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How to build a wine list in 10 simple steps

Wine. It can be the greatest single greatest mouthful in a dinner, or ruin the whole experience.

By Chloe Chaplin

Which one you deliver depends not on logic, but on how it make diners feel.

Good wine makes for a good time

A well-chosen wine can make things feel special, romantic, fun or frivolous, kind of regardless of its objective quality. On the flip side, the wrong wine or list can leave guests with a bad taste in their mouths (figuratively and literally.)

Creating that perfect feeling for your guests starts with the wine list – something that’s often treated as an afterthought. Before we get cracking on the details, you need to get one thing clear. Why are you doing this? We can pretty safely assume that you’re in this industry because you want people to have a great time – and you need to make a buck or two, to keep doing that. If you’re also insanely passionate about something left field – biodynamics or obscure grapes, for example – that’s more than excellent, but your passions need to be balanced by those first two most important considerations.

1. Start with who you are

It makes no sense to serve mostly New Zealand wine, if your restaurant celebrates the cuisine of Central and Southern Italy. If your food is cheap and cheerful, your wine options should be a list of cheeky little quaffers. Similarly, if your kitchen operates with certain ethics or guidelines, your wine list should as well. If you’re a bar and hardly serve any food, your list should be full of wine that speaks for itself. Within those creative limits, make sure your list has a bit of diversity about it. Explore different regions, grapes and styles, with a good balance of old and new world wines.

2. Find suppliers

It’s simple to go with a big supplier, this is true, and for some places, it’s actually the smartest option. But if the tone of your restaurant needs something more boutique, premium or unusual, working directly with vineyards could be important. It’ll make your list and your guests’ experience feel more special if it’s built around labels they can’t just find down at their local supermarket. This will take a little extra work, but it’s work you probably won’t cry too much about: taking trips to find obscure wineries that have great wine and stories that fit with your own, inviting reps to host regular wine tastings, and keeping in touch with boutique wineries so you get first dibs on their special releases.

3. Let your food choose

When choosing wines, keep your menu in mind. Of course, you should have a sweep of easy drinkers so that every palate is catered for, but you’ll also need to consider any dishes that really need a certain pairing. Do you have a fresh, off-dry white wine to complement a quirky seafood dish? What about a big, earthy red to sit alongside some rich lamb, or a mouthy white to take on that ballsy cream sauce? Ideally, you’d start by working with your chef to decide on a perfect match for each dish, then fill in any blanks.

4. Taste the wine

Yes, obviously. You, and everyone talking to customers should have tasted the wines going on your list, so you can offer recommendations and advice. Drinking delicious wine for work? Poor you.

5. Keep it small, but perfectly formed

Unless your whole deal is that you have a really eclectic wine selection, aim for simplicity. Aim to offer a full range with the minimum number of wines – some light, silly whites, a few in-betweeners, some bossy reds, and a rosé and sparkling thrown in. With a healthy mix of price points. Include too many wines on your list, and you’re setting yourself up for an overstocked, wasteful bar.

6. Have wines available by the glass

Guests may not always want to commit to buying a whole bottle, so they’ll probably buy nothing at all. Be a sport and let them have a glass.

7. Make sure the menu makes guests feel empowered

Give guests all the info they need to make a considered choice – even (especially!) those who don’t know much about wine. Include the name of the grape, style, region, and a short sentence or tasting notes.

8. Suggest pairings

Pairing each wine with a food option may take some time, but it’s worth it. It means diners don’t have to trawl through your full list, which can be overwhelming. Also, customers often just want to be told what to do, so they know they’re spending their money on a delicious combination. This helps you upsell more special wines, and gives guests the feeling of a curated experience.

9. Arrange your list by anything other than price

Segmenting wines by price makes customers choose based on price – you want your customers to explore so they settle on one they’ll really enjoy (and may pay more for). A good basic approach is to group sparklings, rosés, whites and reds together, then within these groups, clump together wines of similar grapes and styles, with light flavours at the top and fuller ones down the bottom.

10. Test new additions to the list

If you’re excited by a new wine, but it’s a bit left field or expensive, start by offering it by the glass or offering tastings. This lets you collect feedback, and also gives you the chance to have deeper conversations with customers.

Pay attention to your wine list, and diners will too!

The wine list is often an element that gets overlooked – it’s treated as the garnish, rather than a critical part of a great night out. Put in just a little extra effort (and drink a little extra wine) and your list will put a shine on your experience that will keep people coming back to spend – and drink – with you.

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