It sounds childlike in simplicity—because it is. I have found that it’s easy to get caught up in the details of any program at your restaurant and take your eye off the basics: are the customers coming back for return visits, are food sales up, are the plates empty when they come back from the dining room? If wine sales aren’t where you want them to be, maybe you should simplify the process for your guests. There are a number of ways to do this.
The first thing to do when planning a wine list is to decide on a reasonable budget. The biggest part of that budget will be the wine inventory. Other expenses will include glassware, staff training, marketing and menus. The size and scope of the list will largely determine the amount of inventory, meaning that you will have to have enough of the volume wines for them to stay in stock between deliveries, and enough of the more limited selections to supply a reasonable amount to your a la carte guests. I have managed inventories from $18K to $450K, the smaller one frankly requiring closer attention because pars were lower and ordering had to be more precise. It also cost less to run.
The most expensive inventory held a lot of wine that wasn’t yet on the list, but was becoming more rare as time went on. This is part of the budgeting process. Are you going to buy wines that will sit in the basement (slowly) gaining value in order to put them on your list when they’re ready to drink, and presumably when no one else has them any more? It’s all part of the budgeting process, as well as being part of the original business plan. Whether it is to be a wine destination or a busy wine-friendly restaurant, each will have its own wine budgetary needs.
Size of list/program
Continuing in the same vein, how big should the wine list be? Well, what do you want the restaurant to be, and how big is your basement? A wine list can be whatever you want it to be, depending on what you want to spend, financially and in time to manage the program. Unless you’re going to market yourself as a wine restaurant, it usually makes sense to start small. A basic list should have at least five sparkling wines, 10 whites and 10 reds.
The first, and easiest way to look at this is to concentrate on the wine from the same country that the food comes from. “Grows together, goes together” works very well with old world cuisines (Italian, French, Spanish) and makes it pretty easy to pick a starting point. American is a different story, because we still don’t have a single definition of “American” cuisine. You can try to narrow down the main areas of influence on the menu, such as Mediterranean or Asian, and then go from there, but most American menus have a few influences, and so, vastly different flavors. This can be handled by having a range of wine flavors as well.
Once you’ve settled on an overall theme, it’s time to look at how the list will be populated and organized. You can be a generalist and include every winemaking region in the country you’ve chosen, or you can specialize in a specific region. This decision should parallel your choice cuisine focus as well. For example, you’re opening an Italian restaurant and the menu represents many regions from north to south—the wine list should do the same. Or, you’re opening a Sicilian restaurant. In true Italian fashion, you should offer only the wines of Sicily, but a good range of those.
There are many ways to organize lists to be understandable, but the most basic way to do it is to mimic the labeling practices of each wine region. So, since the French use place names (except for Alsace), geographical listing by growing region makes the most sense. American wines are almost all labeled with grape variety, so perhaps varietal headings will work. As an American list gets bigger, though, you might have to start organizing the wines first by state, then region and then by grape. As for the Italians, they label wine every way that it is possible to label wine. Your best bet here is to list by large region, sub-region if necessary (Tuscany, Chianti or Tuscany, Montalcino) and then by winery and the name of the wine.
Ease of sale
The easier you make it for people to buy wine, the more wine you’ll sell. There are a number of ways to do this, encompassing everything from the smallest wine list all the way up to the five pound, phonebook-sized behemoth.
Small lists are simple by definition, but not always easy to order from. Clear organization helps, as can the inclusion of some short, clear descriptions of the wines, along with some menu matching suggestions. Also, the essence of simplicity is to have all the wines on one page. We had this at the Manhattan Ocean Club seafood restaurant in New York, where the whole list was on one 11- x 17-inch page. Every wine was on there, and because of its organization, we sold tons of wine without too much interaction from the waiters.
Another way to make it easier for guests to buy wine is to increase accessibility. Make the wine list delivery automatic with menus, or have it on the table when guests sit down. Pre-set wine glasses and a quick order/delivery process will get wine onto the table more quickly, perhaps allowing for a second bottle sale after appetizers.
Finally, if you are desperate to have a wine-destination restaurant with a huge list, the key is to have a floor staff with enough knowledge to lead the guest quickly through it—even to say, “So what are you in the mood for tonight? Don’t bother to look at the list yet. How about a glass of Champagne to start off and then we’ll tackle the list later?” Waiters, sommeliers and wine directors are the ones who have a chance to bring the list alive for the guests, to explain what will be best with the food and to recommend wines that fit in to the guests’ budgets. If you are going to invest money in the wine program, make sure that some of it goes to training for the staff. Even with a small list, the waiters are the salespeople.
By the glass vs. bottle
Here’s a debate that has no single answer. There are reasons for having only a couple of wines by the glass—or a hundred. With a small number by the glass, guests are more likely to look at the bottle list. Presumably, the bottle list will be able to support that kind of scrutiny and will be priced so that guests won’t feel that a big financial leap has to be made in order to afford a bottle. As for larger glass lists, they are particularly appropriate for wine bars and cafés, or in a more casual restaurant where guests are less likely to sit for a multi-course meal. In that case, you want to make it possible for the guest who is only going to have one glass of wine to spend big bucks on it.