Smart selection

Compiling a wine list isn’t brain surgery but it’s amazing how many restaurants get it horribly wrong.

What should you look for in a restaurant wine list? Come on, it’s not rocket science. A range of wines that match the food? From different regions? Different styles? Different prices? From different producers? A list that’s easy to navigate? Yes, all this—it’s not difficult, is it? So why do so many restaurants get it wrong?

Huon Hooke, the respected wine writer from The Sydney Morning Herald, has seen some doozies. Like a seafood place in far north Queensland with four sparkling wines and a page of ports. Then there was an eatery in outback NSW boasting 20 vintages of beaujolais. Hello? Isn’t this a wine that’s best drunk young?

As anyone who’s drawn up a wine list will tell you, compiling a list that’s balanced, affordable, matches the food and is totally compelling is important for a restaurant and absolutely crucial for a winery. After all, competition’s tough.

In rough figures there’s 18,000 Australian wines out there and it’s not overstating the case to say that wine reps from around the country are beating down the door of every restaurant, cafe, bistro, brasserie and trattoria asking (begging?) them to take their wines. But I digress.

Competition is so fierce and the market so important—there was a 16 per cent increase in dining out last year—that wine companies offer powerful incentives for listing their wines, ranging from discounts to designing and printing the wine list if necessary. There’s even talk of kickbacks for restaurants prepared to carry certain highly-priced imported wines.

If you’re putting the wine list together yourself, the first thing to do is to put your own preferences on the back burner. You may be a huge fan of first growth bordeaux but life’s a tough reality show and you can’t expect people to pay megabucks for a lunchtime drop just because you want to stock it.

Instead, consider the type of food you’re serving, who your customers are, then buy accordingly, keeping a sharp eye on the prices.

For example, if steaks and hearty roasts are your drawcard, make sure there’s plenty of shiraz and cab-sauv. If you have a sizeable female clientele, make sure that there’s a selection of soft-drinking merlots. Red newcomers like sangiovese and tempranillo will show you’re wine savvy.

If you specialise in seafood and lighter fare, it’s quite handy to list plenty of sauvignon blanc (the drop du jour with ladies who lunch) and blends of sauv-blanc and semillon are a hot number. A few rieslings help and fashionable newies like pinot gris and viognier will earn nods of approval. Chardonnay, of course, has a huge following.

Something else to watch out for is a sense of regionalism. You may be prepared to die in a ditch defending the delights of Barossa Valley or Margaret River wines but you get more respect (and customers) by spreading the net to include Tasmania, Hunter Valley, Yarra Valley, Coonawarra and the Adelaide Hills, plus some French, Italian and Alsace drops if your customers will appreciate them.

It’s also smart to have wines from different suppliers. The big boys like Brown Brothers, Yalumba, Southcorp and De Bortoli have excellent wines and spectacular deals. If you’re a mid-priced bistro or brasserie, there’s no reason not to stock up on them but you will gain more cred from wine-smart customers if you list a few boutique wines and drops that are hard to find.

Let’s face it, with all those wines out there, why have a list that is brain-numbingly boring when it’s so easy to add some excitement?

Balance is also important. I went to an upscale eatery in Sydney’s Paddington soon after it opened two years ago and it was closed 10 months later. One reason may have been that there were five rieslings on the list and one sauv-blanc. Riesling is a lovely wine but sadly not everyone likes it.

This doesn’t mean you need a list that’s as thick as the Yellow Pages and a shrine to the woodchip industry. A couple of years ago Restaurant Balzac in Sydney’s Randwick, which carries less than 50 wines, won a gong for the best small wine list.

The list was eclectic. There was wine from around Australia and a couple of French and New Zealand drops. There was a touch of class too—Cape Mentelle’s Sem Sauv-Blanc, Henschke’s Keyneton Shiraz Cab Merlot and Rockford’s Grenache Shiraz Mataro.

Prices were reasonable, showing a fair mark-up. Importantly, they didn’t rob you blind. “We watch the prices,” explains Restaurant Balzac’s co-owner Lela Radojkovic. “This is the suburbs and our customers aren’t that rich. We also have BYO a couple of days a week.” So everyone is a winner.

But if compiling a wine list seems too much hard work, there’s no need to break down in sobs. Competition being the way it is, there’s no shortage of help freely available (along with other incentives) from wine companies and wine merchants.

Paul Boothby, senior brand manager with wine merchants Tucker Seabrook, says the restaurant trade is so important they offer valuable discounts to restaurants that have 50 per cent Tucker wines on the list, and will even design and print the list too.

Word on the street is that the big producers offer similar deals. And why not? With all the delicious drops they have to offer, they’d be daft not to. But there’s another reason.

“There’s an old saying in the industry that liquor stores sell wine and restaurants build brands,” says Boothby. “The fact is we’re eating out more than ever before and restaurants are an important part of the wine market.”

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