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Building a better wine list

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The on-trade is not very good at selling wine. There, I’ve said it. I’m not talking about the wine nuts, who make it their life’s work to source unusual wines, or those that are already wise to wine and are offering a decent selection, I’m talking about the rest of you, the majority – and you know who you are.

You have fewer than five wines on your list (60% of you), with more than one-third of you listing just one or two wines. You probably don’t have an Australian wine (more than 50% of you), and you certainly don’t do anything to promote the wines that you do have – only one in 20 on-trade outlets bothers. This is according to the latest set of figures from AC Nielsen, published in The Drinks Business.

Shame on you. Haven’t you been watching what’s been going on in the off-trade? Aside from the fact that you’re missing out on a huge source of revenue, you’re not giving your customers what they want.

You’re not giving the critics what they want, either. There are too many restaurants throwing all their energy into menus but still offering uninspiring wine lists.

Reader research on wine consumption by the AA Restaurant Guide found that wine is increasingly important when people go out to eat. And the guide’s inspectors are becoming increasingly knowledgeable. Editor Neil Haidar has organised more wine training for his team, so now there’s no place to hide. “The first thing I can see straight off is whether an establishment is passionate about wine,” he says. “And we can spot the bargains – we compare mark-ups, and if a restaurant is operating hefty mark-ups we will now say so.”

And woe betide any restaurant luring diners in by declaring modest prices on its menu only to pile the pennies on the wine list. “I would like to see food priced at a point that they can stay in business and the wine priced fairly,” says Haidar, lamenting the recent closure of his local, Croque-en-Bouche, in Malvern, which he cites as a benchmark (and no, all you cynics, it didn’t close because it wasn’t charging enough for its booze; co-owner and chef Marion Jones retired after many years behind the range).

“There are too many places where the food is good because the chef is passionate. But who looks after the wine list?” asks Haidar. “If you can’t afford a sommelier, then train your staff to sell the wine, or offer decent notes on your wine list. And one more thing – we hate dire house wine.”

The Good Food Guide has employed a wine writer to cast an expert eye over wine lists for a number of years. So what are editor Andrew Turvil’s main gripes? “High prices, not enough variety and lists that move too quickly up the price scale,” he replies.

He goes on: “What we look for are intelligently chosen, interesting wines at prices that don’t scare us witless. We want a good balance of styles and a good selection by the glass – at least a dozen. Staff should have a good working knowledge of the wine list, or at least be confident enough to talk about the wines. And tasting notes must be clear and concise. One more thing: the wines must be suitable for the food.”

Finally, restaurant critic and consultant Hugo Arnold has this to say: “A good wine list should inspire customers to be adventurous while at the same time be comforting and reassuring. Some key growers and producers along with some good years do the latter, while the former is achieved through time and effort. Not that much, mind you.

“It is all in the detail. I love discovering new wines and being tempted off the beaten track. I hate wine lists that are not written up properly. Saying ‘Chianti classico’ is about as useful as calling your seven-hour braised beef ‘meat’. Make it sexy – I’m all for it.”

We’ve found a pub, a restaurant and a hotel whose owners are passionate about wine and asked them for their advice on putting together a great wine list that really does impress the critics.

* The bell at skenfrith, Monmouthshire

OK, This is not technically a pub, “more a coaching inn”, says its owner, William Hutchings. The Bell was this year’s Welsh Wine Award winner in the AA Restaurant Guide 2003 (what is it with Wales and great wine lists?), and its 150-bin wine list is a model for gastropubs and restaurants everywhere, says the AA’s Haidar.

So what’s Hutchings’ secret? “Passion,” he replies, “and not being afraid to experiment.” Instead of the ubiquitous Sancerre, for example, you’ll find Picpoul de Pinet. “It sells fantastically well,” he says.

Hutchings is new to the business. While still doing his day job at Kraft, he reopened the inn two years ago with his wife, Janet. “We wanted somewhere that we would like to stay and eat in ourselves,” he says.

At first, his local supplier put the wine list together for him, but then Hutchings got interested. “It sounds obvious, I know,” he says, “but it’s important that you sell stuff that either you like, or you know that your customers will like.”

The list is packed with personal tasting notes. “This is what I drank on my 40th birthday,” he writes next to the 1994 Domaine Dujac Chevrey-Chambertin (£69). He has a single varietal méthod champenoise cider (Kingston Black Bottle) sitting alongside the six Champagnes (cheeky), and attention-grabbers such as Australian rosé Big Men in Tights, which sells well even in the winter. “The personal approach is really working,” he says.

Like others Caterer spoke to, Hutchings believes the secret to any good wine list is not being tempted to mark up the wines too much. In fact, Hutchings’s mark-ups are joyously low, at 40%. “I see my wine list as a marketing tool,” he says. “Instead of splashing money at advertising, I spend it on wine.”

And is compiling the list time-consuming? “Actually, no,” he says. “It ticks over quite happily. Another secret is to buy your wine properly – choose your suppliers carefully. I’m lucky, I have four great suppliers. But it’s now the end of April and I haven’t changed anything on my list since Christmas.”

* Fairyhill, Reynoldston, Swansea

“The most important thing to consider is to make your wine list accessible,” advises Andrew Hetherington, co-owner and wine buyer of the Fairyhill hotel and restaurant, on the Gower Peninsula.

Fairyhill is another establishment that keeps on winning awards for its wine list. So what’s its secret? “I have a huge list of bottles for less than £20,” reveals Hetherington. “It’s all very well having 160 clarets on your list, but the average man in the street won’t spend more than £20 on a bottle.” So how does he do it? “I’ve got lots of nice French country wine and d’Ocs galore,” he says.

Hetherington also makes sure that he has a complete cross-section of countries represented on his list – even India (Grover Vineyards from Berkmann Wine Cellars). So how does that sell? “It’s going down a storm,” he says. “There’s another tip – have fun with your list.”

Hetherington is also in the low mark-up camp. His wines are marked up by 60%, and only 50% on dessert wines, which he’s trying to encourage. “I’m one of the cheapest places to drink d’Yquem,” he boasts.

Hetherington also strongly believes in half-bottles – he has 50 on his list and plans for more. As he says: “People are willing to experiment more with half-bottles.”

* La trompette, chiswick, London

Matthieu Longuère knows a thing or two about award-winning wine lists. He worked with Gerard Basset MW for many years, and Basset has won more sommelier awards than anyone.

Longuère has since decamped to London and is now responsible for the wine list at La Trompette in Chiswick, one of four restaurants owned by Nigel Platts-Martin and Michelin-starred chef Bruce Poole.

La Trompette won the 2003 AA Restaurant Guide Wine Award. So what tips does Longuère have? “You should offer a bit of everything,” he says. “You must offer value for money – and everything must be of the best quality.”

Longuère advises restaurateurs to include lesser-known wines as well as top names people recognise.

Mark-ups are another hot topic. La Trompette applies a £40 maximum on a bottle, and the highest mark-up is 66% on the “house” wines – the more expensive a wine gets, the lower the mark-up. And you don’t have to have a big list. “You can still do a good list with just 60 wines,” says Longuère. “But offer them by wine style, not country.”

And what do you say to those who moan they just don’t have the time? “Work with your wine merchant – the smaller, the better,” says Longuère. “They have access to wines from many different wholesalers and they have the time to source more unusual items.”

As for wines by the glass, you should offer at least four whites and four reds, says Longuère: “This will cover the basic spectrum of different wine styles.”

Little things that make a big difference…

* Time: spend time finding a good local merchant to organise the list for you.

*  Energy: do the sums, you’ll find the energy.

*  Passion: a bit tricky this, if you’re really not that interested in wine, get your merchant to write the wine notes for you – and remember to taste the wines and memorise them, so at least you’ll know what’s on your own list.

*  Staff: let them try the wines; if they like a particular wine, you’ll be amazed by how much of it they can sell.

*  “Get more Riesling on there, it’s the darling of the critics,” suggests Matthieu Longuère of London’s La Trompette. “Sherry is another one – it gets journalists’ attention. But offer a range of styles to cover the basics – one fino, a manzanilla, an amontillado, oloroso and a PX.”

*  “Put on more half-bottles – it gives people the opportunity to experiment,” advises Andrew Hetherington of Fairyhill on the Gower Peninsular. “And offer plenty of wines under £20.”

*  “The personal approach really works,” says William Hutchings of The Bell at Skenfrith, in Monmouthshire.

*  “Good merchants are few and far between – listen to them and then do your own research. As with any supplier, they will work harder if you encourage them and show judgement,” says restaurant critic and consultant Hugo Arnold.

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