Miss Jane’s Top Ten Tips for Wine Lists

One of the most important classes I teach in my professional wine classes is on how to write a wine list.  After a lecture (hopefully not too boring!) on my “Top Ten Tips for Wine Lists”, I divide the class into teams, and set them free to construct a wine list featuring a dozen wines that I provide to t hem. I am always amazed at how good a job they do!

Just in case you ever need to write a wine list of your own, here are my lecture notes.  Enjoy!

Miss Jane’s Top Ten Tips for Wine Lists!
1.  A good wine list should be easy to read and use.

  • No guest enjoys pulling out reading glasses and squinting in the dark, yet many wine lists squeeze too information and tiny print much onto each page.
  • Make certain wine lists can be read in low light. Choose legible fonts and reasonable type sizes.
  • Avoid italics, which run letters together.
  • Resist the temptation to fill negative space. Overly dense pages hurt the eyes and the brain. Leave enough space between lines for comfort, and start new sections on a new page.
  • Provide enough signposts on every page for diners to orient themselves quickly.
  • Title pages and sections clearly. Guests may be distracted and multitasking when using the list, so repeat headings and subheadings on every page and identify broad sections in the headers.
  • A good wine list should communicate well, make servers and customers comfortable, and sell a lot of wine!

2.  A good wine list assumes no prior wine knowledge.

  • Wine labels tend to speak of grape and region, but customers care more about flavor and style. Adding simple style indicators can boost sales and turn the wine list into a training tool for your service staff.
  • Whether or not you provide full-blown descriptions on the wine list itself is a matter of choice. However, indicating the primary grape or grape varieties will help create interest in and sell proprietary wines, blends and regionally labeled wines.
  • Indicating if a wine is sweet or dry, full-bodied or light, and other basic information will be greatly appreciated by the wine-loving novice.
  • Consider using my “5-word review” for a tiny bit of supporting information:
    • French Pinot Noir – Light and Dry.
    • Off-dry, fruity, great with sushi.
    • Light, delicate, fruity and crisp.
    • Pink bubbly, but don’t call it sweet.
    • PLEASE…even if your wine list style of choice is minimalistic, PLEASE provide detailed wine notes and descriptions to your staff, either in “wine class” style or in printed training materials! Nothing defeats the purpose of a perfectly designed wine list faster than an untrained service staff.

3.  A good wine list groups wines by style, weight, or flavor intensity…or some         other category that makes sense!

  • You can follow the tried-and-true “progressive wine list” philosophy and group your wines according to taste categories:  “Light and Delicate Whites”, followed by “Slightly Sweet Whites” followed by “Dry, Full-Bodied Whites”.  The progressive wine then lists the wines in each category from lightest to heaviest, driest to sweetest, or some other easy-to-follow variable.
  • Consider grouping your wines by food affinities, such as “Crisp, Dry Whites for Seafood” followed by “Full-bodied Whites for Roast Poultry” followed by “Big, full-bodied Reds for Steaks”…or something like that.
  • You can get creative and group wines by special interest, such as “Organic and Biodynamic Whites”, “Exotically Scented European Whites”, or (my favorite) “Cheap Thrills”. (Just be sure and see item #10, below.)

4.  A good wine list avoids “concept blur” by being appropriately priced.

  • There are many different versions of the following rule, and many organizations lay claim to the idea….but…it has been proven that wine sales increase if at least 50% of your wines-by-the-bottle are priced between 1 and 2 times the price of an average entrée.
  • For instance, if your average entrée is priced at $20.00, customers will not flinch at a bottle of wine priced between $20.00 and $40.00.  This technique keeps wine and food prices on an even keel…preventing “concept blur.” Nobody expects to drink a $200 wine with a blue cheese burger. And, for that matter, nobody wants to drink Yellowtail Shiraz with Foie Gras en croute!
  • As long as some (preferably at least 50%) of your wines fall within the “no more than twice the price of an average entrée” rule, it makes sense to offer something for person who really wants to spend more!  Customers celebrating a special occasion, trying to impress (think first dates) or on an expense account have money to burn, so you should help them burn it! Having two Pinot Noirs on the list – one at an “entry level” price point and one at a “splurge” price is a good idea.
    • For wines by the glass, it’s a good “rule of thumb” that one 4- or 5-ounce glass of wine covers the wholesale cost of the bottle.  Any additional glasses poured from the bottle are pure profit.
      • For instance, if a bottle of Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc has a wholesale price of $8.00, a good price for a glass is…you guessed it, $8.00.

5.  A good wine list offers customers variety, but not necessarily quantity.

  • A great wine list doesn’t have to be big, nor should it require a translator.
  • As a matter of fact, a wine list big enough to double as furniture will intimidate and confuse both servers and customers. Many customers are likely to lose interest after a page or two.
  • Confronted with a wine list the size of a phone book, most diners are going to limit their reading to a particular grape, style, or region.  Thus, it’s possible that simply having a few interesting, delightful, and well-priced wines in each category will accomplish the same sales – without the intimidation factor.
  • Balance is the key.  A good wine list should have delicious white, red, rosé, and sparkling wine as well as wines that are light and crisp or rich and heady and every style in between.
  • A good wine list should have wines that are imported and American and wines at every appropriate price point. Geography creates style, so a bit of regional diversity ensures a good balance of wines, from the flavor point of view.

 6.  A good wine list focuses on wines that enhance the food on the menu.

  • This sounds like such a no-brainer I almost left it off the list.  However, I am more convinced than ever it needs to be said, especially after my recent visit to a famous sushi restaurant (that will remain anonymous) that had five Chardonnays, ten Cabernets, and no Riesling on their wine list. What’s a girl to do when confronted with that choice? Drink Diet Coke?  (Yes.)
  • So, here goes…make sure every food item on your menu has at least two “perfect pairings” among the wines on your list.  Make sure that you either denote these on your list, train your staff to suggest them, or both.
  • Make sure you enhance your restaurant’s theme or concept by your choice of wines.  Certainly you can list a variety of wines, and not everything has to be a “cut-and-paste” thematic match, but the overall feel of your list should be the same as your overall concept and food style.

7.  A good wine list denotes four things about every wine:

            The name of the producer.

            The name of the wine itself (including any modifiers such as “Reserve”).       

            The region of origin (unless it’s a regional wine).       

            The vintage date.

  • Here’s a perfect example:  Robert Mondavi Winery Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Napa Valley; 2009
  • Or – Cabernet Sauvignon, Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley, 2009.
  • It doesn’t really matter the order or the format….but to properly identify a wine, you need to list those four very important pieces of information!
  • Nothing will send me running for the hills faster than a wine list that just reads “Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay.”  Diet Coke, please!

8.  A good wine list visually distinguishes wine titles from supporting information.

  • Consider the following entry…from an actual wine list at an actual self-proclaimed temple of wine:
    • Cava Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad, Cataluna, Spain; N/V
    • There’s nothing wrong with this entry….it follows rule #7 quite well, however, differentiating the name of the wine itself, followed by cascading hierarchies of typeface makes scanning the list faster and easier:
    • CAVA Segura Viudas “Brut Reserva Heredad”, Cataluna, Spain, N/V
    • Another good tip when listing your wines is to list the “easiest to understand” component of the wine first.  For instance:
      • CHIANTI CLASSICO Ruffino “Aziano,” Tuscany; 2007 Is easier for the customer to read and decipher than the following entry:
      • AZIANO Ruffino Chianti Classico, Tuscany; 2007.

 9.  A good wine list differentiates your operation from the competition.

  • A good wine list should offer something different than every other restaurant, grocery store, and retail wine shop in town.
  • As a matter of fact, if a customer knows the very popular wine “7 Deadly Zins” can be purchased at the corner liquor store for $10.00, they are highly unlikely to pay $30.00 for that same wine, even in your fancy restaurant.  In the mind of the consumer, it’s a ten dollar value!
  • You can avoid this issue by offering unique wines, presenting them properly on your list, and training your staff to discuss and describe them.

10.  A good wine list should project your brand and a professional image.

  • Think of your wine list as “advertising,” and apply the same standards for presentation.
  • Use fonts, paper, and graphics consistent with your business identity. Wine lists should look similar to your other menus and restaurant promos and incorporate logos and branding.
  • Please don’t let your wine list look like an “afterthought” or a final resting place for your white-out collection.  With designer computers and fancy printers on every desk, there’s no excuse for a wine list that isn’t up-to-date and pristine every night.
  • Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for typos and errors. Learn where the symbols for umlauts (ü) and accents (é) are on your keyboard.  While wine names can be utterly confusing, nothing destroys your credibility faster than menu mistakes.
  • Proof each and every item against the label – not the website, not the invoice, not the salesman – before printing.

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

5 Responses to Miss Jane’s Top Ten Tips for Wine Lists

  1. Professor Steve Stymington says:

    This is just great…I am going to contact you via email to formally request permission to use this in my food and beverage marketing class!

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention Miss Jane’s Top Ten Tips for Wine Lists « The Bubbly Professor -- Topsy.com

  3. William Roth says:

    This is one of the most concise articles on developing a wine list I have read thus far. I could not agree more with the information presented. Thanks for sharing this information.

  4. Philip Green says:

    This is great advice! I’m just starting a new position in the restaurant I work, writing the wine list and training staff. These are fantastic guide lines, thanks!

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