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08.21.2012

My Wine List Fantasy

bigstock-blackboard-with-wine-list-and-20162669.jpgI have a fantasy, and I thought it was probably time to come clean and admit it here openly. I've dreamed for a while about creating a restaurant wine list. Not a mammoth tome of hundreds of bottles, mind you, just a nice compact list that would fit on a single page and might be appropriate for a neighborhood boutique restaurant with a serious interest in wine.

Anyone who works in the wine business is probably shaking their heads, wondering why in heaven's name I'd be interested in doing this. Putting together and maintaining wine lists isn't exactly easy, as I've learned from friends in the business. But that doesn't matter to me. Besides, I'm hoping I can get away with having someone else be responsible for the real dirty work: ordering, inventorying, and resupplying the thing. I just want to choose the wines.

There are two primary reasons I want to do this. First, I'm sick and tired of sitting down in a little restaurants with decent food -- places that clearly care about what they put on the plate -- only to find a lackluster list of wines that could have come out of a grocery store, or a single page of their massive liquor distributor's inventory list. I've muttered "I could come up with a much better list than this" enough times under my breath that I'd like to put up or shut up, if you know what I mean.

Secondly, I think I'd learn a thing or two in the process. About the kinds of constraints that restaurants face when putting together and maintaining their lists, about what the public really drinks and wants to drink, and of course, whether I ought to simply put a sock in it and let the professionals take care of such things.

I'm not naive about the nature of such an exercise. Composing a list isn't about putting my favorite wines on a list and hoping people will buy them. There are far more pragmatic issues to be dealt with, including the cost of the wines, their availability, the price tolerance of diners (for wines by the glass and for bottles), what kinds of wines complement the cuisine, and of course, what the customers are likely to enjoy.

Even while considering all these factors, I'd try to create a list that made sense for the kind of restaurant for which I was working. Would it be a celebration of smaller producers in California? An eclectic but not radical selection of interesting international wines? A tour around America's wine regions? A perfect selection of pleasing little Italian wines for an equally pleasing menu? A compact set of wines perfect for sushi?

Who knows? But I'm game to give it a try. I've got some sommelier friends that would keep me from making horrible mistakes, more than a few opinionated readers who'd no doubt also offer their opinions.

So all I'm missing is someone who's willing to give me a shot. Know anyone with a little bistro that needs help? Send them my way. Until then. I'll just have to swear under my breath a little, and keep fantasizing.

Image of wine list courtesy of Bigstock.

Comments (14)

victoria wrote:
08.21.12 at 6:29 PM

Me too! Actually, when I was Wine Manager at a retail shop, my GM had a chance to do this--she loved it, and I had fun watching it be created! 1.5 years later, the restaurant is still going strong on her original list and I adore going there to drink some of the favorites that the GM and I shared. Hold on to your list--you never know!

08.21.12 at 8:48 PM

Howdy!

I'm the GM for a small business restaurant known for our sushi and atmosphere in good 'ol Tyler, TX (Rose Capital of America; if not the world). I just finished revamping our wine menu, but the thing is I'm about 15-20 bottles short of meeting the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence qualification on 100+ bottles. We'd be honored to have you provide your valuable experience and knowledge in developing a delightful, intriguing, & superb wine list.

Tish wrote:
08.22.12 at 9:15 AM

I had the good fortune of being asked by a colleague to help develop a wine list for a restaurant opening soon. My approach was to keep it ultra simple: use ONE distributor to start. It is entirely plausible to make a good short list (20-25 wines) from one portfolio, at least in the NY Metro market. Our strategy: think style first, cost second; name recognition and popularity took a back seat. I suspect the problem with the lists that bother you is mostly about reliance on "usual suspects."

Vinnie wrote:
08.22.12 at 10:27 AM

Love the idea. Just offer to work the wine list next time you find yourself biting your tongue, the worst the place could say is no, and that's not all it's cracked up to be.
One thing to consider: sometimes restos don't have distributor accounts due to poor credit/payment history, and/or they can't afford to bring in new stock. I've worked as a distributor and didn't fully understand this reality until I fell into a fun waitressing/bar tending stint for a resto in this category. Get real honest real fast when you get your dream chance, then you're odds of seeing them follow through and succeed are much greater :-)

PS—Tyler TX?!? Love the pineywoods there, one of the most unexpectedly beautiful parts of the country (and I'm from NorCal).

08.22.12 at 10:52 AM

Hey, I thought you were going to finish this post by telling us what your short and interesting wine list would be. No fair! we want to know about your fantasy list...

Alder wrote:
08.22.12 at 11:07 AM

My fantasy is about making a list, not a specific list. The list would be specific to the restaurant, of course.

doug wilder wrote:
08.22.12 at 12:24 PM

I think this would be a cool exercise, especially with your broad background in tasting so many wines. Years ago I was asked if I would do the list for a new California focused restaurant that failed to get off the ground in SF. It would have been about 40 wines initially (something I could almost do in my head). But then I realized the responsibilities included selecting to a budget, wines that would sell quickly, pair with the food, and deliver a balance between dependable and adventurous. On top of that I would need to meet the reps to taste, order, accept delivery, inventory, create the list and educate the staff. Take it from an old retailer, it is hard to do right (and less fun)unless you get your hands a little dirty :)

Alex Bardsley wrote:
08.22.12 at 1:05 PM

One of the most satisfying things I've ever done. But you have to be on hand to get feedback from your guests, so you can tweak the list.

Phil wrote:
08.24.12 at 10:06 AM

I would just say this Alder: I think Doug Wilder has it on the nose. To create a list that really fits with a restaurant and works, you need to have that level of commitment (not that you couldn't successfully avoid the actual physical stocking work if the owner was willing to have someone else do it).

If you're going to give it a go, some thoughts from things we've published:

Single page lists are dangerous. Our consumer study last year showed that 31% of wine drinkers and 51% of daily wine drinkers believe a serious wine program does not have a one page list. Our restaurant operations study, just published in the August issue, shows that the restaurants who achieve higher gross sales have lists that are large enough to allow them to have a few high priced items along with more typical options. I don't want to get too into the weeds, but we also found that the number of bottles on the list was significantly correlated to gross sales, but not to unit sales (so having a bigger list didn't lead to more or less people buying wine, it just led to people buying more expensive wine). The study also shows that having a large by-the-glass operation is good way to keep costs down, again not possible with a single-page list.

I'd also recommend the entire February special wine list issue and, on the way back machine, Roy Hersh's article in the July 2008 issue on working with costs to construct a profit-generating wine list.

If you do end up doing this exercise with someone, let us know, I'm sure it would be an interesting article (obviously you'd be blogging about it too).

Alder wrote:
08.24.12 at 10:25 AM

Phil,

Thanks for the comments. I found that whole issue of Sommelier Journal fascinating, it was certainly one of your best. (Note to readers: I'm on the editorial advisory board for that magazine).

However, regarding single page lists, I'm talking here about a restaurant that can't afford nor wants to have more than a couple dozen wines on hand at any time. We're not talking about even a half-page wine list. My picture of the wine blackboard wasn't tongue in cheek. That's the kind of place I'm talking about, not a restaurant with a serious wine list, which is really for whom your findings above will be relevant.

08.26.12 at 8:48 PM

Great concept! We hope your fantasy list will include some wines from small wineries, who are not represtnted in the "big books". Getting face time to present our wines is very challenging, which is why we so appreciate your willingness to taste our wines at various events. Thank you.

tom farella wrote:
08.27.12 at 9:56 AM

As a winemaker and grapegrower in Napa, I think it's funny that I crave that little carafe of a local village wine that magically sings along with every dish. Maybe I just need a vacation.

Kathy Merchant wrote:
08.27.12 at 4:04 PM

I absolutely share your fantasy and would take it a step further! Wouldn't it be fabulous if the chef was actually involved in thinking about how the food worked with the wine, and if the wait staff actually knew something about the wine/food menu match. Your idea of a simple one-page wine list would make it possible for my fantasy to work. I'm actually working on a business concept to pursue my fantasy. Care to contribute any further wishes?

Steve Yafa wrote:
08.28.12 at 12:40 PM

I'd be interested in running the list and sommelier bad-and-forth in Uncorked. Congrats on the WIne Blog Best Writing Award, BTW.

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