Finals Week in Wine Class

It’s Finals Week!

Final exam week in Miss Jane’s 12-week professional wine studies class has arrived!  To answer your question, NO…the wine final does not involve binge drinking, glasses clinking or happy hour. Like most college-level courses in hospitality management or culinary arts, we have both a practical and a written final exam.  Our written final exam is scheduled for this Friday; a 100 question multiple choice test followed by three essay questions.  

Please note that the title of this course is “Professional Wine Studies.”  While many of the wine classes taught around the world center on tasting, this course is centered on basic wine knowledge and how to use it within the context of a hospitality career.  I focus the class on learning about basic wine styles (white, red, sparkling, dessert…yes, that basic); how they are made, where they are made, and the world’s best known or most popular examples.  We learn how to taste wine so that we can talk about wine, and spend several class sessions role-playing the role of the server, sommelier, or salesperson.  We use my “mad libs for wine” to learn to write meaningful, concise wine descriptions. We learn about beverage costing as it applies to wines by the bottle and glass. We spend a good deal of time of food and wine pairing, which makes sense as most of my students see themselves as future chefs.  Finally, we spend a good deal of time discussing how to write a wine list and market wine in a restaurant or other setting.

So for my final practical exam this semester, I came up with the idea of an exercise in writing a wine list.  I started out by surfing the internet for nice, clear pictures of wine labels. This took a while as I wanted to use wine labels from wines we had studied and my students would be familiar with.  I also wanted a good mix of red, white, dessert wines and sparkling wines.  I came up with a word file full of about 30 wine labels that includes Bordeaux, Chianti, Rioja, Napa Meritage, Lodi Zin and Oregon Pinot for the reds.   For the whites I found Fumé Blanc, a nice German Riesling, an Aussie Chard…you get the idea.  I had six sparkling  wines including a few from California, a Cava, a Prosecco, and of course Champagne.  For the sweet wines I included Moscato d’Asti, Sauternes, Late Harvest Zin, Ruby Port and Muscat-Beaumes-de-Venise.  Remember, these are all wines that we had studied, and in most cases, tasted.

 I did a bit of cut and paste and gave every student a stack of 30 wine labels, and created a faux “wholesale price list”. Then, I gave the class two hours to write a wine list that was to include the following details:

  • Meaningful Categorization
  • Absolutely perfect listing of each wine to include producer, name of the wine, region of origin and vintage date (as applicable)
  • Progressive wine list format
  • A concise description of each wine (I like to use what I call a “five word description” such as “light, dry and crisp with fruity and floral flavors”.)
  • Two food pairing suggestions for each wine.
  • Pricing by the glass and bottle, as well as a spreadsheet detailing each item’s potential beverage cost and gross profit.

As they completed the project, I had every student bring their list up to me for a quick discussion and review.  Lots of learning can go in during that review period.  I had them describe how they chose to categorize their wines, how they arranged them in order and how the details of the list will be useful as a sales tool.

All in all, I have to say I think they all did a great job!  I was very impressed with the final projects, and think that it was a meaningful, active learning experience all around.  It was good exposure to the “nuts and bolts” of writing and designing a wine list.  Most importantly, we all had a great time and I feel it was a good example of active learning and a “flipped classroom”.

If you would like a copy of the materials I created for the class, click here: Bubbly Prof – Wine Labels for Wine List Project

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas – 



Miss Jane’s Top Ten Tips for Wine Lists

I was surprised to learn yesterday that “Miss Jane’s Top Ten Tip for Wine Lists,” posted back in January of 2011, is my “most viewed” post of the blog’s history.  So…just in case you missed it, I re-post it again for you today.  Enjoy!!

Miss Jane

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.