Designing a wine list - not a price list
For many who have owned a licensed premise or have been responsible for designing the wine-list over several years. The above comment is something you are fully aware and work hard to achieve. For those new to the industry or to writing a wine-list. Here are some insights to help avoid pit-falls and simple mistakes on a poorly constructed wine-list and reducing slow selling even seemingly dead wines on a wine-list.
Due to the competitive nature of licensed premises the world over and the sheer number of options. Owners and wine managers cannot afford to fall into the trap of designing a wine-list primarily focused on price-points. And forgetting why they opened their premise, what was the reason they designed the theme of the venue and created the specific, seasonal menu - and why would a customer come to their establishment time and again over the one next door or down the road. To have an experience that the other establishment does not offer or provide.
This does not mean that you choose wines nobody has ever heard of or tasted in your town, city or country. But what it does mean, is you need to think about the wine-list as much as you did on choosing the name of your business and the cultural influences and ingredients which the chef chose for the menu and daily specials.
During my 30 years in the industry - I have been to a number of licensed establishments where very little thought was given to the wine-list. They simply copy or cut-and-paste bits and pieces from what others in their area are doing. They leave it blindly to their main beverage supplier to write and print. They only choose wines that they like, or a classic old comment that still exists with those who have not thought about this remark before they make it. I don’t want to list wines in my restaurant which are sold in supermarkets.
This is very much an emotional remark - rather than a rational one. Unless you shop in a very select number of supermarkets around the world. Who employ a qualified full-time wine staff who stand in the wine department of a supermarket - for all hours that the store is open. Most wine purchases in a supermarket are made by oneself. No guidance, no advice, and with a large number of labels sitting side-by side to each other in ambiguously named wine sections.
Sometimes there might be for a few hours on high traffic flow days a tasting person - promoting 1 or 2 wines, that you can taste and if you like it, you are more likely to purchase. And the probability is very high if it fits into your shopping needs for that day or upcoming weekend. As in supermarkets and traditional retail - we buy wine as we need.
But generally you purchase wine with no assistance, no support or safety net - and wine for many is a luxury and a financial purchase that needs to be thought through ones values. So we purchase wines we trust, yes - ‘trust’, buying wine styles comes with a measure of experience - buying comes down to trust, we have knowledge of what we are going to get. Consistently providing perceived and reinforced value for each customer. So why wouldn’t you list wineries that are producing wines of a consistent quality and wines which your customers trust, makes it easier for you when you are busy or while training staff.
Also - though thankfully this is becoming less common, a wine-list should not be a tool to show-off how much you think you know about wine. You are not dinning in your establishment purchasing every glass of wine and dining every day in your establishment (well you could be if you don’t think about your business - then you won’t have one). The wine list is not for your taste-buds or for your best wine friends or partner.
A wine-list should be designed to pair with, complement and bring out the best in the flavours of every dish on your menu, along with making the most of the season and location. If you do have a wine on your list which does not pair with any dish on the menu. Come a few months down the track when you do a stock-take, or sales report on high and slow selling wines. You will have a few usual suspects at the bottom, and you will blame the wine - sometimes this is the case. But much more likely, when customers looked at your menu and wines to enjoy - or they were given a suggestion from your well trained floor staff - the slow selling wines were not selected or suggested as they did not pair well with the dish chosen off your menu.
Sure you have customers who like to enjoy a glass of wine before a meal or before the movies without dining. But the wines you have by the glass that customers can enjoy on their own. Should also pair well with your menu - as it is very likely the wine they are drinking will be taken to the table or will be ordered again to pair with their entrée or main course.
I see restaurants who don’t think through their wine-list offering and design a wine-list by price or by a version of paint-by-numbers. Fitting wines into a set-template, a 1-2 page format that you simply fill in the gaps with wine varietals, sparkling - white - red and by price. I still find seafood focused restaurants listing a number of young, grippy, high tannin or heavily oaked bold rich red wines - and they expect their customers to enjoy them with the vibrant seafood menu.
Or a steak or bbq’d meat focused restaurant listing 3 or more Sauvignon Blancs by the glass, simply because they are in New Zealand. They tell their wine distributor or the winemaker that the wine does not sell well in their restaurant - no kidding.
For a number of years now, wines from all over the world are being made to be served / enjoyed so much earlier than they once were. You can now list young, recently bottled wines on a wine-list with confidence. And yes, I fully appreciate price will eventually come into the equation. There is no point being a casual day time café and listing $35 wines by the glass. These will be slow to sell for most establishments. But please don’t start with price-points and then try and fit wines into rigid slots.
Think about the experience you want to offer your customers - please talk with the chef - carefully work through and taste your menu: tapa’s, entrée, mains & desserts and look to pair wines with each dish. A well designed wine-list should not have any dead-wines.
Where possible, you should look to refresh and update a good portion of your wine-list with the seasons, with seasonal menu changes or key updates. New releases from northern and southern hemisphere wineries that work with your menu and customer experience. Do everything you can to work with flavours first - before price. You train your floor staff on flavours; they describe the flavours and how each dish is cooked with your customers, along with suggesting sides and sauce options. Plus the customer can or will make subtle changes to some ingredients or seasoning due to diet. You don’t start a conversation with - do you want a $16 wine by-the-glass with an entrée and a $80 bottle of wine with your main - before they have even ordered.
After you have confirmed your menu and know how each dish is prepared by your chef, and you know all its flavours. Then start tasting wines that complement and bring out the flavours in each dish and creates something greater than each can achieve on their own.
This can be done - this is not impossible - this is why wine is made - to be sipped, savoured and shared with good food and friends. Your customers should have an experience they can’t have at home and leave with a good taste in their mouth - they will be more likely to tell others and return.