Nearly half of the average restaurant's revenue comes from booze. And most of that will come from wine. Yet much of the focus goes on the menu, with the wine list often cobbled together at the last minute, or left to the supplier - a missed opportunity, especially in times of economic hardship.
So where to start? Consider your menu first. The wines need to match the food that you are serving - it's amazing how many operators overlook this key aspect.
Using just one supplier might be less of a headache, but using two or more will instantly add interest and provide a more balanced list. And don't be tempted to include lots of big wine names - including 'finds' can create a real sense of individuality.
Think about the layout of your list. If it's confusing to read, with no hint as to the style of the wines, people will go for the cheaper, safer options every time. Vertically priced lists might be popular, but they don't hold much excitement for the diner. You don't prioritise your food by price, so why do it with wine?
A list laid out by style can be the most interesting approach for a wide range of establishments - the diner knows immediately what they feel like and it's easy to navigate. You can add interest by juxtaposing style with varietal and region - and even mood.
A pithy (and witty if you dare - humour in wine is always good) description of each wine will help guide the diner further. The wine list should invite the diner to explore every part of it otherwise they will go for the default choice every time (Pinot Grigio, Chablis, Rioja). And it should go without saying that all spellings and vintages should be correct.
How many wines to list?
However well researched, the vast majority of diners don't have time to scan through a big list and you risk scaring them off entirely, consigning them to the house selections. You can offer a well-balanced selection at 50 bins, though 75 bins provide more scope.
● Offer a range of prices, and don't scrimp on your house wine - it's a standard bearer.
● Be sensible with mark-ups - customers are increasingly savvy about prices.
● Offer plenty by the glass - at least 10, there's no excuse for any fewer with the abundance of wine preservation systems available.
● Choose something for everyone, from those who like whites that taste of nothing at all (a surprisingly large number) to those who want something life-enhancing.
Make it engaging
If you want an example of a restaurant wine list that delivers all the above and more, check out Yotam Ottolenghi's Soho restaurant, Nopi. Gal Zohar is the man in charge of Nopi's concise 70-bin list, alongside head sommelier Honami Matsumoto.
"I don't like big lists, people just don't have the time to look through them," says Zohar, who uses the menu and the style of the food to dictate the content and layout of the list.
Displayed on an A4 sheet, it offers whites, sparkling and sake on one side, and reds and rosés on the other, with 18 offered by the glass (and soon by carafe). The wines are split into engaging sections such as Going Natural, Volcanic Wine, Gamay for All and Mountain Wine, and it's peppered with small producers, often from lesser-known regions, all offering something exciting to drink.
"It was always our intention to encourage the guests to choose wines that they wouldn't normally pick. The categories draw them in without being intimidating. It breaks down barriers," explains Zohar.
Volcanic Wine, for example, prompts questions from diners such as, 'What difference does a volcano make to wine?' to which Zohar and Matsumoto happily respond. Zohar's favourite section, though, is Lesser Known Varietals, which includes Austrian variety Zweigelt and Jura native Trousseau.
"Those indigenous varieties are what make wines relevant to where they come from - it's a real selling point, and diners love the anecdotes that go with them," explains Zohar.
"It's easy to construct a wine list that everyone will like. The real challenge is to get the crowd who aren't into wine to try something different."
FIVE TOP TIPS FOR A WELL-BALANCED WINE LIST
● Make it easy to navigate, clear and organised
● Balance styles and prices
● Lower margins on higher-priced wines
● Train staff to help you sell it
● Tailor your list to target your customers
FIVE WINES THAT WILL LEAP OFF YOUR LIST
Key on-trade wine buyers share their latest finds and suggest how you should sell them on your list
Harriet Kinninmonth, Enotria
Tel: 020 8961 4411
2010, Mariona Blanco, Alicante, Spain, £6.05
This is a bit different - a beguiling blend of Moscatel, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Viura and Chardonnay. It's fantastically aromatic, deliciously refreshing and fairly light in alcohol (12.5%). It fits the bill as an aperitif, but is also good with canapés and bar snacks.
James Price, Genesis Wines
Tel: 020 7963 9060
2008, Negre de Negres Priorat, Portal del Priorat, Spain, £16.25
This biodynamic wine is made by Alfredo Arribas, a true superstar in the making. A blend of Garnacha, Cariñena, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, a meaty nose gives way to floral, rich black fruits, with a superbly long, mineral, spicy fruit finish. It goes perfectly with rich, hearty food but it has enough freshness and minerality to drink on its own.
David Gleave MW, Liberty Wines
Tel: 020 7720 5350
2010 Alpha Zeta 'P' Pinot Grigio, Veneto, Italy, £5.97
Sourced from prime lower-yielding sites on the hills outside Verona, this is the real deal and unrivalled for the variety at this price. Lively and aromatic, with plenty of spicy fruit character and a polished texture on the palate, it is deliciously quaffable on its own and is a fine match for fragrantly spiced dishes.
Doug Wregg, Les Caves de Pyrene
Tel: 01483 554750
2010 Bourgueil "Venus", Domaine de la Chevalerie, Loire, France, £8.10
Good Cab Franc ticks every box and this organic one over-delivers in spades. It has ripe fruit, cleansing acidity, a savoury herbal character and just enough tannin. You can chill it lightly and drink it by itself or pair it with a range of dishes from charcuterie to rabbit and even fish.
Liz Donnelly, Alliance Wine
Tel: 01505 506060
2007 Mas Cal Demoura, L'Infidele, Terrasses du Larzac, Languedoc, France, £12.98
Terrasses du Larzac is a grand cru from Languedoc under the new pyramid system, in an area made famous in the film Mondovino. A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault, it combines palate richness and viscosity with vivacious fruit and fine-grained tannin. It's superb with game, grilled meat with herbs, cassoulet or local cheeses.
SOMMELIER SOAPBOX – MARSALA
Alan Holmes, head sommelier and wine buyer, Chewton Glen, Hampshire
Due to seasonal menu changes, I have found myself thrust upon fortified wines and their ability to go with quite robust, hearty, wintery flavours. Most interesting of all was rediscovering Marsala, particularly with chocolate.
A recent innovation from our chef, Andrew du Bourg, consists of a smoked maralumi chocolate cigar with sugar and coffee 'ash', which caused a bit of a problem until we tried this hidden gem of a sweet wine from Sicily. After trying all the usual suspects - Banyuls, port and liqueur Muscats - we came across Liberty's Marsala Superiore Dolce from Curatolo (£8.12, 020 7720 5350). This packed just enough balance of alcohol and sweetness to handle the chocolate and coffee combination without losing its wonderful cooked, dried fruit aromas.
Added to our list of dessert wines by the glass, we have found it an exciting and good value combination that has brought about a new twist from a classic, yet underrated wine.
● All prices quoted are per bottle, ex-VAT
Caterer and Hotelkeeper wine clinic
How can I make my wine list more seasonal?
There's lots of talk in the wine press about wines that can taste better in the spring, summer, autumn or winter. Yet while most menus change with the seasons, wine lists often remain static, with inky Zinfandels sitting alongside sprightly Rieslings in winter. If you want to offer a Riesling for the colder months, choose one with weight and richness. In short, you need to think about the food you are serving.
In winter, we're talking sticky, slow-cooked joints and robust stews, cheese-crusted root vegetables and game. The wines need to be equally robust - heavier, fatter, meatier.
Winter reds include Syrah and Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Barolo, Malbec and Mourvèdre. Look to hotter climates; wines from southern France, Spain and Portugal and most of the southern hemisphere.
And don't think white wines are just for summer - throw in a bit of oak ageing, rounder edges, less acid and a bit more alcohol and many whites work a treat in the colder months.
For the best source of winter whites look to places where rich, fatty foods are paired with whites - Alsace is a good place to start. The Rhône, too, offers plenty of choice, with blends such as Marsanne and Roussanne - not forgetting Rhône styles that can be found from California to South Africa. And look at other varieties such as Semillon, Chenin Blanc and Viognier. Just remember not to serve them too cold.
If you have any wine-related questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org with 'Wine Clinic' in the subject line and we will endeavour to answer them - or find a sommelier who can.
Published by: The Caterer