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.