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Que Syrah, Syrah: Tips for Creating a Great Wine List

Helpful tips for creating a great wine list, suitable for a casual restaurant.

By Dave Eagle

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.

But if you don’t know your Catawba from your Gewürztraminer 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 over-investment, 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. Here are some tips to help you along if you’re considering adding wine to your list of offerings.


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1 . Find out about your local suppliers and/or distributors

If you’re hospitality business is based in Australia, then you’re already geographically blessed with some of the world’s best wine regions located right here. Interestingly, Australia also has some of the oldest grape vines in the world, having adopted many of the vines that were brought from Europe’s most established vineyards when they were plagued by disease in the 1800s.

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 (wholesale). 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.

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2 . Try as many types as you can

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.

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.

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3 . Resist the urge to overbuy

Excitement can easily take over when you’re diving into learning about wine and trying out new blends and varietals, and you may find that there’s an abundance of wines you just love and can decide between them, so you figure you’ll just get all 40 or 50 of the ones you tried.

But developing a well-curated wine list takes time, a solid understanding of your customers’ preferences (which again takes time to hone), and some financial investment.

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, unless that is the focus of your venue of course.

When deciding what makes the cut on your winelist, it’s been said that going with your gut is often the best way to go.

Frank Hannon-Tan, co-founder of Mother Vine (recently voted South Australia’s best wine bar in the 2017 Restaurant and Catering Australia Awards) says “I’ve also learned that your initial gut feeling on something is really important. It’s easy to compromise and rationalise why it might make more sense to do things a certain way, but when it comes to determining a really good product – if you feel something is right from the beginning, it usually is.”

READ NOW: Behind the Kounta: How Mother Vine Became the Best Wine Bar in South Australia

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4 . Make sure the wine “makes sense” for your restaurant

It might be tempting to get some super fancy high-priced bottles, but if your business offers a casual dining experience, you might not attract the type of crowd that would purchase the high-end wines you’re stocking.

A family-style Italian restaurant doesn’t need to offer bottles of Koshu from the Tomi No Oka winery out in the Yamanashi prefecture for example.

Sure, there are always exceptions that work, but you want to be careful not to end up with hundred-dollar dust collectors.

If you’d like to serve wines that are on the premium end of the spectrum, be sure to also consider how to store them properly. Hannon-Tan recommends a Coravin system which Mother Vine uses to serve more expensive bottles by the glass without pulling the cork.

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5 . Avoid being over-descriptive about the wines on your list

Speak to a sommelier and you’ll probably hear a myriad of expressions about a single glass of wine. And while being descriptive about the intricate elements of taste in each vintage can tempt or steer your customers towards making a decision, you can also risk confusing your customers who don’t know the difference between demi-sec and lightstruck.

Keep things simple (list the winery, the name, the varietal, and the year) and let the lack of detail be an opportunity for your servers to interact with the customers instead. Most guests will appreciate being told what wine goes well with the evening’s specials however. 

As complex and historical as winemaking is, wine should be something that’s 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 top of your inventory, and celebrating with the occasional bottle yourself (and with the crew).