Prizewinning wine lists reveal buyers' passion for the subject

29 September 2005
Prizewinning wine lists reveal buyers' passion for the subject

It's the kind of wine list that you want to keep by your bed. The Harrow at Little Bedwyn has made practically every entry an entertaining read - a passionate outpouring from its wine-savvy proprietor and chef, Roger Jones.

It's the result of a combination of dutifully attending wine tastings and some tough talking with his suppliers, which manages to keep both the prices down for his customers and the profits up for Jones. So how has he done it? And how can you win an award for your wine list, too?

"We buy from as close to the source as possible," says Jones, who even buys some wines direct from Spain and France. "As a restaurant owner, I want to get the best price possible for my wine - I don't want free trips. I'm looking for as close to the agency price as I can get, and I can do that by paying my bills on time. That way I get a better deal, which means I can be reasonable with my mark-ups."

Jones also believes that it is essential to include tasting notes with each wine. "We don't have a sommelier to explain the wines, but even if we did, they can't talk to the whole restaurant. I think a wine list should at least give the basic idea of what each wine tastes like."

Though Jones, of course, goes a few steps further and peppers his list with personal comments - sometimes very personal. Take cult New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Cloudy Bay, for example: "It's over-hyped and overpriced and I don't mind telling people that," he says bluntly.

This is all very well, but what about those in the industry who don't benefit from Jones's extensive wine knowledge? "Keep going to tastings," he advises. "Suppliers are so generous with them - and the more you taste, the more you learn. It's such a great opportunity - and it's free."

He has pulled off another (rather sneaky, but brilliant) coup, too - the notoriously difficult-to-sell Riesling has just overtaken his Sauvignon Blanc sales. "I started offering it by the glass first. I even told customers that it was Sauvignon Blanc, then after they said, "Ooh, this is nice," I corrected the mistake."

He's talking mainly New World Rieslings, mostly from Australia, some from New Zealand, and with an increasing number from Alsace, though German Riesling is still a tough nut to crack, he admits. "Riesling is great. It goes with everything," he declares. "I even have 80-year-old grannies drinking Australian Riesling here."

Not that his customers need to be so single-minded in their wine choice. Jones has another ploy to get them to experiment: each dish on the menu is matched with a different wine, and the uptake is good, he confirms. And now that his regulars trust him, he's got them steadily trading up - he's shifting a few top-end Burgundies.

Another regular wine list award winner is William Hutchings at the Bell at Skenfrith, in Monmouthshire, which scooped the AA Restaurant Guide 2006 Welsh wine list award.

The list at the 17th-century former coaching inn is a model for the industry. And passion for wine, once again, is the key, with personalised tasting notes and a strong knowledge of the subject, which Hutchings passes on to his staff with regular tastings. The more they know, the more they sell, he reasons. "The personal approach really works. Though it's also about not being afraid to experiment," adds Hutchings.

A good wine list should inspire customers to be adventurous but at the same time be comforting and reassuring, with something for everyone. It should include key growers and producers along with some good vintages, and it should suit the menu.

But you've got to get the basics right. Make sure you write your wine list properly, with accurate vintages and clear and concise tasting notes - just listing a wine as Chianti Classico is about as useful as calling your steak and kidney pudding meat pie.

The guidebooks look for intelligently chosen, interesting wines, with a good balance of styles and a good selection - at least 10 - by the glass. Pay particular attention to your house wines, which should set the standard for the rest of the list. Even consider installing the mother of all wine preservation systems, Le Verre de Vin, to keep your wines in perfect condition.

Like Jones, Hutchings believes that the secret to any good wine list is not being tempted to mark up the wines too much. "I see my wine list as a marketing tool. Instead of splashing money on advertising, I spend it on wine," he reasons. The guidebooks, too, can spot the bargains - and they compare mark-ups. If a restaurant is operating hefty mark-ups on wine then increasingly they say so.

And if you're thinking that this all sounds rather time-consuming, choose your suppliers carefully (but more than one, please - otherwise you are limiting yourself) and the list will tick over happily. See you at the awards ceremony.

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