​Creating a Modern Wine List

Posted by Peter Koff MW on 26th Dec 2018

Today, we are spoiled for wining and dining choices. There is still a place for expensive restaurants with intricate, usually French inspired menus, and the accompanying wine lists. You know those lists, the ones that look like telephone books and weigh about as much, have 500+ references, have a Wine Spectator Grand Award, and have verticals of all the great Burgundy, Bordeaux and Californian wines. These lists make mouthwatering reading for those with some knowledge but to really exploit the list, you must be prepared to spend north of, and usually far north, of $150-$200! Not surprisingly, these restaurants are not as popular as they once were and tend to attract an older, more affluent clientele. Think about a wine inventory to support 500+ selections including old, famous and expensive wines. A list of this nature can easily be worth $250,000 at purchase price and often much, much more than that! These restaurants are expensive to operate and to patronize!

So do we all have to examine the less lofty state of our finances and head off to the drive through window? Absolutely not! More and more today, we are seeing, less formal, more relaxed, more dare I say modern restaurants. The best of these are the creations of passionate chefs, working with a relatively modest number of menu offerings, based on fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. A growing number of these establishments offer many of their dishes, particularly the starters as tapas-style shared plates. Does this kind of dining mean poor wine choices, from a tiny list? The best of these restaurants bring the same kind of passion to wine selection as they do to menu creation. What are the challenges to make these kinds of lists?

 * Need a limited number of references to manage rotation and inventory costs

 * Need to have something for everybody

 * Need to be interesting, exciting AND affordable

 * Need to be chosen with consideration to the menu

 * Need to provide the diners with NEW and delicious experiences – I would go so far as to say, providing the wines are very knowledgeably selected, the majority of diners will not be familiar with the wines, the styles and even some of the regions

 * Need a highly trained sommelier or wine consultant to choose the list and keep it fresh

Many, if not most of these establishments, do not wish to have, or cannot afford, a full-time sommelier. So, an integral part of making this type of list work, is regular education of the wait staff on the wine offerings.

What does this list look like? There are numerous ways of creating this list. Here is one. I choose to integrate the wine list with the menu to make it easier for the diners in the absence of a sommelier and if the server has not paid sufficient attention to the educational briefings. Below each entry on the wine list, have a thoughtful, accurate and plain description of the wine. Let’s take a Muscadet from the Loire River in France for example. The description could be: Bone dry, light-bodied, minerally unoaked white with notes evocative of sea shells. Then, to integrate the list with the menu, each dish on the menu will have, say no more than three, wine pairing suggestions, written next to or below it.

Another departure from more traditional lists will be the wine by the glass list. With older style lists, the number of wines by the glass is a small percentage of the list and, often, wines by the glass are not available by the bottle. Our list will have approximately as follows:

 * 4 Sparkling wines from different regions, including a lesser known Champagne

 * 10 White wines from different regions, grape varieties and blends. Many will be from relatively lesser known regions

 * 3 Rose Wines from different regions, each excellent but all different from each other

 * 10 to 12 Red wines and, as for the whites, from different regions, grape varieties and blends. Many will be from relatively lesser known regions

 * 3 or 4 Specialty wines such as Orange wines, or even natural wines provided they are very carefully selected!

The vast majority of these wines will be offered by the glass, probably 90%+ of the list. As a further refinement, wines by the glass can be offered as 4 or 6 ounce pours.

The final result is a wine list that has 30 – 35 selections, most for sale by the glass and the bottle. Each wine has a brief description and each menu item has 3 wine pairing suggestions. With a talented, inquisitive, creative and experienced consultant sommelier selecting these wines, the list will be interesting, exciting, matched to the menu, manageable financially and logistically and will be a good profit center for the restaurant.

Wine list pricing? That’s for another article!


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Selected by Peter Koff MW


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