Recently, a colleague and I took the plunge into the wine world and started the process of becoming certified sommeliers. The task was intense, but we ultimately found wine to be exciting and a never-ending machine of knowledge. I can confidently say that when you think you know wine, you quickly learn that you haven’t even scratched the surface!
It got me thinking about our customers and how it must feel when you’re at dinner, and your server introduces themselves, has some light, jovial banter, and then offers you “the wine list.” Yikes!
For some, it can be very intimidating, and for others, a great journey. Interpreting a restaurant wine list can be a daunting task. Not only must you perform your wine savvy in front of a group of friends — or worse, a date — but you must make choices that will form your whole dining experience.
Making a wine list that makes people happy, harmonizes with the chef’s cooking and the overall ambitions and the atmosphere of the restaurant is the backbone of a wine buyer’s work. Here’s what you want to look for in the ideal restaurant wine list, according to those of us who work in wine.
- A good and robust selection of wines by the glass. This is very helpful since my husband doesn’t drink wine and I don’t want to have a whole bottle, but I do still like a nice glass of wine with my dinner.
- Reasonable mark-up. We are all well aware that restaurants need to sell their wines way above retail prices to keep their businesses viable. But there’s certainly a line that most customers don’t like to cross. On the wine list, if there’s a 100 percent mark-up, we get it, you understand. But if there’s a 300 percent mark-up? Did that amount get added into the wine? Of course, you’ll see some restaurant wines marked up more than 300 percent, and you simply have to decide what you’re okay with, then make educated decisions going forward. If you see a wine and know the value of it, you can assess and see they’re putting a lower margin on their wine, that may be a place where you would want to order more expensive wine from and try something you wouldn’t usually order.
- Suggested pairings. While this isn’t quite a requirement of a good wine list, it can be helpful for you as the customer. Food pairing is significant value on a menu as a whole. Restaurants that offer recommendations with entire courses or wine dinners with specific food items remove the hassle of going through the whole wine list, which can be overwhelming. This shows the restaurant is knowledgeable, which is an initial good sign of the quality of not only the wine but also the food.
- Diversity. If you see diversity, and not just one region, it’s more likely you’ll have an option you’ll like. A good wine list should be well balanced between the old world and new world wines.
- Knowledgeable presentation. A solid wine list is nothing if the wine isn’t served correctly. Glassware, in particular, can dramatically affect wine flavor. Similarly, wine temperature is vital. You would rather have a chilled red than an overly warm one and above all, to make the most of a wine list, you must take advantage of the staff’s knowledge. Engaging with the sommeliers and feeling like you got something special adds to your dining visit. It’s never about what’ exactly is on the list, it’s about how you feel about the whole interaction with the list and a beverage team that makes a wine list special.
Great wine lists, simply put, should make wine feel fun! The moment wine isn’t fun … it is a bad moment.