The perfect wine list. You’ve dreamed about it since you were a little oeno-tyke. “Someday, when I get to be the boss, I’ll have the biggest list ever!” has hung over your head in a little thought bubble for so long that it casts a shadow on your coffee cup-strewn desk. Now, for better or worse, you are the boss, at least of the wine list. You have also learned that with more selections on the list comes more inventory, more logistics headaches, and more intimidation for your staff and guests. So what is the perfect number of wines for a list, and how do you determine what that number should be for your list?
In my twenty years leading seminars with wine trade professionals in the Napa Valley and all over the world, I have found this question to be the source of more heated discussion than portion control, hot plates waiting in the window, or the all-time best vintage of Clos du Bec d’Or. And after the knockdown-dragout battle is over, a clear answer always emerges about how many wines would appear on the perfect wine list: one. Which one? The one everyone wants. How much does it cost? As much as anyone is willing to spend.
OK, so that’s not very realistic. The fact of the matter is that every extra selection after the first one increases inventory, storage, maintenance, training, and expenses accordingly. If you only had one wine to program, price, stock, place an order for, inventory, and train the waitstaff on, life would be a lot easier. Multiply that one wine by two, by ten, by twenty, by a thousand… and you get my point.
So how do you determine the magic number for your wine list?
The first thing you need to know is that old marketing saw, “You are not the market.” You have good taste, you love wine, you are well educated on the subject, and most importantly, you know what tastes good. Right? Think again. You are the expert on what tastes good to you. If you’ve attended one of my seminars, classes, or lectures, you know that there is a spectrum of palate profiles that fall into four basic categories. (See sidebar.) You’d be doing a disservice to your potential clientele—and your bottom line—if you left any one of these groups out.
If you’re arranging your list in the Progressive Wine List fashion, which I recommend you do, you’ll start with lighter-intensity, sweet and slightly sweet wines, like sweet Riesling, White Zinfandel and Moscato, providing a range of price points. A Progressive Wine List will “progress” to off-dry, delicate wines, drier whites with more intensity and
gradually increase in intensity and fullness to wines with substantial structure, such as Syrah and Cabernet. Good wine managers and sommeliers buy what’s considered good by devoted wine lovers, peers, and critics. Great wine managers find something special for customers across the entire spectrum of taste and price preferences. This includes offering wines for the more adventurous among them to try something new that fits within their realm of preferences, along with well-known standards for those who are more conservative in their tastes. Tasting with this in mind will open your eyes to a world of possibilities for featuring great wines of every price and style.
What if you’ve got what we term a B.A.L. (Big Ass List) with more than 60 selections, maybe even hundreds of selections? Use what I call a “Strategic Progressive List” on the first page or two. A Strategic Progressive Wine List is a carefully designed Progressive Wine List, interspersed with your wines-by-the-glass selections, to highlight wines you want to sell. This can be wines that are purchased on promotion and offer a higher margin, inventory you want to highlight and move, and selections that you and your staff are most passionate about. Research has shown that as much as 90% of sales from a B.A.L. come from a relatively small number of wines. A carefully crafted, flexible Strategic Progressive Wine List will allow you to maintain a larger selection of wines, organized in traditional fashion, for the guests who are interested in more esoteric selections while focusing your staff and your guests on the wines that will help you derive more profit and better manage your inventory.
What other factors do you need to consider in crafting your list?
How much wine can you properly store and easily access? How much wine do you want to inventory each month? Perhaps you work for a deep-pockets billionaire who doesn’t mind lingering verticals of Mouton aging gracefully in the temperature-controlled mega-cellar. How nice for you. Or maybe you are a mom-and-pop startup, and your cold whites share reach-in space with the cheese. A well-designed list does not require a huge allotment of temperature-controlled space, yet will meet the needs of the widest range of guest palates and pocketbooks.
You’ll want to include wines at a variety of prices in each flavor category. It becomes a new challenge to find exciting wines at slightly higher-than-the-lowest price in the sweet or off-dry category. But trust me; these are the consumers who are most neglected, least understood, and most appreciative when they’re treated with respect and not condescension. Include big name, high-scoring wines in the medium-weight and heavy-weight categories, as folks with those palate preferences are the most likely to be influenced by scores and ratings from Robert Parker or the Wine Spectator. Take it easy on the esoteric and flowery wine descriptions—most people put little stock in the imaginary language of the wine cognoscente.
The key is to understand the guests’ needs, embrace them, and never impose your will without permission. You’ll create customers for life and can cultivate them over time as you gain their trust in the fact that you know, and respect, their personal tastes.
One of the less obvious benefits of a well-constructed Progressive Wine List is that it is a valuable tool that simplifies staff training. Have no more wines on your list than your staff can confidently sell. Listing wines in flavor categories takes the guesswork out of which wines are drier, more tannic, smoother, or sweeter. Say you have a full-time sommelier; what happens when that person is not available? Does everything fall apart? Do servers cower and guess, or push their personal preferences rather than trying to find the right wine for the guest? When you have a great Progressive Wine List, you can first train the staff on how to use the “tool” quickly and effectively while continuing to cultivate their deeper wine knowledge.
Using the sidebar, see where everyone in the front of the house falls on the Vinotype sensitivity scale. Taste through the wines being considered for inclusion on your list with your staff to see where their personal taste preferences fall in relationship to their Vinotype. Then personify your guests—who are they, what are some of the common questions that come up over and over, what kind of wines would light them up? Pay special attention to the guests who seem the most ill at ease with the wine conversations. Recognize individual differences positively, especially for those who are Sweet and Hypersensitive Vinotypes, and encourage staff members of all taste preferences to participate. Make this strategy a part of the culture of your restaurant and you’ll have an empowered staff engaging your customers.
One of the huge advantages of a Progressive Wine List, including the use of a Strategic Progressive Wine List in conjunction with a B.A.L, is that your list becomes a tool. Training is focused on how to use the tool to get your guests to the wine that will be delicious and memorable. Training on the tool, combined with traditional wine education, builds confidence, results in easier execution during service, and will make your wine program more profitable. Over time your guests will become more confident and comfortable with the list as well, and will love sharing their knowledge with others at their table.
Do you want to (and do you have the budget to) win a prestigious award for your wine list? Amass the largest selection of Russian River Pinot Noirs or wines rated 90+ points? Become known for your reasonably-priced wines and knowledgeable staff? Just want to provide a great, inclusive dining experience for your guests? Write that goal out and post it above the desk where you sit (or stand, wolfing down the team meal) to place your wine orders, to keep you on track. Share it with your servers, your chef, and your boss. Not only will it become reality, but you’ll soon hear it repeated back to you by people outside your walls.
1. Determine the appropriate number of wines for your clientele (all of them, not just a narrow range!), logistics and marketing your wine program.
2. Pepper the list with very carefully selected wines you and your staff are passionate about.
3. Arrange the wines in a fashion that is intuitive, forwards sales and is easy to use for guests and staff.
4. Train more on how to use the well-organized list as a tool with your guests, focusing on everyone being respected and honored for their personal preferences. Only then should you dive into traditional product knowledge.
Ultimately, the perfect wine list can be fifty carefully selected wines that cover the needs of your clientele or hundreds of wines that bring in the wine cognoscenti to marvel at the range and diversity of wines you have collected. A great wine list is one that meets its goals, is inclusive, practical, profitable, and accessible enough that staff—all staff—can confidently provide every guest with the most enjoyable experience for them.
We have identified four primary groups, or Vinotypes™, which span the spectrum of consumer wine style preferences. Making sure you have a full spectrum of wine styles and pricing (especially some more expensive sweet and more delicate wines) will ensure you have something for every palate and pocketbook across this spectrum of preferences.
1. Sweet: Highest level of taste sensitivity– needs sweetness to offset intense bitterness that other people do not even perceive.
Preferred wines: Riesling, White Zinfandel, Sangria, fruit-flavored wines and a lot of the new sweet red wines that are becoming so popular. This is the crowd that is driving the popularity of Moscato so make sure to offer some sweet wines at higher price points for their special occasions.
2. Hyper-sensitive: Very high taste sensitivity but prefer dry (or slightly sweet) wines. This is the crowd that often “talks dry but drinks sweet.” Many modern Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blanc attest to this fact.
Preferred wines: Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Albarino and light reds with Petite Sirah as the surprising choice of intense reds for a reason we are still looking into!
3. Sensitive: Moderate taste sensitivity. Wine preferences run the gamut of styles and flavors. Open to exploring, dry, flavorful whites, moderately tannic, full-bodied reds with Malbec as a very popular emerging favorite. This crowd is most open to a wide range of options.
4. Tolerant: This group can “tolerate” high alcohol levels and demands modern, full-blown red wines, the stronger the better.
Preferred wines: Big reds with lots of new oak: Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Syrah and a penchant for Port-style wines.
Tim Hanni, MW, offers new strategies for wine list creation. Over two decades of research conducted with scientists in the field of taste perception have resulted in an identification process he calls Vinotyping, which is a means of segmenting consumers using newly-recognized physiological and psychological factors that determine personal wine preferences. Combined with Hanni’s popular Progressive Wine List strategy, the result is a complete breakthrough for increasing wine sales, forging the modern wine list into a tool for inclusion of and increased customer satisfaction. timhanni.com