The perfect restaurant wine list?

I got two emails today about restaurant wine list competitions. It got me thinking. What does a winning wine list look like? What is the perfect wine list?

It all depends on your perspective. As a punter, a perfect wine list for me would be one populated by the sorts of wines that I love at exceptionally keen prices. I remember dining at Rekondo in San Sebastien, which has an enormous cellar full of old wines that are now cheaper than cost – because the owner over-bought at a time when wines were much cheaper, and hasn’t pegged the prices on the list to wine price inflation over the years.

That’s a geek’s paradise. But from a restaurateur’s perspective a perfect wine list is one that generates profit. Restaurants need to make money, and a wine list is one way of doing this. A well crafted wine list can serve two functions: it can satisfy the needs of customers, giving them the sorts of wines they want to drink, and it can generate profit. The two need not be exclusive, and the best performing lists are usually the ones that manage to do both.

I’m realistic. When I dine out, I know restaurants need to make a certain amount from my table in order to stay in business, so I’m not upset that wine is marked up (although often it is marked up a little too much). But what is really frustrating is bad wine lists, where the selection is dire. I often go intro a restaurant with an intention to buy some nice wine, but end up despairing at the hideousness of the list, and opt for a beer or a negroni instead.

I especially hate off-the-peg wholesaler-generated wine lists. These are where the restaurant isn’t interested in wine, and ends up getting a list of appalling soft brands (wines with made-up restaurant-only labels so consumers can’t compare prices) from their wholesaler. Often, the wholesaler will pay the restaurant a backhander of some kind to foist an exclusive list on them. Even if you want to spend money on decent wine in these places, you can’t, because they don’t have any.

A perfect wine list? It would have no soft brands. It would be compact (anyone can create a huge list), and each wine would earn its place. It would offer diversity, and be sourced from several suppliers. There would be some classics. But the famous names (Sancerre, Rioja, Marlborough Sauvignon, Chablis) would be very good examples of these wines, and priced so that they appeared further up the list, so that people would explore a bit until they got to them. The perfect list would have a bit of geek bait hidden in there, but most of all it would offer a toolkit of wines that the sommelier could use to match the menu. It would also have an excellent by the glass selection (perhaps using Petainer/Coravin/Enomatic to keep the wines in good condition), with a range of pour sizes (75 ml/125 ml/175 ml). And the pricing wouldn’t be too greedy, with a cash margin coming into operation as the price creeps up. Most of all, the list would have a personality. It wouldn’t try to do everything (there’s no pleasure in huge cover-all-bases lists), but would instead have a sense of identity.

Such a list could work for the customer, and also for the restaurant. Do you have favourite wine lists? Those that are expertly curated, and sensibly priced? I’d love to know.

13 comments to The perfect restaurant wine list?

  • I agree with this and I like the point about picking good examples of the classics and pricing them further up the list. I always feel a bit sorry for Rioja / Chianti / Marlborough Sauv Blanc etc. that restaurants feel they have to have one, so often pick a cheap industrial one – which may be ok but doesn’t let these regions show what they have.

  • I would be happy to hear your thoughts/comments on our list, yes it is larger than one might want, but we specialize in particularly rare, small production items that show off character. I hope diners understand the time and dedication it takes to make a really great wine list, because we do it for them! And nobody is perfect :)
    http://static1.squarespace.com/static/5529bcece4b0326cbef353d9/t/5632307ce4b07a773dfb0056/1446129788764/Beverage+List+10.13.15.pdf

  • Your article is great! I have been crafting just such a list over the last 10 years for my unique dinner restaurant. Thank you for validating my view of the complex world of wine.

  • Ed Masciana

    Totally agree, but having done this myself, it’s not as easy at it sounds. First of all a restaurant can’t buy more than a case of something for a list because that just ties up too much money on inventory. Conversely, they can’t qualify for discounts so end up spending more for that case than they could.

    Many of these cool wines are sold by small importers and unless you buy 2 or three wines from them AND run out of them at the same time you can’t even get a delivery! Otherwise you have to wait until you can order all the wines at the same time and risk not having a wine on the list.

    Yes, we all want a well-rounded, reasonably priced list, but even the most well-intentioned restaurateur has his or her limitations. A lot of wholesalers will make special deals for them, which is fine, but it’s still a delicate balancing act.

  • Simon Smith

    Jamie,

    I am very fortunate to work part-time for the owner of a “well-established” Central London restaurant helping him with his wine list.

    A strong feature of the short list is, that for bins above £50, he has his own stock in Corsham, many with follow-on vintages. For example, the 2001 Bahans @ £65 tasted yesterday had a perfect label, an absolutely fantastic cork & was delicious. Meursault Michelot “Grands Charrons” 2010 @ £49.

    The point I am trying to make is that I’m not sure I have seen reference to provenance for fine wine for judging Restaurant lists, which I think is important.

    Simon.

  • Bob Parsons Alberta

    “I always feel a bit sorry for Rioja / Chianti / Marlborough Sauv Blanc”..Andrew you are right but in my experience over here most punters know little less!

  • keith prothero

    My perfect wine list is the one in my cellar so I only go to restaurants that allow corkage :)

  • william beavington

    Keith – I know your problem :)

  • Hugh

    I always offer to pay the price of the house wine as corkage, but you’d be surprised how often that is refused. If we drink bubbles then I’ll offer the cheapest fizz as corkage (assuming the house wine price hasn’t worked). This all seems fair to me. The Old Bridge in Huntington and the George of Stamford (same owner I think) always had a great list with markups fixed not by % but a set amount. Meant that as you went higher up the list you got increasingly better value.

  • Hugh

    Maybe Jamie you could publish a list of restaurants that offer corkage.

  • Pablito

    2001 Bahans Haut Brion for £65? That is a very generous price on a restaurant wine list!

    Simon, can you say which restaurant this is?

  • My favourite wine lists are those marked by a collaboration between the chef and the sommelier, ones that acknowledge wine as part of the experience, not something that just goes with it because it is prestiguous, well-known or expensive. The style of the kitchen should also be reflected in the choice of wines, but this is easier said then done. If I were to open a hardcore vegan restaurant or something radically natural, I would not like to see a list consisting of overworked factor wines for example. I don’t have that much experience dining out in restaurants outside of Belgium, so my recommendations are rather limited

    -San – the recently opened bistro by the team of L’Air du Temps, a two-michelin star restaurant about an hour outside of Brussels. The menu changes completely on a monthly basis as does the small but thought out winelist. We had lunch there yesterday and it was a delightful experience.
    – The Jane – latest restaurant in the Sergio Herman Group, opened about two years ago now, I think. It started off with a traditional winelist, not very exciting but in recent years the new sommelier has worked hard to come up with an exciting wine collection, one that looks more to what is going on in the wine world instead of opting for the same old choices you can already find in plenty of restaurants.
    – Souvenir – restaurant opened about a year and a half ago in the ‘Westhoek’, home to In de Wulf, one of Belgium’s more well-known resstaurants. The chef has worked at In de Wulf, Hertog Jan as well as Texture and he is a wine geek with a passion for natural wines. He is fully responsible for the wine list, so you can be sure that what you find in the glass matches the food. I wrote a report on a recent visit:

    Dinner at Souvenir in Ieper

  • Simon Smith

    Pablito,

    The Restaurant concerned is Rules, Maiden Lane, WC2E 7LB. Established in 1798; I am fairly sure that my boss has no wines left from the original cellar.

    I’m not sure if Ed M’s comments refer to mine but Rules is, in my wine trade experience, unusual for London restaurants in holding significant wine stocks.

    Simon

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