Two Snarky Guys Tell You How to Write Your Wine List...

If one asks two Sommeliers, two wine writers, or hell... two of anybody in this business the same exact question, one is liable to get two completely different and often contradictory answers. So we learn to live with ambivalence and more than a bit of uncertainty. But it's all about perspective, right? No one in this industry is 100% right all the time, and we are all deeply, incorrigibly opinionated, so you have to take what works for you, what makes sense to you—and run with it. 
 
It's in this spirit that we want to encourage healthy discussion and debate, so we figured we'd start with the most important piece of paper (or digital data) in our profession: the wine list. How is it organized? Is there room for some personal expression here? Does it put the focus on buyer or seller? and give their perspectives below. Please feel free to argue the point, disregard, write off, cheer, question... or just add your own honest opinion in the comments below! We welcome the discussion.
 

Matt: Wine List Organization

Organizing a wine list is actually trickier than it appears. We've all seen the bad ones: white wines organized into three categories of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and "Aromatic" Whites—which, yes, includes Muscadet—or the list of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and "Other" Reds. That other category is always the rub—what the hell do you do with that Valle d'Aosta Fumin anyway? But how are the best lists organized? And do wine nerds and our larger pools of wine-drinking guests value the same styles of organization equally? From my perspective, simple organization is best. We often think about variety first, so use that as your first filter. Why separate white Burgundy and California Chardonnay by 10 pages; the styles represented within each section are increasingly diverse while the categories themselves are more closely aligned than ever. From variety, keep it simple and geographic. From my (the wine nerd) perspective, this makes it really easy to see your breadth of selections and find what I am looking for. But it doesn't really solve the problem of that Fumin bottle. In the same way that it is not always easy to extrapolate or generalize when learning the theory behind wine, it's almost impossible to create a one-size-fits-all "classification system" for a modern wine list without getting... fancy. 

Speaking of fancy, there are a few things that drive me crazy. Please don't segregate your wine list according to soil/bedrock. You are likely to be wrong in some cases, and—much like VDP ortswein bottlings—this information is of uncertain value to the guest, at least when it comes to anticipating the type of wine that is going to end up in the glass. The same goes for listing wines by musical association (I kind of get where you are going, Keith, with pre-drug Beatles and Duckhorn Merlot, but...), artistic template, or any other sort of labeling that categorizes one arguably subjective enterprise by another. I can't find anything. Maybe I'm just tone-deaf. In counterpoint, however, a sommelier with this list can get a lot of airplay with his/her guests. This list invites a conversation about preferences. If you have someone on the floor who really understands the list and has the time to talk with each interested table, this list could be exciting for the "neophyte," even as it is maddening for the nerd!  (Editor's note: If someone classified a wine list solely by jean style—skinny, acid-wash, designer, and boot cut—we would all understand.) 

Bottom line: Stay away from "fun" categorizations and any taste profiles (full-bodied reds, aromatic whites, etc.) unless you really know your list inside and out and can be sure each category title is actually representative of its contents. Also, please no tasting notes. I don't care if it tastes like apples. If it's that important, please convey that information upon the order. "It tastes like apples. You'll love it."

Classifying a wine list by style of jeans is the best idea Matt has ever had. Forget progressive wine lists, we should make this mandatory. Seriously though, the key here is clarity. If you're going to have an organizing device it should make it easier to navigate, not more confusing.
 —Geoff

Geoff: Selection and Variety

Wine lists come in all shapes and sizes. Assuming you've decided on an organization that makes sense for your restaurant and clientele, the next issue is the selection and variety of what you offer. For most wine lists one Sancerre producer is all you need. For another you may want to offer both a value and a bottling that you think is worth splurging on. However, if you're going to list ten, then it better be for good reason and someone on the floor should be able to make an intelligent differentiation between them. In the most likely case where you only have one, I’d suggest you ask yourself the question "Why that Sancerre?" There's more than one intelligent answer here but if yours is, “that's the one my distributor brought me” then you're probably not a very good wine director. Philosophy is thinking about thinking from multiple perspectives; creating a good wine list involves thinking about why your wine list is good—even better if you can do this while stepping out of your own head.

Let's start with selection. Sometimes if I see a wine on a list that I'm curious about, instead of asking the sommelier to describe it, I ask them why they picked that Verdicchio of all of the whites in the Marche. If the answer is "I went there last year and tasted 100 wines, and that's the one that stood out in my memory" then I'm pretty intrigued. Realistically, the response is more likely a puzzled look while they wonder to themselves "Who is this jerk?” Honestly, I sympathize with this response but it probably means you're not the best person in the world at your job.

Now let's talk variety—but first we have to realize that not every category requires it. If you're going to only have one Pinot Grigio it should probably be one that the vast majority of customers who are going to order Pinot Grigio in a restaurant will like and think they got for a relatively good price. If you only have one Pinot Grigio and it's fermented on the skins for three months without sulfur followed by four years of underwater aging and costs $100... then I probably hate you. In the case where you want to highlight a category that you think deserves focus in your program, then just make sure that you are representing unique styles and training your staff accordingly. A “cool” wine director may have twelve vintages of Cascina Francia, but a good wine director has both Altare and Conterno and a staff that can explain the difference.

I think Geoff hit the nail on the head here; it's actually easier to write the kind of hip, en vouge, region-specific wine lists of today precisely because it's easier to buy and list 10 Sancerre for the sake of completeness than it is to choose one for its inherent typicity and quality. It's easier, if you are in a major market, to buy for a 50-wine Jura-or-bust list than it is to buy for a 50-wine list that has to offer something for everyone. The former requires you to have a really skilled staff to learn it and sell it; the latter requires you to be skilled in tasting and buying for it. —Matt

Matt: Size and Focus

Short, country- or region-specific wine lists tailored to the cuisine are all the rage these days, and when thoughtfully assembled these lists are great. They tend to challenge the guest to order something unfamiliar—but this style of restaurant is also unlikely to employ a dedicated somm. There is a gauntlet thrown; the guest is almost challenged to order something unfamiliar and the wait staff has to know the list—and the lingo—inside and out. I really love some of the tight, focused, region-specific lists out there, but these always ring a little more true when the wine buyer is really invested in the program. When you can feel the passion for the wine and—almost more importantly—the culture behind it. This is usually an owner's list, not an itinerant wine buyer, who will be somewhere else, buying other wines, in a year. 

The massive tome, on the other hand, fossilized quickly in the wake of the 2008 crash. Yet examples live on, in our hallowed halls of fine-dining, and they continue to celebrate their own heft. If you have a 100-page wine list, give us real choice! Choice is not five of ten Burgundy pages devoted solely to La Tâche; that's a still life! If you want to curate something, work in a museum. There's the other extreme, too: the list that is composed solely of the wines that you will drink with chef's menu tonight. You get only the pairing wines, we've decided, because that's what's good for you. Yes, that's fine, I get that your dinner experience is akin to high theatre, but sometimes people just want to drink what they are comfortable with because they are extremely uncomfortable with their awkward date. Again: give us choice! Both of these extremes, in some way, are the same.

For me, my favorite lists tend to be small-ish, with 100-300 selections at a range of price points reachable by an average, hard-working human being—a wide enough variety to satisfy my Seghesio-swilling uncle and me, without judgment. I don't want just the names, but I do want a fair representation of classic archetypes and regions. I like lists that highlight sustainability without being rigidly dogmatic. My dream list: one that shows a buyer understands the vast world of wine styles available, takes care to highlight a few that especially resound with the food, has a little personality, and—most importantly—refuses to fetishize grape juice.

I can usually assume that if I haven't heard of a third of the grapes on the wine list then the wait staff doesn't know anything about at least two thirds of them—and the wine director is more likely to be in the coffee shop down the street writing their smug blog than helping guests figure out if they should be ordering the Babeasca Neagra or the Guardavalle.

One way I like to think about the size and scope of the wine list is to imagine five different stereotypes of diners walking in and sitting down and asking myself whether or not each of them will be able to order a bottle of wine that they really want within five minutes. If the answer to that is no, you have problems.

My only disagreement with Matt here is my willingness to fetishize grape juice. People who fetishize Champagne are just more fun to have dinner with—you just have to realize that like most of our fetishes, not everybody at the table wants to hear about them. —Geoff

Geoff: Wine List Pricing

Making a general commentary on wine list pricing is dangerous. Every business model is unique. Some restaurants have owned their real estate for generations and others are paying off construction loans. Nashville is different from New York; a bistro is different from fine dining; not to mention that alcohol taxation can be dramatically different from country to country. That being said, I think there are a few guidelines that can apply in broad context. First, make sure that the average bottle price makes sense for your food prices. I’ve heard the general rule that the average bottle price should be approximately twice that of the average entrée. I'm not willing to put total stock in such an easy generalization, but this doesn't seem too far from the mark. Obviously there are reasons to deviate from any heuristic, but just make sure you're thinking about it.

Second, I would strongly urge considering a scaled markup. If you have a bottle of wine for $10 cost that you really love, I don't think charging even $40 is totally unreasonable. You have to pay the price of admission. That being said, I personally can't imagine paying a three times markup on a $200 cost bottle of wine. Any time I see a wine list with a universal markup percentage (or anything close) I always opt for the less expensive bottle and I save my splurge purchases for restaurants that encourage me to do so. Thinking about the contribution margin (hey I just made $100 profit on my bottle priced at $200 even though it's only 2x markup) as opposed to just a simple margin percentage (I just made $40 profit on my $60 bottle of wine at 3x markup) can have many intangible benefits as well—from increasing staff tips on higher check averages to increased customer satisfaction to lots of Instagram pictures in your restaurant.

Universal markups drive me nuts. Honestly, I learned a lot about how to price a wine list working as a sommelier for Geoff at the Farmhouse Inn, where bottles that came in at $300-700 wholesale might be marked up $50-75, yet COGS still remained around 33%. He knew what sold—Russian River Pinot Noir—and priced it accordingly. And even then pricing was still fair because the sales mix was so lopsided in favor of the local wines. Another area in which wine programs can express a little pricing sophistication is in determining sales mix between glass and bottle sales. If glass sales are at a higher percentage, the bottle prices can be shaved down a little, giving the list the appearance of great value while still maintaining your profit margin. 

Overall, I don't mind paying two or three times for a bottle if I'm dining out, and the final price is still within the realm of reason. It's fine; I want your restaurant and your staff to make money if you are doing good wine and food. Don't be the ex-sommelier who once railed against corkage, only to exploit it after you graduate from the floor! —Matt

Matt: Creativity and Presentation

In 2012 Annette Alvarez-Peters, lead wine buyer for CostCo, earned scorn and enmity from the wine press when she likened wine to other products, shrugging off the suggestion that wine was any different from toilet paper. As sommeliers we love to glorify our calling—it's an awesome profession, yes—but at a very basic level we are selling very interesting vacuums. Actually, strike that—the margins on vacuums are probably much higher. In any event, providing a simple list of wares might threaten to unmask something banal, so we inject our spin, our personality, our sense of artistry into the endeavor. We desire to create lists that are, like anything material, extensions of ourselves. Great sommeliers find a balance between these two extremes; a great list is a high-wire act of user-friendliness, expert salesmanship, and a little personal expression. As such, I love to see a little exposition sprinkled throughout a list—enough to highlight a few producers or bottles, especially when they are unheralded or easy to overlook but worth championing. That being said, if you can't write; don't. (Or hire someone to do it for you.)

Presentation is also a big deal. Do you go the old leather-bound route? Seems old-fashioned, unless you run a steakhouse. One page lists are great, although those larger than legal-size paper are often too unwieldy at the table. Follow some basic rules: If you have the price in the right-hand column and the wine justified on the left margin, make sure the guest can easily trace from one side to the other; if your lighting is super-dim, adjust your font accordingly, etc. And what about the iPad list? These can be wonderful user-friendly tools or they can be an absolute f***ing disaster. They can allow the guest to quickly narrow down choices or they can invite confusion. Is the screen way too bright for your ambience? Is the iPad itself too heavy? The iPad list can really improve things on the back end, and it makes the 86 list obsolete, but from the guest's perspective the interfaces are usually lacking in, well, a sense of hospitality.

Most “creativity” is the intersection of garbage and ego; craft is a different story.  No matter how creative you think you are, if you try to design a fish it is almost certain to get eaten by a shark. Sharks have been doing their thing for 450 million years. That being said, if you really believe you are the next incarnation of Billy Collins and want to write your wine list in the form of a sonnet—go for it! Just be honest with yourself. 

Also, I universally hate iPad wine lists.  If you must have one, just give the link to your app on your paper wine list. The 5% of diners who have ever thought this is a good idea will probably have two or three devices in their pocket they can access it with. —Geoff
  • This discussion delights me.

  • Love this format.  Hope to see more like this in the future.

  • truly like this "discussion format" and great points made by both participants! thanks!

  • I enjoyed this so much and especially agree with the scaled markup and it's good to know that my Champagne fetish makes me a fun dinner guest.

  • I like most everything you guys have to say here. This seems like it's coming at the more creative point of creating a list, and there's no talk about how distributor politics and allocations factor in. It's a largely nuanced and unsaid thing, but very important as a lot of the greats these days rely on your relationships with vendors and how you support them. I feel like some lists are blatantly pandering towards allocations, where as more experienced buyers know how to support and cultivate those relationships while not being obvious about it. I can tell when I look at list(in Cali at least) who that buyer has set relationships with and sometimes in an overly exaggerated way. Sure we want Fourrier, but do half of your btg's need to be from that distributor? How important is that allocation to you? I think there's a good conversation there...

  • I absolutely LOVE this post and look forward to the discussion(s) it fosters. Bravo!

  • Forget Jeans, classify the wine list by fetishes!

  • I also love the discussion format of this article.

  • iPad lists probably have their place in state-of-the-art restaurants that specializes in molecular gastronomy and specially made ergonomic chairs or the like, but a good old fashioned list or book will most likely never be replaced. Places that use an iPad for their wine list I tend to find to be trying *too* hard, in the name of letting their guests have informed decisions.

  • What vintage of Hoover would one recommend?  : )

  • To expand upon Liz ' s point, I don't buy, oh, say, Kermit Lynch wines to secure allocations. I get allocations because I happen to really like all the "little" wines and support the book. As this book speaks to my palate, I'm not judging someone that prefers another.  (Unless its crappy) I do judge those who sell out their btgs for well vodka or menus. This indicates a lack of faith in the ability of the wine program to be profitable on its own. Or laziness, or cynicism.  Then wines are not being chosen for what is in the glass and that is what is most important.

  • More, please. I'm revamping an inherited mess of a list...

  • Out of curiosity, is the disdain for ipad wine lists coming from formats that are very interactive and provide a lot of excess noise? I am curious why there would be any dislike for ipad lists that literally mirror a paper list in every way other than being digital. For instance, at Per Se, the wine list is the exact same lay out and contains no extraneous content or distractions. Are these examples still insufficient, lacking, or frustrating in any way?