Of all the lists you create as a restaurateur—stock list, to-do list, mailing list—none is possibly more important than your wine list. By Ben Canaider
It shouldn’t be difficult, but some restaurants can get it terribly wrong—the wine list. Let me paint a customer’s picture: you arrive and are (hopefully) quickly seated. You are immediately offered an up-sell—a pre-dinner drink. This you politely decline before asking for the wine list. You wipe the grease and stains off the ever-so classy plastic cover page and read an all-too predictable and deflating list of wines below. Big company wines. Dull wines. Over-priced wines. Wines often misspelled or lacking any vintage indication. Wines improperly set out, with no respect for region, weight or age.
If any of this rings a bell, or worse still, if any of this reminds you of your own wine list, what can you do?
Some businesses decide it is all too hard, and that their customers don’t really care that much anyway, and so they let one of the big suppliers sort out the wine list for them. The big supplier ends up dominating the drinks sales, which might be logistically convenient for you, but a little unrewarding, if not insulting, to your customers. Big company wines are also retail wines, so their wine list mark-ups stand out like Mrs Thurston Howell III in a $2 shop.
Yet with some minor effort you can establish and run a good wine list yourself. There are two things to consider: representation and presentation. Representation means reps. Let them know via email that you only accept visits or samples or taste wine on one morning a week—a morning that suits you, or an afternoon. Whatever. But control them and they will slowly start to respect you. Slowly…
Presentation means your own wine list. Sure, you can run it up on your computer, but please keep an eye on the lists that hover around the restaurant; make sure they are not stained or ripped or missing pages. Also, print a lot of them. Make sure the customer always has one. And make sure of the following: always double-check the spelling of each wine entry. If I had a dollar for every time I’d seen Clicquot spelt Cliquot, I’d be a substantially richer man than I already am. I’d certainly be drinking more Champagne Clicquot.
Always have the vintage year listed. A wine list entry that reads ‘Chateau Fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon, $79’ is cheating. Intelligent and cashed-up wine tragics like to see the vintage year. It adds integrity and honesty to your list—and to your business.
Always add extra information. Underneath the wine listed you might add a small, italicised paragraph containing information about the wine’s general style and flavour profile. Talk about the region and why the wine is typical of it. This is big in wine nowadays—go long.
Also get the list in to some sort of logical or thematic order. This can be as simple as sparklers followed by whites, roses and then reds. Spirits and fortified wines bring up the rear. In such a case you could choose to list the wines in each broad category either by price (cheapest down to most expensive) or weight. By this I mean listing the wines from the most effortless and easy to drink down to those wines whose consistency is more like jellied pen ink. In the broad white wine category, such a rundown might start with a very light pinot grigio or a young semillon at the top, moving down through sauvignon blanc and riesling to marsanne, unoaked chardonnay, and then on to the more worked and complex chardonnays.
This listing by weight is also a mandatory approach for a wine list divided into varietal categories: riesling, semillon, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, other white wines, rosé, pinot noir, merlot, shiraz, cabernet, other red wines, fortifieds. In each section, list the wines by lightness, freshness and uncomplicated drinkability. The last wine in the cabernet section would therefore be an old, thick, brown wine from a warmer-than-not wine region. Yes, it would probably be awful, but there are still customers that like such wines, and like to drink them with oxtail stew.
Finally, in the world of renovated wine lists, some pitfalls do exist. Avoid cellaring your own wine; it is an expense that can too easily get out of hand, and unless you have a restaurant with a climate-controlled cellar, the wine can soon become damaged thanks to the temperature spikes. That’s a lot of ruined stock to carry.