The perfect wine list

A blackboard can be the perfect platform for a dynamic wine list

A blackboard can be the perfect platform for a dynamic wine list

There is a technology that allows the constant updating of a dynamic, small wine list. It’s called a blackboard

here’s a trés posh cafe-slash-restaurant around the corner from my office; I pass by every morning and night. I quite like the place  but I hasten to add I’ve never set foot in the door. To do so would break my number-one rule of dining out: never go to a restaurant you haven’t been to before. It is just too dangerous. But back to the place around the corner… I like it because of the fit-out: simple second-hand timber tables and chairs; simple white crockery; a small holding bar with a simple vase of fresh flowers at one end; and a very workmanlike seasonal menu with pasta, salads, some fish and no Wagyu.

The wine list suits all of this too: six wines by the glass, about a dozen bottles of white, rosé and red, a sparkler (but no champagne), and a few pretentious, I mean, boutique beers. The wine and drinks list is posted on the glass door. It’s all set out in conservative black font on white A5: name of wine, variety, vintage, and price. Simple. The wine list is pretty ‘live’, too. It seems to change more than quarterly and there is a wine specials blackboard on one interior wall that adds to the mix. This blackboard will feature such things as bin-ends, older vintage wines, coming BYO nights (often Tuesdays, when BYO is ‘allowed’, along with a corkage fee of $10…), and other stuff like a winemaker’s dinner or an imported wine tasting degustation wherein you get to try a half a dozen wines along with three courses for a set (and pretty reasonable) price.

I point out all of this because I think it sets a very good standard for in-house marketing and promotion. The style, length and tone of the wine list and the support afforded it by the blackboard suits the nature of the establishment and its food.

Yet while the nature of the wine list and blackboard seem just right, the owner/operator of this otherwise very smooth-sailing eatery stuffs it up in one very silly way. The blackboard looks like it has been chalked up by a three year old on a red cordy high. It looks like scribbling. Why bother to get 99 per cent of the concept right and then ruin it with bad presentation? There’s no excuse.

And this is so often the way. A good conceptual framework ruined by bad presentation.

With this in mind it is wise to remember—and to burn into the brains of your staff—the following service rules relating to beverages.

On paper
  • Spell the names right. On wine lists around the world I’ve seen Veuve Clicquot spelt ‘Veuve Cliquot’ more often than not.
  • Vintage dates. The advertised vintage date must be the one you are pouring.
  • Regions. If listing regions, double-check the wine is actually from the region you claim it is.
  • Descriptors and descriptions. Many sommeliers like to channel James Halliday when they are writing their wine lists, describing each wine in great and correct detail. Even if you are running a serious wine establishment, I think simpler descriptions often work better. If you work on the outrageous fact that most of your customers are not sommeliers (or even James Halliday) then simple descriptions about wines that provide one note on aroma, one on flavour, and one more on the wine’s weight and texture might be useful for a customer interested in a clean and light, slightly acidic white for their calamari rings de jour.
  • Footnotes. Along with your venue’s name, at the bottom of the page always list opening hours and contact details. And a useful touch: the date your wine list was last updated. This can embarrass you or your staff into updating it more regularly, if nothing else…
On the floor
  • Pronunciation. Correct pronunciation of all the wines and beverages on your list is essential. So make sure you do a Henry Higgins on your Pygmalion floor staff regularly.
  • Order of service. Floor staff should also have a basic understanding of the weight and texture of your wines—lighter whites (like riesling) to heavier ones (such as viognier) and ditto reds, such as pinot noir through to tannic cabernets. This knowledge is going to help your customers make better—and more enjoyable—decisions about what wine to drink with what menu item.
  • The hand sell. The food and wine matching angle is a great way to sell new or slow-moving wines too. But your floor staff’s confidence and knowledge in the product is crucial for this strategy to work. It is worth pursuing, as the acquisition of such knowledge is great professional development for your staff, and the rendering of such knowledge is a customer-winning educative experience for the diners.

Also, write your wine list with an eye to trading up your customers. Keep their interest—and noses—just slightly raised. Maintain sauvignon blanc on the list, for sure, but also put on some emerging and trendy varieties.

And finally, and most importantly, find someone—anyone— who has a good chalkboard technique.

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