The art of the restaurant wine list

Just finished the final day’s judging of Imbibe Magazine’s Sommelier Wine Awards. It has been an interesting experience, tasting with sommeliers and thinking about wines not only in terms of their intrinsic qualities, but also rather practically in terms of where they’d fit onto a restaurant wine list.

During a break in the tasting, I chatted to Peter McCombie MW, who assembles restaurant lists for a living. We were discussing, specifically, the need to have a Rioja on the list, even if it wasn’t your favourite wine, simply because so many punters are familiar with the name and will specifically order Rioja. After all, many people are pretty flummoxed by wine lists, and yet aren’t happy to trust a sommelier’s recommendation. The same is true for Chablis and Sancerre. You need these fixtures on the wine list somewhere.

I was arguing for the inclusion of an inexpensive but tasty Rioja, because lots of people would buy it and enjoy it. Peter made a very interesting point: by all means have a Rioja, but have a more expensive one. (Have a really good, expensive Chablis, and a good, expensive Sancerre.)

If you have a cheap Rioja that tastes good, it can sell too well. It can create a logjam in the list – people stop there and go no further. Put the familiar names too far down the list, and you’ll find it hard to sell really interesting, worthwhile wines with less well known names. The duller celebrities will cannibalise sales of the genuinely interesting, and better value wines.

I’d never thought about removing a wine from a list because it sells too well. But it seems that sometimes this can be a smart move – for both the restaurant and the customer.

9 comments to The art of the restaurant wine list

  • Boris Poliakov

    Jamie, I take my hat off, my thoughts exactly.I am writing a new wine list for a brasserie in mayfair and I will bear yours and peter’s points in mind.
    It is no fun to have the same old recognisable wine on the list ’cause you just don’t have an opportunity to engage with the customer.

  • Paul

    I agree that a better example of staple styles & varieties are a better idea, but would argue that sometimes it is better to increase the price of a top selling wine rather than dropping it from the list. It will sway a few punters to try other wines, and those who choose the comfort factor will pay the extra…

  • Hi Jamie. That’s a really interesting point. But, is there not a chance that customers will still order the recognisable name, even if it is a reasonable way down the list? Potentially making less well informed visitors spend more money than they might want to?

    I like speaking to sommeliers and finding new wines, but I can see how the experience could be intimidating, especially in those places which dump a fifty page tome in front of you. An accessible wine list – clearly explained and interesting – is an art, but it begins with the restaurant’s attitude to the process. And that begins with the staff.

    Perhaps we could start by not calling them “sommeliers”?

  • Martin

    Mightn’t an unsophisticated punter see a wine he recognises at a high price point, think, ‘But I can get Rioja for a fraction of the price’, be put off and order something cheap instead?

  • James Davis

    The more interesting point from a commercial point for me is that you can create a trend / momentum using the ‘brand equity’ of a region. For example, white Rioja is a difficult sell on the whole in the off-trade as it gets lost but add it to a bar or pub list and use a price-point to get behind it and it works very well. It’s one of the few examples of where the on-trade has something the off-trade doesn’t, and explains why Prosecco is so succesful in the on-trade but not the off-trade (so much).

  • Andrew Halliwell

    All interesting points.

    I think it’s good to sell good examples of wines from famous regions, as long as they are good and not just somebody’s Gran Reserva that seemed suitably expensive. Could be a good way to show the newer Riojas that are outside the Crianza / Reserva / Gran Reserva system, for example.

    As for the idea that you need to have a Chablis / Sancerre / Rioja etc. on the list, no doubt the gentlemen referred to know what they’re doing. Personally I’d rather see a list with more depth in fewer regions. e.g. above average Rhone and South of France range, balanced out with say South Africa and NZ.

  • Bruce Abbott

    After going through Imbibe’s previous wine list awards, I was struck by how few American wines were represented in the lists (some wine lists, while otherwise quite extensive, had none). Is this normal for wine lists in the UK? Is this due to lack of exposure of American wines in the UK market, or are they not considered an important addition to a list?

  • Alex Lake

    Mmmm, interesting but possibly an arrogant stance – maybe some people will feel that there’s nothing they like that they can afford (and won’t even give the cheaper more interesting wines a chance) and just won’t come back. Hard to tell, but it’s like saying “we’ll put interesting food-geek offal on the menu and only have Wagyu steak’n'chips – that’ll learn ‘em”

  • Interesting but the reality is Chablis Rioja & Sancerre sell themselves, our new style concept list which won best list in the UK from the Publican awards is a massive leap forward in all wine sales as the customers are looking at all the varieties from all countries (including many USA Bruce) and are more inclined to try something new. I would never go back to list them in the original and basically book worm style. Move on boys move on!

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