As tanned folk return from holiday and the children go back to school, the smart operator will already be thinking of changing the wine list. Certain changes will be instinctive, others require thought and planning, says Peter McCombie
Some operators will continue to run the same wine list all year round. There is merit in this approach: it reduces paperwork, and keeps things straightforward for customers. The downside is that you have nothing new to say to your clientele.
Taking wine seriously contributes directly to sales, drawing in diners. While there will always be people who like the same wine all year, many instinctively change what they drink according to the weather. As nights gets colder, even if you do nothing to your list, you will see a move away from lighter, fresher, white wines towards heavier, warmer, reds.
Don't be afraid to ask people about their drinking preferences at various times of the year, but at the same time it's foolish to extrapolate too much from one or two conversations. Review sales to see if you can determine real trends.
What to take off
There's a temptation to use a review to ditch wines you don't like yourself. However, as Robert Wheatcroft, of specialist on-trade supplier Vine Trail, points out: "There aren't that many wines you can remove from the average list without delisting someone's favourite appellation."
Before you remove that apparently watery Pinot Grigio, have a look at the year-round sales of the wine. The chances are that throughput is less seasonal than you think. If the product is fulfilling customer expectations and sells well, keep it. You could, perhaps, use a seasonal review to source a better example.
There may be other lighter whites that don't sell so well as autumn approaches, so these can be removed. Many lists now contain several rosés, and while you will delist some for the winter, don't just drop the expensive ones. Higher-priced examples tend to be weightier and drier and will be more successful paired with food in the colder weather. Fresh, fruity reds will lose ground to heavier reds, but again don't dump them all. "Cru" Beaujolais can be incredibly versatile with food, for example.
Keep some lighter and medium-weight reds with lower alcohol and little or no oak, because there will always be some customers who prefer them and some dishes that partner better with them. The overall balance should not be forgotten.
Luciana Girotto, consultant to a number of Italian restaurants, insists there "must be a balance within regions, grape varieties and prices".
What to add
Substantial whites with lots of alcohol, oak and characterful grape varieties will come into their own in the colder months. Chardonnay, for example, can be made in many styles: Côte d'Or Burgundy and New World styles are most likely to fit the bill, whereas northern Italian versions are more appropriate in summer. As for reds, substitute an Amarone for a normal Valpolicella or a Crianza Ribera del Duero for a roble.
Clive Greenhalgh, of the Ambassador in Exmouth Market, London, is a fan of Spanish wine, but as summer fades he finds he always thinks of France first. "Autumn food - game, wild mushrooms - makes me think of the Rhône and Piemont," he says. "I slowly build up my fine wine holdings towards December and will look to reduce stock in January to avoid any cash-flow challenges."
With one eye on the pre-Christmas period it may well be worth adding on a limited number of higher-end reds, too. Bought in smaller quantities, these should be priced keenly to achieve healthy cash margins, rather than a high, notional percentage gross profit. Offer your customers a chance to trade up when entertaining or celebrating.
"Bordeaux moves better at Christmas with us," says Kate Preston of the Contented Vine pub in Pimlico, London, "as diners will have a splurge at this time".
In the cooler months fortified wines come in to their own, too. Sherries have escaped from the tapas bar and are now seen in a range of restaurants, served as aperitifs or, if the right style, as partners with cheese or dessert.
Ports are a familiar standby. But are the examples on your list too familiar, perhaps? Take the opportunity to offer a range of styles. Dessert wines are also often neglected. It's sometimes thought that you need a really hard sell to push sweeter wine at the end of the meal, but a good first step ignored by some is simply to improve your selection. The extra glass the customer didn't know they wanted can contribute greatly to profitability.
Plan your tastings
Sourcing new wines in September shouldn't be difficult as the month is awash with tastings. Check out the Wine & Spirit Trade Association's Trade Diary (www.wsta.co.uk) for details. Generic tastings (Chile on the 9th in London and the 10th in Manchester, or Argentina on the 17th) are a good use of your time if you plan your approach. Don't bother tasting wines that aren't available in the on-trade.
Also consider restricting yourself to a limited number of varietals or regions. Key merchant tastings, such as Fields, Morris & Verdin on the 9th, can provide a particularly high-grade range of wines. Others include Boutinot (London on the 16th, Bristol on the 17th and Manchester on the 23rd), Liberty on the 16th, Corney & Barrow on the 18th and Thorman Hunt on the 23rd.
Or do as Preston counsels and ask your suppliers to sample you, according to a clear brief. Take time to sit down with them to discuss your needs.
Marketing the changes
The first people you have to sell any list changes to are your staff. Schedule a session for any staff working with wine. It's even better to get chefs involved at this point.
Introduce the new list and the individual wines. Taste as many of them as you can with your employees, encouraging them to express their own opinions. Simple background and tasting notes on each of the new wines should be prepared and made accessible. If you don't already have regular training, then try to introduce a programme. It doesn't have to be ambitious, and you can enrol suppliers to help.
Once the staff have been briefed, the new lists can be presented to customers. You might opt for a brief introductory paragraph at the beginning of the list, or simply flag it up on blackboards. Highlight a limited number of new wines and say why you have chosen them. If possible offer them by the glass, too. You may be able to persuade suppliers to credit you for the odd bottle and use it to give customers a free sample. Use blackboards or the menu to offer a particular food and wine match, perhaps offering a discount if the customer opts for the combination.
Encourage your staff to talk about the new list to their tables, too. There is no need for a hard sell: it is more a matter of drawing customers' attention to the fact that the list has changed. If you have handled the training properly, the staff should also be able to mention one or two highlights.
There are other ways of doing things, too. The Contented Vine held a successful wine tasting of its new list with previous diners, and five suppliers helped out. The customers got to learn about the list and enjoyed the odd complimentary glass at the same time.
Selling the wines
The winter season, running into Christmas, is normally a boom time for restaurateurs, but this year that won't necessarily be so. Ensuring you have a good end of year will be about providing incentives for staff. You might introduce a competition among employees to increase sales of more unusual or more expensive wines.
Once your new selection is in place, think about which wines you will offer by the glass. How often will you change this selection? Don't be complacent and leave the same selection there for six, or even three months. Keep things fresh to maintain staff and customer interest. Make sure that there is a good selection of fortified and sweet wines available by the glass. Make it easy for customers by suggesting pairings.
Keep an eye open for bargains, too, especially older stocks and bin ends. Last year Greenhalgh bought a sharply priced parcel of 1998 Chianti Riserva and sold all 500 bottles between November and January, passing the discount on. He was happy and so were his customers.
Rebekah McKevitt, sommelier at the Salt Yard restaurant, in London, sells rare and old bottles as specials.
Girotto makes one more point that, while obvious, is too often forgotten: "Understand what the customer is drinking."
People tend to drink more robust red wines in winter - but it's best to keep a range of lighter styles on the list as well
Six autumn picks
Crego e Monaguillo, Monterrei, 2007, Spain (C&D Wines)
Rich, peachy with a citrus tang. Weighty in the mouth with a fresh, zesty lift. Good with oysters.
St Joseph, Alain Graillot, 2004, Rhône Valley (Yapp)
A rich, modern style of St Joseph, which is drinking well now. Great with mushrooms and beef.
Taberner, Huerta de Albalá, 2005, Spain (Boutinot)
New wave, southern Spaniard showing luscious, juicy black fruits with Rhône-like notes of spice and chocolate.
Barolo Riserva Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe, Cavallotto, 2001, Italy (Lay & Wheeler)
Alluring and perfumed, with a firm but ripe tannic backbone, this traditionally styled
Barolo will unfold slowly in the glass, rewarding the patient. Match with roasted game.
The McRae Wood Shiraz, Jim Barry, 2004, Australia (Berkmann)
Big, rich and ripe but not a monster, this true Australian classic is delicious but balanced, too. It's made for grilled or roasted lamb, or a well-spiced couscous.
La Basseta Priorat, Bodegas Mas Alta, 2005, Spain (Indigo Wine)
Dense, concentrated, with layers of oak, mulberry fruit and sweet, earthy spices, this impressive youngster needs aeration or cellaring. It makes a fine partner for substantial, slow-cooked dishes.
How to gain an edge
The Ambassador is a neighbourhood restaurant in London's Exmouth Market. Owner Clive Greenhalgh oversees a 120-bin list specialising in regional France and Italy, with "mature top-end wines at cash mark-ups". Greenhalgh's quirky array makes a big difference to the business. "We can measure improved sales of the wines that we prefer. I like the challenge of finding great flavours at keen prices," he says.
Greenhalgh has become more interested in seasonal changes via the list - there is now a section on the front page focusing on an area, grape or producer, and this changes monthly. The result has been higher sales from that part of the list. The autumn review, meanwhile, will see 20% of the whites delisted and a 20% increase in reds. These include "a lot of quirky reds" offered by the glass, allowing customers to taste before they buy. At Christmas Greenhalgh also lists more fortified wines, especially Madeira and vintage port.
A monthly dinner, often themed by region - Piemont in November - is a key component of the Ambassador's array, but Greenhalgh's notion of a successful event would not impress the average accountant.
"We cover our wine cost and make about 50% gross profit on the food," he says. "But we are full for these events, which is good for any restaurant on a Monday night. Furthermore, we connect customers to some deeper element of our business - perhaps a supplier or some wines that we like."
Greenhalgh concedes that: "If I add up all the time and effort that goes into promoting the evenings, I would have to admit that the longer-term effects are the real reason we do these nights. Our regulars are constantly bringing new people to us - word-of-mouth recommendation is the best form of marketing."
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