The well-organized wine list

Just as there is no single approach to successfully growing grapes, there is no one recipe for creating an effective wine list. If a restaurant’s wine list projects the notion that wine is for special-occasion dining only, then wine sales will surely suffer.

The list must reflect the fact that the restaurant’s owners, managers and staff expect customers to order wine with their meal.

The most frequently voiced criticisms over restaurant wine lists revolve around the issues of information presented, organization, selection and pricing.

A lack of information on a wine list will probably not deter educated consumers from ordering the wine they want. But for the customer who is just getting to know wines, small snippets of useful information and general descriptive phrases are practically essential. Such information can easily result in the sale of a glass or bottle of wine, perhaps even from a higher price bracket than the customer had originally intended.

Customers have several concerns regarding the organization of wine lists. First, a major problem arises with extensive wine lists that do not include a table of contents or some other device to assist the customer’s search. An intimidated restaurant guest who has to wade through an overly long wine list is likely to become frustrated and perhaps forgo the wine altogether.

A second problem arises when the wine list is inconsistently organized. Even knowledgeable wine customers can become irritated by a list that presents wines in no particular order or that jumps from category to category. The end result is that customers may not find the kind of wine they are looking for, and at worst may develop an antagonistic attitude toward the restaurant and its staff. A popular solution is to begin the list with a short statement of the restaurant’s philosophy in choosing wines or indicate how the list is organized.

It is wise to group wines into categories, not only to break up the print but also to make it easier to find specific items. The categories may be driven by your target customers’ expectations, the number of wines on the list and their origins, current trends, the culinary emphasis of the menu, or the ambiance of the restaurant. Most commonly the items are grouped by grape variety, region, wine style or price range. For example, remember to group not only Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons together, but within Napa, keep the Rutherfords together, the Stags’ Leaps together and so on.

If the wine list is short enough and the selection of wines makes it possible, it is acceptable to group by grape variety only. An American regional restaurant may choose to feature only American wines, grouped by state and/or region. Likewise, a wine list that incorporates wines from many countries may be grouped by geographic unit. Even then, the restaurant must decide whether to cluster all of the wines together, subdivided by region or grape, and then all of the reds, also subdivided. In some cases it is preferable to group by region and list the whites and reds separately under the geographic heading.

Most restaurants try several organizational styles before they decide on one that is clean, uncluttered, easy to follow, visually attractive and fits best onto the page space available.

What Every Wine List Must Have

At a minimum, a wine list should include the following elements:

The most common categories are color, grape type, region, nation and wine style. Subcategories may be appropriate for large lists or to make a small list less intimidating to the guest.

Region names must be included if they are not used as categories. For example Côte de Nuits, Russian River Valley, Dão, Maipo Valley, Marlborough, Coonawarra.

Bin numbers
Bin (identification) numbers enable customers to order wine without fear of mispronunciation. They also minimize mistakes by the wait staff, as many wines sound similar. Bin numbers make it easier to distinguish between Muscadet and Muscat, or Pouilly-Fuissé and Pouilly-Fumé. A different bin number is used for not only each wine, but each size of bottle (a half bottle would have a different bin number than a magnum of the same wine) and each vintage. As prices vary greatly by size and vintage, bin numbers help avoid costly errors. It is important to leave gaps in the numbering system to provide room for future additions. For example, all sparkling wines could be in the 100 to 150 series, dry whites 200 to 250, and so on.

Product name
Examples include Chardonnay (varietal), Hermitage (place), Vernaccia di San Gimignano (varietal and place).

Special information and attributes
Barrel-fermented, late-harvest, proprietor’s reserve, bin 707, gran reserve, grand cru and sur lie are examples.

Producer name

Vintage or nonvintage notation



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