Taking a Second Look at Your Wine List

A wine program can generate up to 40 percent of the beverage revenue for a restaurant but only when a customer does not feel they are being bamboozled. To make a patron comfortable enough to buy from a wine list takes creativity and vision from a wine buyer and an effective wine list design. A restaurant wine list does not need to be 20 pages long or have a string of awards to be profitable. Instead the list should work conceptually with the restaurant’s cuisine and theme, be concise and laid out in a format that is inviting. To accomplish this goal you must decide what wines you will feature and how to present them.

To begin it helps to understand some of the current trends in wine list design … each with their plusses and minuses. First is to feature wines thematically such as “Light, Crisp Whites” or “Tannic, Spicy Reds”. This type of design helps a guest figure out their “taste” for the wine or how the wine will pair with the food they plan to order. However different wines of the same varietal may end up in different categories based on their structure making the list hard to navigate. Another way is to lay out a list by varietals, i.e. “Chardonnay”, “Cabernet Sauvignon”, etc. This makes finding a varietal wine easier for a guest, but it may not give the guest a sense of how the wine tastes. Some lists show wines by country which is good for thematic restaurants but again varietals can be spread out over different areas. It may also be tempting to pack your wine list with gems and highly rated wines, however they may not all work with the cuisine of the restaurant.

It is important for the wine-buyer to not only be acquainted with the menu but also how each dish tastes and how the wines being selected will “fit”. Some wines and foods can conspire to make each other taste bad. Your selections become more impressive when the diner enjoys the total experience. An adept and educated staff that can guide the guest through your selections is essential to success. It is your responsibility as a buyer to keep your staff “up to speed” on your list through regular training and tasting.

I find it helps to not get too extravagant when setting up a wine list. You can pull in all of the esoteric wines you want to feature as long as at least 40 percent of the list has wines and labels the average guest can grasp. A “familiar face” on the list can guide a guest to another less familiar wine in the same category or profile. The more comfortable a guest is with a wine list, the more likely they consider something new or even more expensive.

Mark up is another turnoff for patrons from a wine list. Some establishments choose to sell a wine for three to four times the price they paid for it. Such a steep mark up can boost sales in the short run, but sticker shock can alienate guests and prevent them from buying a second bottle. My key is to mark each wine at cost times 2.5. The cost on paper may seem high (around 40 percent) but you will recoup revenue by increased sales.

A related pricing issue is glass pours. Many restaurants buy low cost wines and charge for the glass what they paid for the bottle. This strategy can also alienate customers and affect sales. Mainly this is because most wines in a $6 or $7 price point are good, but not great, quality and are more common in stores inviting the patron to compare prices. This causes resentment and does not usually lead to a second glass if even a first. The 2.5 mark up works in this case when you take the marked up wine and divide it by 4 to get your glass pour. This pricing method allows you to have more expensive wines on the list at aggressive glass prices, inviting a second glass by a frugal patron.

Just like designing a menu, when designing a wine list you must account for both your needs and the customers. Your list should be readable and inviting while highlighting its complementary asset to your restaurant. Perception is key as you want excitement over the list while keeping away from wines that are saturated in the market. Guests will always compare your prices against your competitors. If you do not focus on the financial potential of your wine list as much as your menu, you will miss out on easily maximizing your profits overall.

About the Author

Tom Finigan is the principal of VineCrush Consulting, an education and consulting service on wine, beer and spirits in the National Capital Region. In addition to wine education and events, VineCrush works with restaurants on list creation and staff training. Visit and follow him on twitter @VineCrush.

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