Distributors will often “offer” to build your wine list for you. While seemingly an easy way out, don’t fall into this trap and shirk your responsibility. You also need relationships with multiple suppliers to be able to leverage and work your reps against each other. You also need access to the widest range of products. Find distributors who don’t charge for broken cases. Take your time, go to tastings, learn to say no. Keep notes in whatever tool works, apps like Delectable or Vivino can be very helpful. Commit to the process and know it will always evolve as you move product, your menu changes and your skills are honed. A good list is one that gets used.
With knowledge of your guests and the food offerings, know the different types of wine you need and fill those sections. It’s tempting to fill the list with your own favorites, be sure you have the variety you need to work with every corner of your menu. Remember and recognize that your own palate has been evolving through your education and experience, it’s likely the styles and structure you appreciate at this stage in your career may not be appreciated by your guests. The aroma of blood on hot stones from a St. Joseph, the slatey, clean kerosene on an aged Mosel Riesling, or the graphite/pencil lead on a quality Rioja may not excite your guests if they are not expecting them to be there!
Being patient and waiting for closeouts can be a great way to help build a list. Most distributors don’t want to hold wines either.
Known vs unknown
It’s nice for a customer to see familiar wine from full page ads in the wine magazines and say “ooo I love that wine”. Resist these when you can, if a customer knows it they will likely know it at retail off-premise prices which will ⅓ to ¼ the price that you are listing it for. A nice play is to find clones of popular wines that are on-premise only. Honestly there are a dozen Rombauer and Meomi knockoffs out there that you can get at half the price. But they are useless if your staff doesn’t know their application and can’t make the cross sell.
Admittedly, a few trophy wines don’t hurt. The insecurity many Americans have around wine will make some (especially guys) spend big $$ to show off. Let them. Most likely they won’t know Taurasi or DRC, but these types will know Opus, Prisoner or Sassicaia. Throw it on the list with a fat margin.
You may want to be more “fair” on marking up wine but holding wine is like holding an ingredient in your kitchen. It takes room that you pay rent for and it takes a paid professional to open it. Embrace your markup. If you were to go to someone’s house and open the bottle, what would you charge?? The markup is supposed to be paying for the service so make sure the service is done right. Standard markups range from 3 to 5 times the bottle cost. Time in your cellar should be considered an investment that can be realized by increasing the price over time.
Owning your list
Know your list. Know the vintage changes and if they matter. Most new world wines have minimal vintage variation. Know the lateral sells, know the up sells. Leave your ego behind. Have wines that your customers will buy, don’t treat your restaurant’s back room like your personal cellar.
In case of out of stock (OOS), have the ability to cross sell. Don’t attempt the upsell, your margins should allow you to bring the price down on a higher tier replacement. Proper use of this technique will give your guests exposure to higher priced and hopefully higher quality items at an “introductory rate”. We have created regular Brunello drinkers from Chianti drinkers with a single application of this procedure. You may even use this technique as a customer loyalty ploy, knowing your customers who will appreciate the upgrade will build trust and increase check averages.
Having a bunch of laser tight Burgundy with your burger bar, or flabby Chardonnay with sushi will not help people get into wine. You may hate Lodi Zin or Lambrucso, but wow, they do work with BBQ (especially secco lambrusco!). You may hate semi-dry Riesling but a 10% ABV Spatlese Riesling or a demi sec Vouvray with sushi can be love at first sight. Get out of any personal prejudices and make your list work with your food. We had a Bierzo rosado that pairs perfectly with fish tacos. Once you make that connection for a customer they are yours forever.
Wine may not destroy a dish but it can definitely elevate one. A slightly salty sauce, a slightly overcooked lean protein can both be salvaged by the right wine. Get your chef and staff involved in experimentation, playing with different wines and explaining to each other why the wine works or doesn’t work. Yes/no answers are not helpful.
Pairings are tricky, especially for multiple entree styles. She is having Vegan Pomegranate Quinoa and he’s having rare Ribeye. Your only choice may be to go with low risk wine that won’t intrude on their experience. Wines like Beaujolais or domestic Pinot Noir for red and medium to high acid whites with minimal oak influence. Additional information is found in the Pairing section below.
Even us in the trade can’t be expected to remember if a 1983 left bank is better than a 1984 right bank Bordeaux. Do you have some basic descriptions with your menu items? Why NOT with your wine? Do you really think a 2001 Vougeot is more easily understood by the name than the ubiquitous Ceasar Salad on your menu where many restaurants still list the ingredients? Give some detail on your list, a single line if not more letting people know about the selections. We know it’s not common yet nor is it what the famous restaurant lists look like but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. Those types of lists are designed to force subservience to a somm, who may or may not know the difference between selections but has learned to pretend to.
BTG Bait and Upsell
A little path through the woods can help your list make money. If you have a Luberon or Ventoux BTG that is killer, have a Gigondas, Vacqueyras, or CdP to catch those fans. A good IGP Toscana can be the bridge into a big dollar Bolgheri, Languedoc to Minervois or Priorat, etc.. An orphaned Taurasi on your list may remain neglected for years, having a Vulture or affordable Campania Aglianico blend will open doors to it.
- What is a sommelier
- Why should I certify?
- Prerequisites and Testing Criteria
- Wine List Creation
- Wine List Training
- Storage and Service Temperatures
- Introduction to Pairing and Components
- Pairing Concepts
- Service Intro and Presentation
- Service Opening the Bottle
- Sample and Pouring Order
- Sommelier Standards Sparkling Wine
- Sommelier Standards Beer Service
- Sommelier Certification Registration