creating a great wine list

Photo by Rennet Stowe (Flickr)

For the hospitality entrepreneur, wine is a tempting avenue to pursue. Whether that avenue becomes the fast lane to expanded revenue or detour through a construction zone is entirely up to the wine list. And the wine list is entirely up to you. You don’t have to be a logics professor well versed in the transitive relationship between two givens to understand the implication of that last sentence, but it definitely would have helped with this one. It’s all up to you, is what I’m saying, and if you don’t know your catawba from your gewurztraminer then getting it right becomes a little tricky. For a casual, mid-tier restaurant that wants to improve the experience while boosting revenue, the cost of a consultant is probably an overinvestment, but you don’t want to just close your eyes and pick 10 bottles at random either. Still, a little research and some conversations with people who know better can steer you in the right direction. You’re already on top of the research portion, because you’re at this blog, reading a post about creating a great wine list. And you’re probably wishing I would just dispense with the nonsense and make with the helpful tips already—this is a very good idea. Without further ado, then, a list of ways to make a great list.

creating a great wine list

Photo by Giles Clark (Flickr)

  • Find out about local suppliers and/or distributors. If you’re trying to figure out what wine you should be offering, you can at least narrow your list down right off the bat by checking out what you can actually buy. You may like a bottle you bought in a store, but that doesn’t mean it’s available through the channels available to you. If you’re nowhere near wine country, that means contacting distributors. At the least, a rep can provide you with a catalog of what she can sell you; at best, she’ll ask about your menu and give you advice on what would be most appropriate.
  • Drink some wine. A lot of wine. On its own, this seems like very irresponsible advice. I should clarify that when I say “a lot of wine,” I mean you should try as many varietals as you possibly can. Distributors will often hold tasting events, or arrange something special for you, but if you have access to wineries so much the better. You may pay a little more working on a smaller scale, but you’ll be dealing with people who really know their product, are passionate about it, and will want to teach you a thing or two. If you learn what makes a cabernet a cabernet, that applies to all cabernets—not just their bottle. More important than knowledge of the grape, by tasting wine you’ll be able to learn what you like. Your food is a reflection of your taste, and the wine you offer should be, too.
  • Photo by Francis Storr (Flickr)

    Photo by Francis Storr (Flickr)

    Don’t overdo it. You may find, during step 2, that there an abundance of wines that you just love and you can’t decide between them and figure you’ll just get all 40 or 50 of the ones you tried. That’s just too much. You want your list to offer a variety, while staying within a clear focus—not to mention the inventory management headaches such a big list would entail. Resist the temptation to be the place with the “extensive” wine list. Also, resist the temptation to ever drink wine again. You might have a problem.

  • Make sure the wine “makes sense” for your restaurant. A family style italian restaurant doesn’t need to offer bottles of Koshu from the Tomi No Oka winery out in the Yamanashi prefecture. Italian and Spanish wines would work much better there. It might also be tempting to get some super fancy high priced bottles, but it’s best to stay away from those in a casual setting. Sure, Hooters has been serving up Dom Perignon with chicken wings at a price way above anything on their menu, but they can afford the gimmick. You’ll likely just end up with hundred dollar dust collector.
  • Avoid trying to describe the wines on your list. Let’s be honest here: most descriptions of wine are utter nonsense. Here are three excerpts of tasting notes from Wine Enthusiast magazine, and one I just flat-out made up. See if you can pick the impostor:
    a. This pure Merlot is racy, ripe and ready to drink
    b. Green pepper and asphalt aromas provide intrigue
    c. A Malbec that hints strongly at chocolate and berries
    d. Lactic oak and rubbery black fruit aromas lead to a wiry, acidic palate

First, I’m going to tell you that the last one is real. But lactic oak? What does that even mean? Lactic acid produced by an oak tree? Is that better or worse tasting than the asphalt described in option B, which is also a real thing someone said about wine? I made up the third one, the only one that even sounds appetising in this list, and I can’t tell you how many times someone’s told me a wine had “chocolate and berry notes” that I just couldn’t taste. Describing the wine on the list is either going to turn people off or lead to disappointment. Just list the winery, the name, the varietal, and the year, and let your servers handle the rest. You don’t have to tell someone what a wine tastes like to say, “It goes really with our fish special tonight.” If you add your own pairing suggestions into your POS, your servers can have all that information at their iPad holding fingertips.

Photo by Amanda Downing (Flickr)

Photo by Amanda Downing (Flickr)

Just remember to keep things simple. Wine should be something to be enjoyed, and not stressed over. Your customers can relax when you and your staff can speak confidently to the wine list, and help them choose a good match for their meals. You can keep your stress to a minimum by not overextending yourself, staying on not of your inventory, and indulging in the occasional bottle from your stash.