My QuickPicks
Register now to activate

Contents At A Glance

R&IEditorial Archives2005April 1 — Beverage

Bottling Works
Winning wine lists reflect concept, cuisine and clientele.

There’s no single plan for building a wine list that works, but there are guidelines. Leading operators and consultants stress that successful lists must reflect concept, check average, guests and menu.

As U.S. consumption climbs, wine becomes an increasingly important part of the restaurant experience. “Food is the hero in an operation, and wine is its primary condiment,” says Doug Frost, a professional wine judge and consultant from Kansas City, Mo.

A well-conceived wine list should help guests select the best bottle for a meal, adds Dave Holstrom, a Portland, Ore., wine consultant. “Offer choices but limit them. Suggest but don’t mandate. A good wine list guides with basic information,” he advises.

More tips on building a profitable wine list:

Know the concept: What’s the menu? Who’s the customer? When Holstrom created a wine list for Lauro Mediterranean Kitchen in Portland, Ore., the owners described their restaurant as a neighborhood place with a $22 check average. They specified that no wine would be priced higher than $30 a bottle. The consultant suggested a list of moderately priced wines in the Mediterranean style. Value-conscious choices from Spain, France, Portugal, Italy and Greece are available by glass, carafe and bottle.

Inventory size: Depends on space, budget and turnover. Most operators buy for 30-to-60-day turnover. Some make a long-term investment in cellaring.

Number of bottles: Let the range of choices reflect the variety of customers, says Fred Dame, president, Court of Master Sommeliers, San Francisco. At Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago, guests range from international businesspeople to tourists and locals. The list averages 160 selections, about 60% domestic and 40% imported. “It’s a fair representation of what’s out there,” says Steven Tindle, wine director for Shaw’s Crab House Division of Chicago-based Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE). The Shaw’s unit in a Chicago suburb, where customers mainly are local and business peaks at lunch, features 90 wine choices, primarily American.

Orlando-based Darden Restaurants’ Red Lobster offers 17 wines in four categories. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Chicago’s Tru, a LEYE fine-dining operation that attracts an international clientele; it offers 1,600 selections and 18,000 to 20,000 bottles.

Smith & Wollensky (above) offers separate lists for wines by the glass and bottles. At Shaw’s Crab House in Chicago, Wine Director Steven Tindle (below) manages a global list with 60% domestic and 40% imported choices.

Frost suggests 50 choices as a rule of thumb. That number allows diversity in price, styles and grape varieties. Keep the list small, manageable and fun to read. “Big lists impress about 1% of customers. The rest of the world doesn’t care about three pages of Barbaresco or Barolo,” he says.

Categories: Extensive lists divide wines by country, region, grape varietal and style. But what’s helpful to most diners is categorizing wines by taste and description, such as light or crisp, or lighter whites with high acids. Lists should be progressive, graduating to deep, rich-tasting choices.

Focus on predictability. “‘Light versus intense’ tells me more than ‘made by women winemakers’ or ‘our recent finds,’” says Frost.

Descriptions: Be brief and to the point. Diners don’t come for lectures or exams. The lack of a wine description is often intentional, forcing interaction between customer, server and sommelier. “That’s the reason we invest in wine training,” says Alan Stillman, founder and chairman of New York City-based Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group. “We want servers to help customers select wine.”

Increase in U.S. wine consumption in 2003. Consumers spent $8 billion more on wine, spirits and beer in 2003 than in 2002.
(Adams Beverage Group)

Don Adams favors brief descriptions, often referencing fruit flavors, at Palomino, a 12-unit concept from Seattle-based Restaurants Unlimited. Small text boxes explain tastes in food (salty, sour, sweet, smoked, spicy) and how they change wines’ flavors. Menu items are always included as suggestions. “People come for food, not wine only,” says Adams, executive vice president of creative development.

Holstrom suggests using words with personal associations, comparisons and humor. “Years ago, few people in Portland knew what cabernet franc was. We described it as a brooding wine, not sunny like Doris Day.”

Design: To make ordering easier for guests, avoid visual clutter when designing a wine list. Stick to 8.5-point or larger print and two or three fonts. Consider factors such as lighting intensity and customer age. Older guests require more light or contrast to easily read a wine list or menu. If lighting is soft or dim, intensify color contrast in paper and ink. Allow enough white space between categories, line descriptions and margins.

Book vs. sheets: Format depends on concept and how often lists change. Portland, Ore.-based McCormick & Schmick’s Chicago location uses desktop printers to change its list daily.

Lack of descriptions on Smith & Wollensky wine lists encourages dialogue between guest and server, underscoring importance of wine training for staff.

Adams prefers sheets of sturdy card stock. He separates food menu from wine list at Palomino but combines both on one sheet at Kincaid’s Fish, Chop & Steak House, a nine-unit concept.

Wines by the glass appear on a separate list at Smith & Wollensky. The cardboard-backed sheet, the size of a paperback book, is offered at table when guests arrive. “It gets the evening started,” says Patrick Norton, general manager of the Chicago unit. “They can study the complete bottle list later.”

Bin numbers: For expansive lists and big cellars, they’re necessary. Bin numbers speed up identifying and retrieving bottles and tracking inventory.

By-the-glass service: A great way to move wines and a low-risk way to encourage guests to be adventurous. Highlight names on a sheet or offer a separate list. Tindle, of Shaw’s, passes samples of a new red and white to diners on Monday evenings. “The 1-ounce size is a friendly gesture, and it often gets people to buy a glass or bottle.”

You may also like...
Better Business Brewing
- November 1, 2005
Domestic Rules
- June 1, 2005
Rising Activity
- November 15, 2004
Uncorking Profits
- September 15, 2004
Sweet Suggestions
- June 15, 2004
Pitcher Perfect
- May 1, 2004
Educated Choices
- February 15, 2004
Flight School
- January 1, 2003
Wine Wise
- September 1, 2002
Kevin Zraly on Glories and Opportunities of Wine
- February 15, 2000
Copyright© 1999-2006 Reed Business Information, a division of
The Reed Business logo, Restaurants & Institutions, R&I, Chain Leader, Foodservice Equipment & Supplies and FE&S are registered trademarks. All rights reserved.
Use of this web site is subject to its Terms and Conditions of Use. View our Privacy Policy. .