How to Build a Better Wine List: Tips from Top L.A. Sommeliers

By Allison Levine, Foodable Contributor

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The world of wine is vast. From regions to varietals to producers, there are thousands of wines to choose from. Consumers are inundated with choice and it is very common and comforting to revert to a wine one is familiar with. But with so many options and variations, there is not one wine that will fit every occasion or cuisine.

With extensive knowledge about food and wine pairings, it is the responsibility of the sommelier to build a wine list that matches a restaurant’s menu, and engage and challenge the customer without intimidating them.

Building a Wine List

When building a wine list for a restaurant, while it seems like an obvious statement, it is best to select wines that fit the cuisine and the restaurant concept. “It does not make sense to have an all Italian wine list with Thai food or only Rieslings for white wines at a steakhouse,” says Ben Teig, wine director at Redbird in downtown Los Angeles. 

The key to a good wine list is balance. Jared Hooper, wine director at Faith & Flower, also in downtown L.A., explains that “balance can exist in many forms and take place over one page or 150 pages. There should be variety in terms of price, age, place, grape, texture, and then, most importantly, familiarity.” 

Catherine Morel, head sommelier at Bourbon Steak at The Americana in Glendale, suggests having a few wines at a base price and then a few wines at each price point, increasing incrementally by $10 or $25. “Have a few selections for every price point and have a range of price points, not just one wine at a lower price point with the next option $100+ more!,” says Morel. “You need to balance the trophy wines with a nice selection of good wine at lower and mid-price points.”

Another key to building a great wine list is to know what your guests want. “You have to remember that what the guests want is paramount,” says Teig. Hooper agrees. “No matter how much time and effort goes into putting together a program, there is a person on the other end of that wine list, holding it in their hand, trying to decipher it,” says Hooper. “This doesn't mean that I think we should dim down our list to the equivalent of a flashing neon sign hawking the obvious grocery store choices, but rather that it's helpful and familiar to make something approachable.” 

Alicia Kemper, general manager and beverage director at Fundamental L.A., says she likes to create a list that is fun and unique and “introduce people to wines they have never heard of,” she says. Mary Thompson, director of operations and beverage director at The Line Hotel, adds that you want to include unique wines. “It is important to think about what makes the wine list special and why would someone want to come here.”

A light, "minerally" white on Fundamental L.A.'s wine list: Ardoisieres Argile Blanc 2013 | Instagram @fundamentalla

A light, "minerally" white on Fundamental L.A.'s wine list: Ardoisieres Argile Blanc 2013 | Instagram @fundamentalla

Balancing Uniqueness With Comfort

“It’s okay for a wine list to have some difficulty, but it still needs to be readable and have a pattern that the guest can follow,” Teig (of Redbird) says. “If you want to sort the list by grape or region, that is fine. I think it’s important to make sure that the guest can navigate a list once they discern how it is laid out. The wine world is constantly changing and growing, which can be intimidating for the average consumer. We need to be there to guide them along to find what they are looking for.”

A sommelier can be indifferent and select commercial name brands to put on their list, with the argument that it’s what their customer wants. But, does the customer really know that particular wine? Could they pick out that specific wine in a blind tasting or even describe what it tastes like? It is possible, but more often it is a comfort in brand familiarity.

On the other hand, a wine list can be too esoteric for the customer. “It's easy for a sommelier to be an egomaniac and put what they like on a list,” says Thompson (of The Line Hotel). “Anyone can write a list of what they like, but that’s not the point.” 

Teig adds, “As sommeliers, we tend to fall in love with odd or rare varietals, or matching food with non-traditional pairings. But we have to remember that we are ambassadors of the wine world. We are there to help people find a wine that is right for them, not to intimidate them with our knowledge, or to encourage them into buying the most expensive bottle.”

With more boutique brands and less familiar names on a wine list, more education and hand-selling is required, but as Thompson explains, “We are not doing a service to the customer if we are not being fun and engaging.” 

At Fundamental L.A., Kemper approaches the wine list by introducing unique elements with familiar varietals. 

“I do think you can challenge the norm and try and do more interesting wines, instead of just having wines that everyone else has and are just big sellers,” she says. “I like to take grape varietals that people know, and find representations of them from unique places. I also like to find grapes and regions people have never heard of, that are great value wines, and are super approachable instead of esoteric.” 

At Faith & Flower: 2004 Giuseppe Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore (Veneto, Italy) | Instagram @jarebearsomm

At Faith & Flower: 2004 Giuseppe Quintarelli Valpolicella Classico Superiore (Veneto, Italy) | Instagram @jarebearsomm

Selling the Wine

Once the wine list is created, the question is how to sell the wines. Morel (Bourbon Steak) encourages really listening to the customer. “When selling wine, you need to listen to what the guest is saying. Not everyone understands wine terminology and many guests use the terms incorrectly,” she says. “For example, fruity does not mean sweet, and dry just means that a wine does not have any sugar. You also need to respond to them in kind. Responding to a simple request for a ‘big red wine’ with questions like 'do you like firm or soft tannins' is going to make the guest feel small & make you look like a wine snob. The goal is to start a conversation so that you can find the perfect wine for them at any price point. This way, you earn their trust and they will be more likely to try new wines.”

To listen to the customer, the sommelier must be on the restaurant floor, engaging with customers and hand-selling the wines. “My favorite is a face-to-face chat,” says Hooper. “It's when I can buzz by the table and say, ‘just in case for some reason you don't feel like reading 33 pages of wine, we can just talk.’ We'll have a chance to talk about what they like, what they are going to eat, how adventurous they want to be, or whether they'd rather just stick with what they know and how much they want to spend.” 

Training the Team

Selling wine is a team effort and staff training is valuable. With knowledge and understanding of the wines on the list, the servers are an extension of the sommelier. To train her staff, Thompson prepares a customized tech sheet for each wine, including photos of the bottle, a winemaker or vineyard image, and a silly story or anecdote. With these sheets, she creates a notebook and each staff member gets a copy and are encouraged to add their own notes. 

Kemper also provides information on each wine and a list of key things that each staff needs to memorize: body (light, medium full), driven by (earth, fruit, mineral), and tasting notes (no more than three things). “This gives them the ability to talk to guests and help them find wines based on their preferences,” she says.

Having the staff taste wines is also important. Teig offers a voluntary monthly staff training where they taste the wines and go in-depth about how wine is made, the different regions and varietals.

Thompson encourages her staff to pose questions to each other once they have learned the wines. “For example, we will ask questions the way we may hear it on the floor. ‘I like butter but not oaky, what do you have?’ This requires the staff to pull the information out and file it differently; it helps to personalize the list.”

With the vast wine choices available, we rely on the sommelier to enhance the dining experience. The sommelier holds the key to unlocking the world of wine and through thoughtful creativity and education, this door can be opened for all customers.