By John Terlato
WHETHER IT’S A LEATHER-BOUND BOOK, A SLEEK COPPER CLIPBOARD, or a wine list
that appears on the back page of a food menu, a wine list is fairly universal and ubiquitous in restaurants both casual and fine dining. Regardless of how common they are, those wine lists are the result of a lot of research, tasting, thought, and trial and error.
You’re not alone if the thought of structuring a thoughtful list of sparkling, white and red
wines can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming — especially without the guidance of an on staff wine buyer or sommelier. Many folks in the industry often ask me, “How do I choose the right wines for my restaurant’s wine list?” After all, a good wine list can boost sales and enhance your customers’ dining experience — and a less-than-thoughtful one can possibly
sour an oenophile on your establishment.
With that in mind, here is a list of five tips to help you choose wines that might be a good fit for your restaurant’s wine list.
KNOW YOUR CUSTOMERS
You already know your restaurant’s customers — now, it’s up to you to apply that knowledge to the construction of your wine list.
Restaurant customers typically fall somewhere along a bell curve of disposable
income, per-meal spending, and knowledge as wine drinkers. For those along the middle of the curve, choose well-known wine brands that have a strong value for the price — think
Chimney Rock, Rutherford Hill, Sanford and other brands with solid name recognition.
Those will be comfortable choices that make for a guaranteed home run for those customers.
Now for the fun part: your outliers. The tail ends of the bell curve are where you get to experiment — you can play here with emerging brands, more esoteric varieties, surprising geographies and differing price points. Don’t be afraid to suggest these wines and see just how adventurous they’re willing to be!
VARY GEOGRAPHIES AND PRICE
As you’re picking wines for your list, keeping that bell curve in mind, also try to keep diversity in mind from the perspective of price points and
Clustering your wines around one general price point forces your patrons to purchase wines at a specific dollar level per bottle — and if the price point isn’t one your customers are willing to come to (too much or too little), you’ll miss out
on that sale entirely.
The same goes for the geography of your wines. Choosing wines from all over the world
makes each variety more likely to stand out among the others on the list, and cater more
specifically to your customers’ tastes. If your restaurant features traditional Italian cuisine, for example, don’t limit yourself to Italian wines — there are plenty of California varieties that can pair beautifully with your restaurant’s flavors.
Finally, offer a reasonably priced by-the-glass program — one that also offers diversity in geography and pricing. Glass pours are a great entry point to eventual bottle sales.
LET YOUR MENU GUIDE YOU
You’re a restaurant first and foremost… don’t forget your food!
Pairing foods and wines is a great way to create a more memorable dining experience where the wine elevates the food, and vice versa. It really pays to know which wines go well with the dishes on your menu. Your customers will appreciate that you have done the pairing work for them.
For instance, if your chef prepares a beautiful seared salmon with a teriyaki glaze, have a
glorious pinot noir on your list that your servers can suggest pairing with. (Better yet, print
suggested pairings alongside each dish on your menu — that can be a great starting point for a conversation with your customers around wine.)
DON’T BE AFRAID TO EXPERIMENT
A wine list is fluid! Think of it as a movie – not a snapshot. Increasing or decreasing the size of your wine list and shifting what’s on it either seasonally or on another timeline is just the natural progression of a wine list. (And it could be a huge selling point — it may bring your more adventurous customers back to see what new offerings you’re featuring.)
If you bring a wine in for your bottle list that isn’t moving after a month or two, try offering it by the glass! If your customers aren’t willing to splurge on a bottle of something foreign to them, they may be willing to spend $15 on a glass of it. And, of course, glass pours are a great path to full bottle sales down the road.
It’s okay to continually change your list. You’ll know when you get to the point where it’s in
balance, then it’s just fine tuning from there.
Last but not least, have fun.
You, as a restaurant owner or manager, have an opportunity to demystify wine for people. In the past, wine has sometimes been presented with a snobby, mystical, untouchable vibe — but that’s changing, and you as a wine buyer can be the catalyst for that change. Winemakers pour their hearts and souls into their wines, and you get to connect their hard work to the mouths of your diners.
You can help them be as confident choosing a bottle of wine from your list as they are a
cheeseburger from your menu — and your staff should be able to do the same. Train your team members to love and talk about the wines you’ve chosen. You can offer them cheat sheets and flashcards, incentives for by-the-glass and bottles sales…whatever helps them feel excited about and confident in offering the wines on your
And if all else fails, put wines on the wine list that you believe are delicious. People can’t argue with delicious and delicious does not require an explanation! When somebody bites into that cheeseburger from your menu and it’s delicious, they don’t need to be told that it’s delicious — they just know. The same thing holds true for wine.
If you trust your palate and pick wines that are delicious — wines you’re passionate about — there is a higher likelihood that your customers will come to that conclusion as well.