How to Make Your Restaurant Wine List Stand Out

Crafting and designing a menu is one of the most important steps in opening a new restaurant. A menu communicates to guests much more than the food being served, and works to represent the entire restaurant concept. Unfortunately, restaurant wine lists are not always given the same royal treatment. Yet, just as the organization of one’s menu communicates to guests what type of experience they can expect at your restaurant, so too does a restaurant’s wine list. Building a great wine list is not as daunting as it may appear. And by keeping in mind just a few tips, you can help your wine list to stand out.

Make Your Wine List Easy to Access

Setting down an encyclopedic size list in a dimly lit restaurant may communicate the breadth of knowledge of your sommelier, but is one of the quickest ways to turn off your customers. While many guests are happy to ask the wine steward or waiter for recommendations, the menu itself can also be utilized as a sales tool.

At Manhattan Beach newcomer Arthur J, sommelier Ryan O’Connor wanted to include an expansive wine program while still making his guests feel comfortable when reading the list. His solution? Equate each wine to a famous Hollywood starlet.

Dividing the menu into multiple sections, each named after classic Hollywood actresses, allows for guests to feel a sense of familiarity with the wines they may not have come across before. In the mood for a sultry, heavier bodied red? Head to the Sophia Loren: Daring Reds section. Looking for something lighter bodied and elegant? Audrey Hepburn is your gal. Additionally, Grace Kelly represents the list’s sparkling wines, Brigitte Bardot heads the “Adventurous Whites” section, and Marilyn Monroe is paired with Chardonnay –- how fitting indeed.

Feature Affordable Options

A wine list’s accessibility relates to more than just comprehensibility -- it also refers to the price points of the wines being offered. Amassing the largest collection of First Growth Bordeaux is great to brag about at dinner parties, but if a customer cannot find a bottle on the list to order in their price range, they may end up deciding to forego a wine purchase entirely.  

Offering a healthy balance of wines in various price ranges offers something for everyone, ensuring no guest feels priced out by the wine list.

Fellow Manhattan Beach restaurant Love & Salt opened in 2014 with the goal of becoming a local, neighborhood restaurant. As such, they sought to create a wine list that offered affordable, everyday options. The team decided to cap the wine list at $100 a bottle, featuring a wide variety of wines from across the globe, all at reasonable price points. Additionally, the restaurant commissioned Santa Barbara winemaker Steve Clifton to craft their own house wine to feature.

Maintain a Narrow Focus

There is nothing worse than perusing a wine list at a seafood restaurant and finding five Napa Cabernets offered by the glass. While it may seem obvious, the most important component to consider when determining which wines to include in your wine program is the type of cuisine you serve. Consider what your guests will be ordering and which wines would pair best with the majority of dishes.

If your restaurant has an expansive menu with a variety of flavors, look for more subtle, versatile options. In addition, regional options are always safe bets to include when designing a wine program. Thousands of years of tradition have demonstrated that regional wines tend to pair best with the local cuisine. Ever had pesto pasta with Ligurian Vermentino? Exactly. While unexpected pairings are always exciting and fun, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when developing your wine list.

The harmony of the food and wine pairing should always come above all else.

At Sang Yoon’s Lukshon in Culver City, there is no compromising when it comes to food and wine pairing. Chef Yoon, notorious for his refusal to allow for modifications of his dishes, has also decided to only serve wines that pair best with his cuisine, and at the Southeastern Asian inspired restaurant, only white wines are offered by the glass. Finding whites best suited for his food, Yoon is unrelenting in his decision to match his dishes with wines that will be best to complement the myriad of flavors.

Offer a Diverse Selection

A narrow selection does not have to mean limited, and once you have decided which wines pair best with your cuisine, don’t simply feature five wines of the same variety or region. Experiment within a specific style of wine. Looking for the best wines to pair with spicy Asian cuisine? Riesling is an obvious choice, but how about considering Chenin Blanc? Off dry sparkling? Westchester restaurant Ayara Thai decided to feature an entirely domestic wine list to pair with their cuisine that included a number of alternative and unexpected Thai food pairings including a Mendocino Counoise from Broc Cellars as well as an Austrian-inspired white blend from Brooks Winery in Oregon.

Half the fun of developing a wine list is offering a variety of wines that consumers may not be familiar with. Providing a little something for everyone is not just an exciting menu feature, it’s good business sense as well.

Set Yourself Apart From the Crowd

The most important element that will keep guests coming back, however, is originality. There are enough restaurants out there, each pouring a stock list of wine that each seem to have originated from the same outdated wine program. As such, it is easy enough to set yourself apart from these restaurant dinosaurs simply by featuring unique selections from smaller producers on your list.

Think outside the box when developing your wine program. Restaurants nationwide are now looking to unique and original ways to set their wine list apart. Digital wine programs featuring iPads and other electronic apps have recently begun appearing in a number of high-end restaurants. Coravin systems and wine keg systems have also emerged as systems that can keep wine fresh longer. At Bar Covell in Los Angeles, no wine menus are offered, with the wine bar preferring to let guests trust the bartenders, who interview each guest and then select from a seemingly endless supply of unique, off-the-beaten-path wines. Sister wine bar Augustine offers a wide variety of older vintage wines available by the glass offering a once-in-a-lifetime chance for many guests to taste wines often times older than they are. Wine has even begun appearing as an ingredient in cocktails at restaurants unable to acquire full liquor licenses.   

The possibilities really are endless. By offering something that no one else can, you will pique new guests' interests as well as entice repeat customers to return.