It’s 3:00 AM in the restaurant world. The economy is rattling our windows, costs are obliterating margins, and last year’s projections seem as hopeful as a bride without a first date. The first thing every savvy restaurateur does under these circumstances is not just batten down the hatches, rail in expenses, get focused on advertising and more aggressive with promotions, but also tighten up menus and wine lists.
Of course, everyone knows what a wine list is – the list of wines you can order in a restaurant. Yeah, right. Like “service” is someone taking your order without first saying hello, without telling you the specials or giving intelligent answers, slapping your dishes on the table in no particular order, forgetting to refill your water or to offer coffee, and then taking your money without saying thank you or goodbye.
What do consumers actually look for in a wine list? Seventeen years ago the nation’s most popular wine magazine actually put that question to its own readers – all predominantly strong wine and food lovers – in a multi-question poll. The results of three of those queries:
• 70% of those polled agreed that the “optimum length” of the ideal wine list should be only 20 to 50 selections. So why do many of us in the business still believe in the-bigger-the-better approach to wine lists?
• Responding to the question, “how useful is wine list information in choosing wine?” – 70% of this magazine’s readers described wine lists in the U.S. as “poor” or “fair.” Zero votes for “excellent,” and 9% voting for “good.” Ergo: even knowledgeable wine lovers believe that restaurant wine lists are just not informative enough.
• To the question, “how helpful are lists in matching food and wine?” – 77% rated wine lists as “poor” (mostly) or “fair.” With the rise of exponentially more food consciousness and culinary sophistication during the past seventeen years, do you think consumers today care less about wine and food matching than they did before? Not a chance.
Have things changed much since 1991? I guess. We are seeing more wine lists that address the issue of being more informative by adding descriptions and tidbits of information. We are also seeing a few wine lists that suggest food matches, and even some food menus that suggest wines for specific dishes.
But by and large, the restaurant industry is still generally afflicted by the notion that big wine lists (that is, those with anywhere from 200 to over 2000 selections) are better than small wine lists; whereas the vast majority of consumers probably aren’t impressed by that at all. All they are calling for is a wine list that makes more sense than hieroglyphics, that is more entertaining than a telephone book, and that has something to do with the dishes they are about to eat.
If you're a restaurateur, does your wine list fit the bill? Let’s go through a check-list of some hard questions you'll need to ask yourself in these recessionary times:
1. If your wine list is “big” (say, over 200 selections), is it big for a reason – like giving your guests multiple options of wines that you know taste magnificent with specific dishes on your menu? Or is it big for reasons that your average guests really don’t care about – like, because you enjoy tasting and buying lots of wine, or because you’ve read somewhere how good this or that wine is and what score it’s been given?
2. Do your selections actually differentiate you from your competition in the eyes of your guests, or are you going after the exact same wines found in every other restaurant, grocery or retail store down the street?
3. Like “Charlie the Tuna” in those old commercials, are you selecting wines that represent “good taste” or that actually “taste good?” That is, are your wines chosen to give you the highest percentage chance hearing your guests go, “Wow, that’s the best wine I’ve ever had!” Or are they chosen just to make you look good?
4. Are you writing descriptions for each (not just a few!) selection on your wine list to help your guests make decisions, and also to perk their interest, senses, and ultimately their thirst?
5. When you write your descriptions, are you being helpful by giving the information that guests actually need (i.e. is it dry or sweet; very sweet or slightly sweet; light or heavy; lots of oak, subtle in oak, or pure and fruity...?); or are you just providing long, half-hallucinatory, grocery list-like descriptions cribbed off distributors’ sales sheets (i.e. “grapefruit and apple with hints of leafy herbs, peaches and cream, and crispy, pan fried passionfruit”).
6. In your descriptions, are you throwing in other interesting tidbits to stimulate guest interest; like the name of the winemaker (if it’s a prestigious winemaker), the wine’s growing region, the significance of the growing region, or one or two dishes that taste absolutely wonderful with that wine?
7. In your wine list categories, are you being creative by dividing them up by taste (like “dry, full bodied whites” as opposed to “light, slightly sweet whites”), by food suggestions (“crisp, dry whites for oysters and shellfish,” or “big, full bodied reds for steaks”), by special interest (“organic & biodynamic whites,” “exotically scented European whites,” or “wild, wacky Southern Hemisphere reds”), or any which way you can to make your list uniquely interesting?
8. Are you still offering just a measley five or ten selections (or less than 10%, 20% of your selections) of wines by the glass despite the fact that in most restaurants today over 50% of wine sales are by the glass?
9. If you’ve found some truly unique and delicious wines that go great with some of your dishes, are offering them by the glass, or do you expect your guests to take giant leaps of faith and buy full bottles just on your say-so?
10. If you’ve found numerous truly unique and delicious wines, are you giving your guests the opportunity to have fun with them – like, the chance of tasting two or three next to each other with one dish, or at a bar just out of curiosity – by offering them by the glass in 2 or 3 ounce portions on top of 5 or 6 ounce “full” portions?
11. Are you tasting your staff on a regular basis (at least once a week) on all the new and exciting wines you’ve found in mandatory meetings in order to make sure every selection on your list counts (and also to make sure your hard work as a hunter of uniquely fine wines isn’t for nought)?
12. Are you testing your staff on a regular basis (at least once a month) to make sure they’re awake and taking notes during the wine meetings?
13. Do you query your staff – and even taste samples of prospective wines with them – to find out what your guests are really saying about the wines on your list; in order to not only make intelligent decisions but also to garner the maximum support of the people who are actually doing the selling and serving?
14. Are you standing pat, or are you continuously growing to keep up with the increasingly sophisticated tastes of your guests and the evolution of your menu; in order to keep yourself and your staff on your toes, and loving what you do?
14. Above all, are you bringing back the fun of wine to your guests, and taking pains not to insult their intelligence or underestimate their thirst for new and exciting wine experiences?
So how is your wine list answering the call as a recession buster? Or shall I say… ring, ring!