What Makes a Good Wine List? Size Doesn’t Matter
I recently visited the two lone Spokane restaurants that received a nod in the 2010 Wine Spectator “Restaurant Wine List Awards.” As I perused the lists, it got me thinking, “What makes a good wine list?” I refuse to pay for wine rags subscriptions like Spectator and Enthusiast when good information is available for free, so I went Googling (sort of like fishing but for information). After a few casts of the line, I pulled back some very interesting insights. I added my own ideas to compile my thoughts on what makes a good restaurant wine list.
If you’re looking for a rant on restaurant pricing visit Wine: Ripped Off and Ticked Off for a fun read (one of my most viewed and commented posts to date).
Size – It’s Not the Size of Your List It’s how You Use It
Sure, we’ve all heard this before, but when it comes to restaurant wine lists, size doesn’t matter. Actually, there comes a point when too big just hurts…to read. Restaurants need to balance inventory and overhead with service and selection. Too small and you’ll leave the customer feeling unsatisfied and longing for more. Too big and they’ll be overwhelmed and afraid to take it all in (yes, pun intended…I’ve got to make it interesting). I recently visited restaurants that fit into each of these categories. One was a local place that boasted a whopping 8 wines by the glass. To be honest it wasn’t the lack of selection that bothered me as much as the lack of consideration for the list. Put Beringer and Sutter Homes on your list and my chances of returning to your establishment are significantly reduced.
The second restaurant, (in the city of the rising bird) lured us with their impressive stature of over 3,000 bottles. Their “everyday” menu was a fine selection of flights and glass pours, but we had a group of 20 and wanted to order several bottles. The waitress returned with a wine “bible.” We sifted through the poorly organized list and attempted to decipher the layout. After several attempts and with some guidance from the waitress we made our selection. Not once, not twice, not three times, but four of our choices were “out of stock.” Finally we settled for several run of the mill selections that you could find at BevMo the next block down.
If you’ve got a small list, you need to work it. It needs to be well thought out and have some special attention paid to make it perform. If your list is well endowed, make sure you rein it in and present it in a way that is easy to handle. Clearly marked page headings, categories, and themes will make the experience more enjoyable. If you want to really stand out, you can go “high-tech” like this wine bar in New York City that has a full interactive bar where users can select by variety, region, price, and more!
Make Sure Your List is Dressed Appropriately
How does the saying go, “No white shoes after labor day?” Your wine list should be dressed appropriately. What I’m getting at is make sure the curtains match the drapes. If you’re a down to earth American fair place, don’t stock your wine list with French Bordeaux and Italian Super Tuscan and if you’re gourmet Italian, you may want to pay special attention and bring in some small lot wines from Trentino, Veneto and Tuscany. Yes, this will require some attention. No, you probably won’t be able to use the same distributor for everything.
Additionally, design a list that has specific wine and food pairings. I’ve really enjoyed restaurants that have suggested wine listings paired with each menu item. This, along with the tasting notes, gives me a sense of confidence that someone on the staff took special care to pair the two items together.
If I Wanted To Get Screwed I’d Rent a High Priced Hooker
My apologies for being so vulgar, but nothing says bend over more than seeing a bottle of Dancing Bull Zinfandel on a list for $30+. I understand the need to balance profits, overhead, storage and loss but gouging customers for a $10 retail / $6 wholesale bottle of wine is wrong. Many restaurants are starting to wise up as they see people order water or beer with their dinners. Personally, I’m impressed when I see an honest $15-$18 for that same bottle of Dancing Bull. At that price I’m more inclined to buy the bottle.
There is one brave restaurant in town that actually sells their wines by the bottle at retail. Bless their heart! I have no problem ordering a large calzone and a bottle of Kiona Cab/Merlot for only $12. As I looked through one of the Wine Spectator “Award” recipient lists from the area, I was very impressed at their price ratio. I randomly chose 10 wines and found that the majority were under the standard double mark up (average was $20 retail / $36 restaurant) however, a few were a little disproportionate in charge.
The Devil Is In the Details
Sweat the small stuff. Even if you’re a burger or pizza joint you should pay attention to your wine list. For those places I suggest going local and staying in an appropriate price range $15-$30 per bottle. Pay attention to the details. Make sure your list is up to date. You can put Bud Light or Apple Martini on a list and it pretty much never changes. Wine vintages and “stats” change with every new release. Your list should always include grape variety (Pinot Noir, Cab, Red Blend), year, producer, region (Napa, Alsace, Walla Walla) and of course price. You get bonus points if you’ve taken the time to offer tasting notes (preferably your own).
Other Random Tips for a Great Wine List
- Support your local wine scene – I recently visited New York City and not one restaurant carried wine from New York (in spite of the state being the fourth largest producer of wine in the country).
- Train your staff – Nothing is more frustrating than a wait staff that can tell their Pinot Noir from their Pinot Grigio. Take the time to bring your staff up to speed on the stereotypical food / wine pairings. If you’re going for a high-class vibe where a lot of wine will be sold, it is strongly recommended that you send your staff to a wine class.
- Don’t be a snob – It’s just booze, let people enjoy it. If you’ve got a large list of wines, make sure you have price points and styles for people of all price levels and wine knowledge. I’m coming to your restaurant to enjoy myself, not feel intimidated.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help – If wine is not your thing, enlist the help of your distributors (but be aware they have product to move and may not always have your best interest in mind), contact a local wine store, or contact your local wine blogging celebrity (if there is such a thing), we’re always happy to give our opinion.
There you have it, my take on what makes a great restaurant wine list. What other ideas do you have? I’d love to hear your thoughts, or examples of places that’ve got it right. By the way, congratulations to Ambrosia Bistro and Wine Bar and Max at Mirabeau for being recognized for their stand out wine lists in Spokane, WA.