Posted on | April 23, 2014
Written by | Jim Clarke
There is a big difference between a wine program and a wine list. The former is much bigger, of course, incorporating how wines are sourced, ordered, stored and inventoried. The list is just part of the program—but it is essentially a restaurant’s public wine face, so attention to constructing the list has a significant impact on the entire program.
Of course, the traditional choice to make when organizing a wine list is grape variety versus geography—but circumstances sometimes call for flexibility and creativity beyond that initial decision. The wine list at The Marrow in New York City reflects chef Harold Dieterle’s dual Italian-German heritage, so Wine Director Jill Roberts focused on wines from those countries. With the bulk of the list populated by two countries, Roberts chose to list by subregion: “Otherwise you have over one hundred Rieslings in a row, then a handful of Scheurebe.” Roberts also puts the producer’s name first; this further helps avoid a sense of Riesling overload. And while the list at The Marrow, like many, generally goes north-to-south, Roberts leads off Italy with Sicily, again in a nod to Dieterle’s parentage. It catches people’s attention, and the island’s wines move well.
At Khong River House in Miami, former 50 Eggs Inc. corporate beverage director Allegra Angelo emphasized the direct relationship to the menu: “There’s a page of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Muscatel,” she explains, “then a section of ‘Curious Whites,’—white wines that go with spicy Southeast Asian food but that you wouldn’t always think of, like Rhône whites and Chablis.”
Bending The Mold
Consultant, MW and MS Ronn Wiegand says that while organizing by region or variety is often easiest for guests to navigate, “One alternative format that seems to work really well with shorter lists and in more casual restaurants is where wines are organized wines by taste and style, often with the lightest wines in each category listed first, and the fullest last.” This format is great for restaurants where there is above-average staff turnover or where little emphasis is given to server wine training. However, he adds, “Alternative [concepts] begin to become a bit forced or confusing for lists with over 200 or 300 selections.”
Even traditional formats have room for play. The lists at the Terroir wine bars in New York are essentially organized regionally, but that’s easy to miss among the producer profiles, rants, Monty-Pythonesque graphics and tangential asides. The intended message, says Wine Director Matt Stinton, is, “We take wine seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. If it slows down ordering, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It forces the guest to ask questions.”
Counterintuitively, Terroir has one “beverage list,” notes Stinton, combining wine, beer and spirits. “One stop shopping better showcases the vastness of our program,” he explains. It also encourages cross-selling: “Some guests might say ‘I just wanted a glass of wine, but I see that you have Cognac…’.”
Price Meets Position
A wine list is nonetheless a price list. Hristo Zisovksi, beverage director for the Altamarea Group, sometimes moves things around to keep pricey wines from appearing to prominently. “On the Tuscany page, Antinori’s Tignanello, a $200 bottle, might land first on the list, alphabetically. Even if it makes the page breaks lopsided I’ll put a first wine that’s cheaper,” he notes. “Or within Montalcino, I’ll put the Rossos first, before the Brunellos. I also try to do that at the bottom of the page. People look at the top and bottom right away.” Zisovski says that on one Altamarea list, they separated California Cabernets into single wines and verticals; the latter had many more expensive cult wines, so the page with single offerings helped guests find the more affordable examples.
Of course, one could just put the wines in price order, lowest to highest. “In high turnover restaurants and most casual restaurants with limited wine programs,” says Wiegand, “lowest-to-highest pricing can streamline wine sales, and guest turnover.” Restaurants with more serious wine programs may find that it discourages staff interaction. Nonetheless, The Marrow lists wines according to price within each section. “When I talk to people, [price] is one of their major priorities,” says Roberts. “I wanted the list to be friendly; if people have the opportunity to buy up, they will.”
Reserve lists can also temper guests’ price worries, though Zisovksi notes that determining the cut-off price can be tricky. A Reserve list that starts at $100 may be fine for Tuscan wines, but what about that top red from Emilia-Romagna that comes in at $65 because of the region’s lesser fame?
Fine-tuning and attention to detail come down to the individual line—and not just checking for typos. “A long sentence is hard on the eyes,” says Zisovski, so he uses the section headers to convey information, even if a section might only have one wine in it. He favors putting the varietal or appellation first on each line, but makes an exception for things like Super Tuscans, which he lists by their proprietary name. It’s about putting the information the guest will most likely recognize first. “My general rule is to be consistent within the category, Old World or New World,” says Zisovksi. “There is no right way or wrong way. Just be consistent.”