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.

drinknectar

Owner of Nectar Tasting Room in Spokane, WA. (@nectarwine) Publisher of Spokane Wine Magazine (@spowinemag), author, speaker, consultant and internet marketer with Nectar Media (@nectarmedia)

22 comments on “What Makes a Good Wine List? Size Doesn’t Matter

  1. Brian

    Josh,
    I should print this up and take it to every restaurant in Sonoma County. There have been a few who seem to “get it” but so many just don’t. You would think, that living here in the heart of California’s Wine Country, they would just get it.

    I wonder where the big disconnect comes from, it’s mind boggling. Well, I’ve done what I can. Posted on my FB page and tweeted you up, maybe, just maybe someone will catch a clue!

    Cheers brother!
    Brian
    norcalwingman

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Brian, I would think that being in Sonoma, you’d see some fantastic wine lists that are not only well done, but organized. Feel free to take a copy with you when you dine out and you can leave it as your tip. ahahah!

      Josh

      Reply
  2. Jon Troutman

    Great post, Josh! I agree with you on just about every front. The wine list needs to above all be consistent with the menu. If you’re a pizza place, I’m probably okay with less than a dozen wines by the glass. On the other hand, if you’re a $$$$ restaurant, I want a well organized, consumer-friendly list, educated staff, and wines that will work well with the cuisine.

    Producing a list like this is something that is much more difficult to achieve than most would realize! Even at high end restaurants, delivering value should be a priority. Even places like Bordeaux and Burgundy can offer reputable names at fair prices if the wine director takes the time and energy to find them.

    For those w/ a Wine Spectator account, check out this sexy list… and the wine director ;) http://www.winespectator.com/restaurants/show/source/search/id/9653

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Jon,

      Thank you! I’m also okay with the pizza joint having a smaller list, as long as it is still well thought out and organized. The disconnect with restaurants probably is the time and struggle that comes with a good wine list. Many restaurant owners are not wine experts too. They have a passion for food and are artists in that respect. Not every restaurant needs to hire a full time wine director, but I think that every restaurant who wants to sell wine with their food and accentuate the dining experience ought to hire a consultant to help them build and occasionally maintain the list.

      I don’t have a WS account, but I can only assume that the sexy list…and director is you. LOL!

      Josh

      Reply
  3. Tamara Belgard

    You’re so right on, great job bringing this very sore subject to light (and in such a clever way). I hope every restaurant and sommelier out there sees this!

    Reply
  4. Scott Abernethy

    Great post, Josh. I’ve been involved with developing the wine list at a country club whose clientele for the most part have very limited wine knowledge and who generally order the “house wine” or the cheapest wine on the menu.

    The first thing we did is kick all of the cheap CA wines off the list (except for the White Zin – we didn’t want to get run out of the county) and replace the awful house wines with reasonably priced and GOOD Washington wines.

    The next step was to establish a wine list with a price point that would at least entice our membership to try something new. We chose wines that we could sell for $15 to $30 a bottle. Our pricing strategy was doubling of WHOLESALE price, plus tax, rounded up to the nearest dollar. This system has worked well for us. It means we look for wines that we can purchase for $6-$14. Our biggest seller by far is Columbia Crest Grand Estates and H3, primarily because of name recognition. We also sell a lot of Barnard Griffin wine.

    We also developed a “premium” wine list for higher priced wines which we offer at a reduced markup (generally $15 over cost) for those that want something for special occasions. An example of a wine on our premium list is Barrister Cab Franc at $36.

    Although our list is small, it is diverse and offers great value compared to other restaurants in the Tri-Cities area. We are also struggling to put asses in seats at the restaurant, and offering wine specials and wine/dinner pairings is one way to do it. But you can’t do it if your wine is overpriced, especially when folks know they can go to Costco and get the same bottle for half the price!

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Scott, I like how you approach the pricing. Sometimes a restaurant can be a great way to explore wines and experiment. If you take care in your wine list, not only will you be considered a trusted source for good food, but you’ll become a trusted source to experiment. People will consider you tops on their list because they know that whatever wine they choose it will be a delightful surprise that was carefully thought through.

      Scott – do you bring anything in from overseas, small lot vineyards in France or Italy. Do you try to expand to smaller production states like Michigan or New York?

      Reply
  5. Mary Cressler

    Josh,

    I have so many things to say about this… but I’ll be brief. I do agree with your last comment. The restaurants I work with are those that fall into the category as passionate for food, but don’t really know much about the wine therefore bring in a consultant to help.
    At the least, I try my best to select wines for the list that you will *not* see on the bottom shelf of every grocery store. There are a lot of unique and tasty options out there for a low price point (low price being a priority for many restaurant owners).
    I also agree it is of equal importance for a server to know a bit about the wine just as they are responsible to know their food menu. I try to at least ingrain a small amount of wine knowledge into servers so they feel comfortable with wine basics and not so frightened that they are afraid to even drop off a wine list. They are the ones selling the wine, they should know about it!
    I think those two things alone can improve quality of service and variety of wines for the consumer.
    Some restaurants are definitely doing it right, but SO many more are doing it wrong!

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Mary, I appreciate yours (and Scott’s) opinion here as people who have consulted with restaurants. There are a lot of great quality price options out there. I rectently attended a tasting of 20 Italian Small Estate Vineyard wineries. Most of the wines were under $10 wholesale. This makes a great bargain for the restaurant (and hopefully the consumer). Most of the wines were top notch and provided good flavor and a rich experience.

      I think there should be a story behind most every wine on the list.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Reply
  6. Angie Robar

    I love the idea of restaurants partnering up with their local wine shop! If the end customer gets a good bottle that was suggested/paired with the right food they’re much more likely to “love” the wine (and the food) and probably want to buy it. The knowledgable staff at the wine shop can share their insights and help with tasting profiles and pairing, thus delivering a better experience at the restaurant. Then the restaurant can refer folks to the local wine shop to purchase the wine. They could do joint events too:)

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Angie – totally agree! I wonder what the barrier is that keeps this from happening more frequently. Often times the wine list comes across as an afterthought that seems put together by the distributor (no offense).

      Josh

      Reply
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  8. Andrew Facey

    Great article! My only beef is with a group of 20 (obviously wine people) going out to dinner and not pre-ordering the wine?!? As a Sommelier that has worked in some of Canada’s top restaurants (Bianca’s in Newfoundland, Splendido, Avalon @ Harbour Sixty in Toronto) I can say that that is very poor planning on your part! You make a point to say that they claim to carry over 3000 selections – you certainly can’t assume that they have enough of all selections to please a group of twenty? I would assume that a restaurant with such a list has a majority of their products in very small quantities. BUT, I would also assume that such a restaurant would have been only too happy to bring in the required amounts of any product, had the necessary pre-planning occured on your part! TTFN

    Reply
    1. drinknectar

      Andrew, I would agree if this were a restaurant, but this is a wine bar that prides themselves on wine. Not only were the wines not in stock, the list was so poorly organized that I needed a secret decoder ring just to understand it. It’s obvious that the list has gotten out of control. P.S. they knew we were coming. And yes, I certainly CAN expect that they have a selection to please a small group of 20.

      Apprciate your insight.

      Reply
  9. Bartholamew

    Good common sense points well stated; size. look, price and information should all be correct and appropriate.
    I would think that would be self evident in all of life’s endeavors.

    My puzzlement is what is up with the bashing of wines that find themselves sold from supermarket shelves. I find that most wineries covet a facing in that channel and are likely to be stronger financially and hence more consistent of product. Sutter Home and Beringer are two of the most successful wine companies in the world and both have very restaurant worthy wines in their portfolios. I recall Beringer receiving two number one spots on the Spectator top 100 list last decade. Every day I hear the mindless mantra of not wanting any supermarket wines on my list. (except KJ) Has anyone looked at the selection of wine in a good supermarket lately. How about a Wholefoods. Some of the best everyday drinking wines I have found lived on the bottom shelf. And the supermarkets DNA is to offer products that, gadzukes, the people with the money want to buy. In the restaurant business we call them customers. The ones who put money in so we can take it out. I think they rule. Even Scott at his intelligently run country club wine program realizes that some people like the taste of white zin and are entitled to it. What I hear when a buyer doesn’t want wines that are available in the chains is that they don’t want their customers to know the true value of the beverage they are hanging their entire profit burden on. That is lazy. Pretty soon they won’t want wines that can be found on a Blackberry. Good luck with that. Kudos to those who are offering good wine at an attractive price. Bart

    Reply
  10. Kenton R. P. Fabrick

    Josh,
    As always, thanks for initiating thoughtful discussion around the fascinating world of wine.
    The best wine list I’ve seen is from Carneros restaurant at the Lodge at Sonoma Resort & Spa. Obviously it was Sonoma driven, but not so much a list as an encyclopedia. Each region/AVA was started off with a map and a description of characteristics, varietals and vineyards. The depth was amazing. I was introduced to Chandon’s Pinot Meunier; what a great wine from a sparkling dominate house!
    And most importantly, the staff could back-up the list. They had suggestions for all types of palates and they new the nuances of specialty and single vineyard bottlings someone from Washington would rarely know about.
    If Washington is going to move forward in the wine world, spreading information is the key. Every way we can tell the world about our superb wine offerings (Not so much the what as the WHY!) including informative wine lists and staf knowledge, the better.

    Thanks again,

    Kenton

    Reply
  11. Cortney Casey

    Right on the money on all of this, Josh. I can’t stand when Sutter Home is on a wine list, especially when there are nearly 100 wineries in Michigan that produce far better. (And said Sutter Home is selling by the glass for more than it costs to buy an entire bottle down the street at the corner grocery store.)

    And there’s definitely a balance between too much and too little on a wine list. It’s more appealing to see a smaller list that appears to have been carefully, purposefully selected to complement the menu than a random, overwhelming mishmash for sake of show.

    Reply
  12. Kathy

    In concept, a distributor can get any wine with a COLA (1,600 new or revised/renewed COLAS were approved by TTB in July). In reality, many distributors in the middle of America can’t due to exclusivity (only xx cases and they aren’t going to MO, IA, KY, TN, AL or OK) or won’t bother when the restaurant is small (not enough turnover) or has a difficult buyer or ever changing wine list. It can even be difficult to get a wine from within your own state (no direct shipping).

    Wine really is a different species when you leave the coasts and major urban cities.

    Many restaurateurs or beverage buyers spend a disproportionate amount of time searching for the right wines (price, taste, varietal, organic/biodynamic/sustainable, region, country, screw top, cork, table visuals, mix within the overall list, food and so on) to supplement the distributor(s) portfolios. The object: to create a unique list that targets their guests and food/restaurant concept – exactly what many of the posters want. And, they need wine that doesn’t appear on lists of their top 10 competitors.

    They scour reviews, go to tastings, select, only to find the new wines aren’t obtainable (including exclusive to xx distributor but distributor is not in “my” state etc). So the 15-to-20 point checklist for each wine starts again.

    Were distributors more collaborative with the buyer (and some are) the result would be better wine and better ROI. But that takes time and when working on a commission (and maybe nothing more), more time means less money for the sales rep no matter how you slice it. White Zin is an easy sell; a German Riesling or Languedoc rosé at same price point much less so. That may not be good but it’s reality.

    It would be nice to hear from distributors or sales reps on how they see it from their side of the table.

    Reply
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  14. Joe

    The pricing is critical. If you’re going to put wines on the list that anyone can buy anywhere, don’t start the dining experience with a huge “F you, ignorant customer”.

    I have no problem with paying double retail/triple wholesale/whatever. Will even pay a little more if I know they’re storing the wine properly, serving in nice glassware, and have some training for the staff; all that is overhead, and I understand that those expenses need to be marginalized somewhere. I GET it, and I don’t mind paying for it.

    However, when I see a bottle that I know costs $4-6 wholesale on the list for $48 (no shit), I doubt the quality of the wines I don’t recognize on said list. If you insist on pulling that malarky, at least have the due diligence to select wines that aren’t really sold retail, so we- the stupid customers- don’t know any better. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss…

    Reply
  15. Margaret Cox

    I smiled when I read about restaurants in wine making areas that don’t actually sell the local wines. I live in France and my sister lives in Texas……we enjoy eating out and we enjoy our wines. In a restaurant local to her, Rockwall, Tx, we had ordered and then perused the wine list……not a single Texas wine…I actually bored other diners by berating the waiter and asking him to pass on our opinions to the restaurant manager. Europeans have a saying that if you’re looking to pair your food with wine, you should follow the adage that ‘it goes with what grows’……our Texas beef would have tasted even better with a Texas red! Cheers!

    Reply
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