Tips for Creating a Stellar and Profitable Wine List

By Jaclyn Morgan, FCSI, JM Foodservice Consulting, LLC

Connoisseurs, sommeliers, and oenophiles will offer different opinions for building and maintaining the best wine list. Frankly, sifting through each perception of the perfect wine list is like trying to convince someone that coffee or tea is better hot than iced, or describing the shape of a puffy cloud as a guitar or a unicorn.

Unlike summoning an imaginary unicorn, you can craft a magically well-rounded and profitable wine menu with a few tips and tricks. Pay attention to your food menu, your brand, and your style to hone your list just like that finely-crafted Tuscan chianti.

Understanding and Organization

The best wine lists create a perfect marriage between food and drink. Fine steakhouses will have substantial lists that are especially heavy on traditional, full-bodied red varietals. Italian trattorias should feature wines whose body and flavor will pair well with the spice and regional cuisine. The executive chef and wine director work closely together to pair based on overall taste and preference while navigating the naïveté of the public. As seasons and vintages change, the sommeliers will need continuing education around a rotating food and wine menu.  Service staff will also need training to assist guests with their wine selections. Not every guest is an educated wine drinker; the onus is on the staff to provide the best, most accurate information on the wine menu in an easily understandable format.

Many different trains of thought exist for organizing a wine list. The tried-and-true method would be by color, grape variety, country/region, and style. However short or extensive the list, it must be easily readable and understood, while including the most significant of notations, including the vintage and any special attributes, like “late-harvest” or “grand cru.” Play around with styles and solicit feedback from staff and customers about readability.

There is a significant differing of opinion on the benefit of technology and wine lists. Those promoting the technology will cite that tablets can increase wine sales up to 10 percent. Those who are proponents of the paper list refer to facilitated ordering times and mention less customer confusion. If you choose to use iPads for a wine list, be sure that the tablet itself doesn’t distract from the dining experience. It should not be too bright, too hard to navigate, or contain extraneous and distracting information. The tablet should be lightweight and covered to match the food menu. Always keep hard copies of the wine list available, as even the best technology can fail.

Branding and Pricing

Think of your wine list as an extension of your overall brand. What are your saying with your wine list? Does it match your branding? Do you need to convey another message? Customers will come to you for both the food and the wine. It’s another leg to the food menu. While the food can stand on its own, it will not really stand out without a good wine list partner.  

Part of branding includes finding an appropriate length for your menu. A Michelin star restaurant may have a selection of over 1,300 wines. Maybe 200 is enough for your establishment. If quaint and quirky is your style, 50 may be the perfect number. If farm-to-table and local sourcing is your game, feature a short wine list highlighting local vineyards and downplay the national or international varietals.

Heavily important is the decision of what wine will be sold by-the-glass. Your wine-by-the-glass menu may even be more important than your bottle list. The wine director should be charged with finding and sourcing wines exclusive to your restaurant.  Perhaps everyone in your metro area offers a bottle of Grüner Veltliner, but create exclusivity by offering it by-the-glass or as part of a happy hour or Friday appetizer special. When your wine list changes with the seasons and vintages, the wine director will be charged with sourcing wines with the appeal of your customer base. Guests will implicitly trust the wine buyer through all changes if last month’s by-the-glass Rioja tastes just as good the one featured this month.

Just as important as the by-the-glass list is the pricing strategy. A standard two to three times cost markup may not be appropriate, especially if your higher-end wines have a cost of $200 or more. Who really pays $600 for a bottle of wine at a restaurant anymore? Instead, mark up higher-cost wines at a lower margin, while substantially increasing the margins on your $10 to $20 cost wines and by-the-glass prices.  If you sell more wine by the glass at higher margins, you may be able to drop your bottle prices while still maintaining solid profit margins. As with your kitchen raw materials, watch your sales mix to maximize profit while maintaining customer-friendly, fair prices.

Fast Casual and Wine

Today’s customer base, especially the younger millennial generation, is demanding wine and beer with meals, even at fast casual establishments. The above understanding and organizational rules still apply: marry cuisine and wines. A fast-casual Italian restaurant may need a few bold red wines, a hearty white that can stand up to cream sauce, and a trendy rosé that would even speak to grandmother’s proclivity for a seemingly unappetizing white zinfandel.

Still questioning if wine is right for your fast-casual restaurant? Consider this: Even Starbucks offers wine and beer after 4 p.m. at some locations to drive traffic during evening hours. Concerned about quick timing? Keep wine, much like beer, available on tap for a quick glass or carafe pour. Before you jump in, research local liquor laws and regulations, as some may inhibit selling alcohol with take-out orders, or even at all.

No matter your menu or dining style, create a wine list with significant and directed intention to help fashion your establishment as a destination, not just another restaurant around the corner. Cheers!