LinkedIn Post 2: 5 Key Ingredients That Make Great Restaurant Wine Lists

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.

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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:

cat peeLeave 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.

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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.

Cheers,

Niladri

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Restaurant Wine Lists – Component of a wine program you cannot afford to ignore

The following article was originally featured in the delWine & Indian Wine Academy website where it appears under the title ‘Making Restaurant Wine Lists‘.

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Wine ListIn spite of India’s late entry into the world of wine as a serious consumer, the country has come a long way in its quest to become a highly sought after market for the beautiful beverage. In the absence of a robust retail and online sector, wine business in India is almost entirely driven by the hospitality industry. And given the high margins derived from their sales in luxury hotels and an ever-increasing demand and awareness, wine has well and truly replaced other (stronger) alcoholic beverages as the leading contributor to F&B revenues in top hotels and their restaurants, as well as standalone properties.

Hotel chains which represent some of the most iconic and signature food brands but were not necessarily typical ‘wine & food destinations’ until sometime ago, are also on a course-correction phase and now investing prudently on improving their wine offerings.

The realization within the country’s F&B community about the importance of wine and its contribution to the bottom line and stature has resulted in added focus on every aspect related to wines, especially wine lists and their content and design. No wonder these have evolved from simple bill of fares to classic menus packed with many unique features and valuable information. All these are a part of a clear business strategy to capitalize on wine’s acceptance and superior placement vis-a-vis other beverages.

Undoubtedly, wine lists are the face of any wine program and often reflect the organisation’s commitment to the ‘wine cause’, a reason why a lot of attention should be dedicated in their creation.

So what makes a great wine list and how can it be optimized to achieve larger business goals? Whilst there may be multiple perceptions about what constitutes a high quality wine list, five main factors need to be addressed while designing one:

  • Balance: Achieving harmony across all parameters is the single-most critical requirement in creating world-class wine lists. A right balance of regions / appellations, grapes / blends, styles & types, price points and number of labels (as per your inventory and storage specifications) will go a long way in boosting your image as a wine-friendly gastronomic destination in addition to adding handsomely to your revenues.

Therefore, a selection of ‘terroir-driven’, earthy Pinot Noirs from Burgundy are highly desirable but so are the fruit-forward and upfront Pinots from Central Otago. A heavily oaked and lees-matured Chardonnay with its buttery texture will perfectly accompany some of your richer main course items but the lighter and fruitier Albarino might just be the wine for those who do not appreciate oak in their whites. Similarly, Champagnes are must-haves in every list but why not expand your selection by including other interesting Traditional Method sparkling wines? The possibilities of achieving the right balance in a wine list are many…you just have to put your wine expertise to the best use.

In some F&B destinations of our country, this balance is overlooked to project an enviable ‘luxury quotient’, by loading high-end, super-premium and cult wines in their lists. This unsustainable approach not only restricts the spread of wine’s popularity but also likely to result in a failure of the organisation’s wine program in the long run.

  • Information: No menu (food or beverage, doesn’t matter) is worth its salt without the bare minimum information it provides to the customers. For wine, even a bare minimum is not enough as every wine is unique in its profile and carries its idiosyncrasy in the bottle, which needs to be decoded for everyone’s convenience. Great wine lists will also distinguish themselves by offering relevant recommendations with the cuisine served.

Also, it is critical to ensure that all your information is accurate, factually correct and relevant to the wines. Pay particular attention to the spellings…one of the most common issues in many wine lists that I have encountered in India.

  • Compatibility to the cuisine: Keeping the balance factor in mind, wine lists must ensure that the majority styles and types of wines in the lists are friendly to the cuisine served. If this factor is not given its due importance, expect a large number of your wines to languish in the stores for a long time, locking in vital cash. For example, it is not advisable to include a lot of heavy textured, oak-influenced and rich wines in a wine list of Oriental cuisine restaurant, serving predominantly light and delicate dishes.
  • Overall business objective: What is your pricing policy? Are you overstretching your inventory limits and value to accommodate large number of labels? Do you have optimum storage conditions and cellaring capacity? What is your capacity of holding slow moving items? Is there a robust wine training regime in place which will ensure that the wine offerings are effectively implemented by the frontline staff? What is the realistic percentage of wine sales do you want to achieve against the overall F&B revenue? Does your wine list reflect the spending capacity of your customers? Does it meet their expectations? These are some of the questions one needs to bear in mind while designing the wine list. So, ensure that you have a checklist of your business goals (related to wine sales) handy while creating the list.
  • Uniqueness: Last but not the least, set yourself apart by designing a wine list which offers something different to your customers, something that they will remember and talk about. It could be exclusive labels, a never-seen-before design, layout and presentation, a Wow-inducing wine-by-the-glass program, interesting but valid wine pairing recommendations or even simple features like seasonal promotions etc.

Whilst everyone wants to have their share of the wine pie, only those who are willing to invest wisely in their wine program are likely to walk away with the largest slices. A thoughtful investment in your wine list could be one of the two main strategic decisions which is likely to keep you ahead in the race (the other being quality wine training and creation of a dedicated Sommelier cadre).

More about the significance of quality wine education and training coming up later…

Cheers,

Niladri