A lot gets written for restaurateurs about how to put together a great list, but very little get written for consumers regarding how they can recognize that great list. So many metrics that are frequently used to measure the quality of wine lists, number of listings, depth of listings, range of regions, can be deceptive at best and downright silly at worst.
The real key to understanding a wine list is to understand how it was put together. Was it assembled out of love and passion, pure marketing, or a combination of both? By keeping on eye out for the tricks restaurateurs employ in building wine lists, you can start to get a feel for where the owner was going with it and where you want to go with it.
Sometimes you can tell a whole lot about a wine list without ever seeing the wine list. What's that, you say? Well there are some easy indications about the wine passion level in any restaurant. Check out the glassware they're offering. Are the wine glasses crappy little goblets or worse? Don't go by what's behind the bar; there are reasons for using more durable glassware in a bar setting. But check out what glasses are being used for other tables, keeping in mind that some establishments break out better glasses for better wines. A policy I can believe in. Don't forget to ask your waiter about the wine program as well. They should be able to tell you something about the wines on the lists, though recently at a rather fancy restaurant, I overheard two waiters describe a specific wine in wildly differing terms almost simultaneously, only to have the sommelier save the day. If the wait staff seems informed or even better, actually tastes the wines, someone is doing the right thing here. Wine List Win Photo from Flickr: Phanatic
You can't expect every wine list to offer 20 wines by the glass, but you should expect more than a simple Chardonnay, Cabernet or White Zinfandel - not that there is something inherently wrong with that. When assessing the wine list, keep in mind the type of establishment you're in. A casual restaurant should feature more casual wines, but it should also offer at least one more interesting selection for both red and white wines to augment their more mainstream pours. Of course, a steak house should have different offerings from a seafood shack's, but if the by-the-glass offering seem awfully mainstream, that's usually a good indication that the list is as well. When you combine those two facts, more often than not you'll find out that the list was put together by a distributor who offers this service for free, including printing the lists and supplying menu covers. Wine List Fail Photo from Flickr: Ewan-M
Half-bottles are a real sacrifice on the part of the restaurateur. They move slowly and by allowing diners to opt for a white with one course and a red with another, they show huge respect for consumers, but actually can work against the restaurateur's bottom line. By allowing people to order two halves instead of a single bottle, a restaurant might forgo that extra glass or two of white wine that couple might order as an aperitif. I don't frequently see half-bottles on restaurant wine lists, but when I do they definitely make me take notice since they can be hard to find as well. Someone here is definitely paying attention to the wine. Wine List Win Photo from Flickr: Vincent Ma
This is a tough metric to use. Recent studies have shown that having a below average number of wines on one's list can lower revenue from wine. In classic blind obedience to data, this grossly misstates the situation. You can have a huge list but if it's mispriced or poorly chosen, you're not going to find anything to order. Actually, you probably will but the number of wines ordered off the list will tend to be limited to the few that actually hit their marks. It may be true that a long list will offer a broader range of selections, but when that list is dominated by high-end California Cabernet and Bordeaux, what sort of a selection does one really have? Look for some diversity on the wine list. A well thought out list of 20 wines that actually work with the food being offered can often be better than a corporately prepared chain's list. If it's 100 pages long and it's all Cabernet and Chardonnay, it's not a great list. Wine List Fail Photo from Flickr: Sifu Renka
A truly great wine list has something for everybody, so don't be prejudiced. I expect to find popular wines and well-known brands on a good list. I'm not likely to order them, but so many people who are less interested in wines use these wines as touchstones. Yes, this is good for the restaurant, but it's also good for consumers as well. These brands often represent good values on the list. While many lists are priced at a multiple of wholesale, the fact that these most popular wines are often discounted at retail makes it more difficult to charge the full normal markup. They just end up looking like a rip off at that price. So check and see if the popular wines are fairly priced. If they are, that's usually a sign that whoever is in charge of the list is paying attention to the market and that's always a good thing. Wine List Win Photo from Flickr: ClintJCL
Restaurateurs have been taught the ins and outs of wine list construction. For example, did you know that research has shown that simply adding a dollar sign to the prices on a list lowers sales from that list? There's science at work here and the science has also shown that a restaurant that maintains a separate reserve wines list will earn more money from wine sales. That's not to say that that reserve lists are bad, they just tend to be more expensive and are indicative of either a passionate wine program or a well-schooled restaurateur. What I would recommend looking at is the ratio of affordable wines to these reserve wines. If the regular list offers only a few value wines (and by value I'm going to arbitrarily say under $50), but a huge selection of reserve wines, that owner is probably thinking of beef. Yes, you have just turned into a cash cow and it's milking time. Wine List Fail Photo from Flickr: mastermaq
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