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Building a better wine list ChloeJohns/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Building a better wine list

Clarity, educated staff, key to sales

A restaurant's wine list is a defining element of the operation and the key to wine sales, one of the biggest profit drivers for the business. It needs to be easily read, approachable, and help guide diners through what can be an intimidating part of the dining experience. Getting it right is essential.

Is it a leather-bound tome worthy of reading by the fire with a cigar? Is it a single sheet with whimsical graphics and poetic descriptions? The physical wine list, and particularly how it’s organized, is one of wine directors’ most important jobs. They may have spent years purchasing a cellar’s worth of unique inventory, they may have traveled to the far corners of the earth to see the vineyards firsthand to share those stories with their guests, but if they are unable to create the connection between guest and physical list, they’re missing a huge opportunity for sales.

“When guests arrive, they can get slightly overwhelmed by the idea of what to drink,” said Sophie Oppelt, sommelier at the Summit at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. “By the glass wines? Cocktails? A bottle? What is everyone eating? Do I need a sommelier intervention? There are a lot of stress emotions associated with obtaining a wine list, so the list needs to be psychologically welcoming.”

Cara De Lavallade, wine director at Willows Lodge in Woodinville, Wash., agrees.

“My job is to create a list that is as approachable as possible,” she said. “I lay out the selections in a format that is clear and intuitive. You have to take into consideration how much time you are willing to allow the guest to spend reading your list. I would rather have a ten-minute conversation with my guests about their wine selection than let them read the list for ten minutes.

“You might also think about the size of the list,” she said. “Are you missing out on sales because guests are getting lost in the number of options and just ordering the cheap wine at the top of the page?

“Sometimes you can drive sales by focusing on a smaller number of wines. We sell a lot of wines off our ‘Sommelier Select’ page because guests are excited to get a recommendation, and they don’t have to spend time looking at the rest of the list.”

Brandon Boghosian, food & beverage director at the University Club in San Diego, said a wine list’s layout depends on how many wines you have.

“The layout should be relative to the number of SKUs,” he said. “For instance, if you’re a three-star Michelin restaurant and you’ve literally got a book, you can break it down by country, region, even things like Grand Cru for Burgundy, or First Growths for Bordeaux. But if you’ve got a small program, the list should be broken up into fewer parts, like sparkling, rosé, New World, Old World, or even just white/red. I think chopping up a list and inserting a heading for one or two wines just confuses people. The list has to lend some guidance in the absence of a somm at the table.”

Boghosian has more than 300 wines on his list, including 20 available by the glass. He prefers to list them simply, and foregoes descriptions. Instead, he solely lists the vintage, varietal, region and producer.

Seth Wilson, wine director at Booth One restaurant in Chicago, also prefers listing his wines with basic details, but highlights certain bottles. He has 450 wines on his list.

“If the list is structured in a way that you can have fun with it, then you are winning. I run a varietal-focused list which is very easy for guests to read. My program is very Burgundy-focused, so I have a feature page for a white and red wine [from that region] that I highlight as an intro to the section, and that are both price-friendly. I also have a page that highlights a theme -- right now it's "Tour de Rosé" with three labels and a brief description. All other sections are by varietal, and simply list producers alphabetically.”

Another crucial step is ensuring that the front-of-the-house team can help guests navigate the wine list.

“The last thing a guest wants is a server randomly flipping through a list tableside because they can’t find the pinot noir page,” said De Lavallade. “Just as the server is intimately familiar with the organization of the dinner menu, they must have a mastery of the structure of the wine list. It is one of their most important tools for making money.”

Weekly classes, blind tastings of by-the-glass wines (where most wine sales happen), as well as offering prizes for sales goals can also motivate staff.

“There has to be an equal amount of effort, time, and consideration devoted to education as the somm/director puts into crafting a program,” said Boghosian. “The best wine directors are those that have the most educated staff. Also, wine sales directly correlate to higher paychecks; once they get that in their heads, they’ll sell more, and in order to sell more, they’ll learn more. It’s beautiful.”

And as simple as it may seem, design should not be overlooked. “There are all kinds of structure and formatting decisions you can make to highlight wines and make them more appealing to guests, such as including a feature page, using boxes, photos or special fonts,” said De Lavallade.

Whatever approach one takes, the outcome should be the same: “If you can build devices into a list that entice guests to move in a certain direction, that’s great,” said Boghosian. “Always keep in mind: Guests spend more when they can relate to the wine list.” 

David Flaherty has more than 20 years experience in the hospitality industry. He is a certified specialist of wine, a certified cicerone and a former operations manager and beer and spirits director for Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in New York City. He is currently marketing director for the Washington State Wine Commission and writes about wine, beer and spirits in his blog, Grapes and Grains.

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