12/16/2010 01:39 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Would a Restaurant Let a Wine & Spirits Distributor Make Their Wine List? Or, Why Wine Consultants Exist

How many times have you gone into a restaurant to see a cookie cutter wine list, that is almost a duplicate of the next hundred restaurants in the same locale? This is not an accident. Some wine distributor has taken over the burden of writing the wine list, to ease the amount of stress in the restaurant owner's day.

One consensus I have found within the restaurant business is that making money on food is difficult, and much of the profitability in the business will come from the bar and the wine list. So, why would a restaurateur take one of their primary profit centers and turn it over to a salesperson?

Here is a typical restaurateur's scenario. You buy a restaurant. You pour your life savings into your investment. You take the primary profit center, the bar and wine list, and you leave it in the hands of a distributor sales person, (the middle tier in a three tier system) who at best wants the success of your restaurant so they can pour more products into your place. At worst, they need a place to sell their monthly quotas. Most likely it is a combination of both. When you look at a wine list, and it resembles the selection at your nearest supermarket, how have you distinguished yourself from the competition? Should the restaurant owner be really comfortable with this scenario?

I do not mean to suggest there aren't great distributors and importers in the marketplace who can be invaluable resources to a restaurateur. I have learned a great deal through their knowledge and expertise throughout the years. My suggestion is they must be managed by the restaurant, and not handed the profit center of the operation. I cannot imagine a restaurant chef allowing a purveyor to make their menu. How can you let distributors manage the bar and wine list?

The wine list, along with the menu, are the two main documents that are handed to every customer in the restaurant. If one of those documents, the wine list, is indistinguishable from their competition, I believe this to be a statement about the restaurant's commitment to high standards. This is settling for the easiest possible solution, and I will guarantee that if you look at the finest restaurants in your area, they control the wine list, the beer list, the back bar, the food and all products they purchase.

Restaurants go out of business every day. I cannot predict the future and tell a restaurateur they will succeed because they have a good wine list, but I can tell them they have given themselves a better chance to succeed by taking the extra steps to buy wines that fit their place, rather than leave it in the hands of a purveyor.