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Make your wine list easy to use

09 April 2008 by
Make your wine list easy to use

If your wine list is confusing to read, with no hint to the style of the wines, people will go for the cheaper, safer options every time. Get the layout of your wine list right and watch your profits soar, says Fiona Sims

There's nothing worse than a badly written wine list - except perhaps a badly written menu - but they can be found in some of the nicest restaurants. In the worst places you're lucky to get a country, let alone a region, producer or grape variety, declared on the list. And a vintage? Not likely.

Often, wine lists are completely wrong, with operators under the mistaken belief that one vintage tastes pretty much like another, so why bother tasting it again? And then there are those restaurants that keep wines on the list that they no longer stock - just to look good.

And don't get me started on the spelling mistakes

Yes, there are some shocking lists out there - which is surprising in an age when consumers are increasingly wine-savvy. It pays to get it right, but what makes a good-looking wine list?

Jonathan Downey thinks he's got it right. The bar operator behind the Match chain, who put great cocktails on the map, wants to stir things up with the wine offering at his latest opening, a private members' club called the East Room, in London's Shoreditch. So he called in Matt Skinner, Jamie Oliver's wine consultant, who has built a reputation for shaking things up on the vinous front.

The avant garde list

I haven't seen anything like it before. The wine list, called "Our Wine Thing", is, to use Downey's words, a bit like playing Battleships. You just scan down the list of grape varieties, then move your finger across the price grid, choose your country and hey presto! No producer names, no vintages.

But how on earth does he get people to buy a £40 bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc without knowing what it is? "Because they trust us," Downey says.

The format for the list was actually Downey's own idea. "It's a great example of how he thinks outside the box," Skinner says. "It's not radical just for the sake of being different there's real logic behind how it's been laid out, based on the buying habits of our members."

For myself, I'm not sure about it - and in the hands of the wrong operator I think it could be a mess, to say the least. I feel it takes the romance out of choosing wine. But Skinner counters: "It depends what your definition of romance is. If romance means potentially being made to feel awkward or intimidated by someone who knows, or thinks they know, far more about wine than you do, then maybe it does. I think sometimes we [in the trade] get carried away with how important wine is in the grand scheme of a good night out for most people. This list has been designed to make choosing wine an easier, quicker, less stressful, and hopefully more enjoyable, experience for our members - my job is to make sure that what's on the list in terms of content stacks up."

As far as content goes, Skinner says that the idea was to bring together the best possible collection of New World wines, and to showcase as many of them as possible by the glass, irrespective of price. He says: "This means a combination of wines with established and well-earned reputations, recent discoveries, mature and rare wines, too, and on a constantly rotating basis."

He adds: "I think it's also important to add that we have made a really conscious effort to assemble the list according to what our members will enjoy drinking at various price points, rather than what we hope to sell as wine enthusiasts. All wines are listed by grape variety, because that's how most people approach wine in the New World."

Anyway, we romantics can get our wine kicks from the four Enomatic wine samplers positioned in the club entrance. You simply charge up your wine card and help yourself - choosing from more than 30 wines, sold in two measures, 125ml and 175ml.

About half the East Room's members are using this facility, and it certainly rakes in the cash. Skinner reports: "People using the samplers are paying on average between £8 and £10 per glass, while our house wine begins at £4. Our weekly revenues have been around 20% ahead of target, a lot of which has been due to customers trading up, without any hard sell from us. They're doing it because it's easy, fun and interesting. We have eight great Pinot Noirs from New Zealand in one of the samplers at present, and this has been the most popular flight so far."

Listing by country

Back in the Old World, we most often like to choose wine by country, but that doesn't mean that the process can't be as exciting. Take Vinoteca in London, for example. This is a wine bar for the noughties - a place where you can peruse the shelves before deciding what to drink (there's an "in" and an "out" price), and where you can pick up a bottle or two to take home.

The wines are sourced from smaller suppliers, from lesser-known wine regions, offering the taster something new and exciting. "The weirder, the better," says Vinoteca's co-owner, Brett Woonton.

Vinoteca opened 18 months ago in the city's St John Street, and is a joint venture between Woonton and Charlie Young, both of whom were formerly in the wine trade. There are some 220 wines on the list, split by country and with a tasting note for each wine.

Some customers opt to cruise the shelves to choose their wine. Others use the blackboard, where Woonton and Young chalk up a daily-changing line-up, each of which is also available by the glass.

And then there's the list. Within the countries, they list wine by colour (white, rosé and red), with sparkling, sweet and fortified listed separately. "We don't like listing by price," says Young, "because we feel that our inexpensive wines are, in some cases, just as interesting as some of the pricier ones."

Listing by style

This is my favourite kind of wine list - you know what you're in the mood for instantly. The Olive Branch in Clipsham, Rutland, offers a good example - so good, in fact, that it helped the venue to win its recent Michelin 2008 Pub of the Year award.

The list is put together by co-owner Ben Jones, who sources the wines from half-a-dozen suppliers. There is a core list of about 25 wines, split by style, which changes with the seasons. "And the wines have to reflect what's on the menu," says Jones.

There are six sections in all, ranging from dry, light and fruity whites to full, fruity and flavoursome reds, each with a short tasting note written by Jones and his staff. "I always involve the staff in the choosing process - it makes it easier for them to sell the wine," Jones says.

All of the wines on the core list are priced at less than £20, and they represent 70% of overall wine sales.

But there are another 25 wines that can be found written up on two blackboards either side of the bar - 15% of customers choose wines from here. There's one for the New World and another for clarets and Old World, and they all get slightly longer tasting notes. The board wines are bin ends, so they change all the time, which gives the many repeat customers something new to try every time.

There's also plenty by the glass - 10 reds, 10 whites, three rosés, five sherries, six dessert wines and a couple of bubblies, one a Prosecco. All of these are also available by the carafe. There's a successful beer and food list, too, with a dozen beers - half on tap, the rest in bottle.

Hotelier and Master of Wine Gerard Basset also likes a wine list presented by style. In research he undertook on the subject while studying for an MBA, he found a wines-by-style list to be the most successful. "But you have to look at the bigger picture," he says. "A wine list should be adapted to the kind of business that you are, taking into consideration location and food."

His list at his New Forest hotel and restaurant, Terravina, is presented by style. But there are more than 350 wines to choose from - too many to list by style alone, Basset says, so each section is also split by region and country. "It takes a lot of the pressure off me doing it this way," he explains. "It's easy for the customer, and it's much easier for the sommelier to find her way around."

But he concedes that presenting a wine list by style is not the only way to produce an interesting list. "It would be very boring if every list was presented like this," he says. "It's really nice to see something fun, something a bit different - as long as the list is presented in a logical way."

The idiosyncratic list

Which brings me to Danesfield House Hotel and Spa, in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. With its three AA rosettes, Danesfield needed a decent list to match up to the food offering. Cue Doug Wregg.

Wregg actually works for award-winning Guildford-based on-trade supplier Les Caves de Pyrene and does a fair bit of wine list consultancy. I've followed the lists he has created over the years, and I am a fan. Launched on the denizens of Marlow just before Christmas, the list at Danesfield House is already raising eyebrows.

"It is presented by style, region, grape variety, emotion and sensation," writes Wregg, by way of introduction on the first page of the list. Categories are organised according to weight - such as "ethereal and delicate", "focused and mineral", "the taste of terroir", and "inky, dark, intense (purple-stained mouth)".

Layout by style is the most interesting approach, Wregg believes. "However, it is important not to be too schematic," he says. "Of course, you can shovel wines into weight - light, medium, full - but that gives little indication of flavour, texture and the mood that the wine can evoke. I favour controlled chaos, juxtaposing style, mood, varietal and regional. The wine list should invite us to explore every part of it, and it should also explain as well otherwise, we go for the default choice - Pinot Grigio, Chablis, Rioja."

Wregg's brief at Danesfield was to be original but also to create a list that didn't need to have a sommelier to explain it. He says: "I felt it important to address every area of the list, such as sweet wines and by the glass, in order to keep it stimulating. The good thing about such a template is that it forces the list to be balanced. You want the sections to be roughly equal length for visual appeal, and maybe to use different fonts as well to break up the text." He used a mixture of wines from several suppliers, with Les Caves de Pyrene featuring fairly prominently.

Wregg, like me, doesn't like vertically priced lists. "Essentially, it is prioritising wine by price," he says. "You don't do that with food, so why do it with wine?" Quite.

The wine tome

You know the kind of thing - you need a wrist support just to lift it off the table. It reads like a compendium of the biggest names, stuffed with pricey top-drawer Bordeaux and Burgundy, completely lacking in depth, and chosen without a single thought for the food.

Well, that's the worst-case scenario. Put someone passionate behind it, however, and you've got an exciting read - someone like Matthieu Longuere.

The first things he did when he arrived at La Trompette, in Chiswick, west London, were to increase the number of wines from 500 to 600 bins and to reduce the number of pages from 37 to 26. How did he do that? He says: "It was silly having the Loire on one page, with 20 wines, then Alsace on the next, with only five wines." He set about giving it more balance.

In his list, the wines are listed first by country, then by region, and in some cases by grape variety. For example, New Zealand is listed by grape variety, not region. "There are some subtle differences between the regions," he explains, "but if you take Marlborough, for example, there are so many different styles going on that it would be too complicated to list the wines by region. Anyway, doing it this way takes a lot of the snottiness out of it."

And we don't want snotty wine lists, do we?

Nine wine list crimes

  • Omitting producer names.
  • Listing too many wines that are not available.
  • Making spelling mistakes - especially obvious ones ("Nappa Valley").
  • Wrong or missing vintages.
  • "Ego" wine lists.
  • Using just one wine supplier.
  • Snotty entries.
  • Wine chosen without a thought for the food.
  • Automatically handing the wine list to the male diner.

Ten tips for a good wine list

  • The list should be easy to navigate, especially if it's long.
  • It should be balanced in terms of styles and prices.
  • Keep the margins down on higher-priced wines.
  • Vintages should be correct.
  • Have well-trained staff to help you sell it.
  • Have a balance of the classic and the esoteric.
  • Tailor your list to target your customers.
  • Involve staff in the choosing process.
  • Suggest a wine for each dish.
  • Offer a separate wines-by-the-glass list rather than incorporate it into the main list.
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