard listed under Côte de Nuits, all sparklings under Champagne, a rich and oaky Napa Chardonnay under ‘Light white wines’ etc. And finally, vague and inaccurate descriptions of menu items and their characteristics. Consider the following description for Sauvignon Blanc’s flavor profile in a wine list I came across during a recent conversation on Twitter:
Leave alone laymen, even a wine aficionado is bound to go “What in the name of Bacchus is that?”after seeing this description! Although the intention seems to be right but the execution leaves a lot to be desired for.
Such communication faux-pas not only makes your list look unprofessional but also neutralizes your vision. No doubt your sommelier and wine team will be at the rescue but such mistakes are bound to create a damaging first impression.
Promote: Lastly, you have a great wine list which your guests keep raving about but are you promoting it enough to think beyond the word-of-mouth element? Let’s face it, a wine list is only as good as its standing in the market and the results it brings to the business, both tangible (revenue) and intangibles (goodwill, stature, luxury quotient etc.).
Thanks to the power of social media and many other digital platforms it has become easier to reach out to customers. Make maximum use of them to engage with food and wine lovers and let the world know about your wine program. One caution here – many organizations have become too dependent on social media to spread the ‘wine buzz’ but online promotion should be complemented with conventional PR and marketing efforts that have stood the test of time, like press releases, media engagement, wine dinners, tasting and sampling events etc.
Apart from creating wine lists for many restaurants, with different themes and concepts, I am also passionate about studying and analyzing wine lists. This interest has grown over the years and has helped me to understand and learn the nuances which contribute in the making of world-class lists.
If you have come across a great wine list or have suggestions and ideas about one, do share with the readers. It will be useful learning for everyone.