When I first decided to start my wine blog one of the items on my list of “must do” topics was Wine Lists.
In this two-part post I want to discuss wine lists from a number of different views:
- What is a wine list?
- How are they organized?
- What is a good wine list?
- And my tips on navigating a list and ordering wine. (This will be the next blog post)
It seems wine lists are one of the items that can quickly strike fear into a grown person. Restaurant patrons, including many of my friends, dread the thought of dealing with a wine list. So to find out why this phenomenon exists, over the past few weeks I have been conducting a very simplistic survey on wine lists with everyone who will talk to me about the subject. The simple question I have been asking: What do you think of wine lists? The responses I have heard include words and phrases like “scared” and “clueless,” “intimidating,” “confusing,” “don’t use them,” “don’t understand them,” “can’t figure out why restaurants make them so difficult to use,” and “all I want is a glass of wine.”
Let me start the discussion with a general statement that I truly believe: the best way to learn about wine is to study and drink it. And, as in most wine situations, there is just no substitute for you becoming an educated patron of wines. The more you educate yourself on wine, the less confusing and intimidating wine and wine lists will become.
I think I can reasonably say that I have discovered over the years that restaurant wine lists come in as many formats as one can imagine. There are lists with wines organized by the grape, by country, old world versus new world, by the glass, by intensity of flavor (light, medium, full-bodied) or by color (white, rosé, sparkling, red). Some are by price; some by rating. Some lists have maps, artwork, poems, logos and bin numbers. Some lists try and combine as many of these items as they can. The simple fact: wine lists, especially large ones, can be confusing, intimidating and hard to make heads or tails of. To make matters worse, 85% of the time your server doesn’t know much more about the wine list than you, so they may well not be trusted sources of knowledge. We touch on this topic later.
I think that any restaurant offering more than five or six wines on a list has a “wine program” and should act responsibly towards it. That includes producing a wine list that is educational and easy to use. It also means they (the restaurant) need to have servers who are knowledgeable and helpful. After all, the wine list is a restaurant’s best wine sales tool. If you think about it, how much sense does it make for a restaurant to go to the trouble and expense to create a wine program, spend the money to build the inventory and then depend on an under-trained, and poorly directed sales team (the servers) to make the program successful?
The Restaurant Side of the List
As with all things about wine, education and knowledge are paramount. So let us educate ourselves on wine lists from the restaurant’s perspective. First we will look at how wines are priced. In the United States we have what is referred to as the three-tier system for alcohol sales. In the case of wine, the winery or vineyard sells its product to the distributor, and the distributor sells to the retailer, restaurant, etc. The consumer purchases it from the third tier. In each step of the process the price of the wine is marked up. The winery typically marks up the wine a minimum of 50 to 100%, the distributor’s markup is 20% to 40%, while the retailer’s wine shop is a markup of 30% to 40%.
Restaurants and hotels work on a little different markup structure than retail outlets. In Indiana prices are market driven, while in some states the percentage of markups are established and mandated by state government. Normally, as in our state of Indiana, restaurants markup wine using a factor of 1.5, 1.75, 2.0, 2.2, etc. As an example, if a restaurant pays $17 for a bottle of wine, it will end up on their wine list at $24 to $30. This is about 2.2 times the wholesale price. As a rule of thumb, lesser priced wines are marked up at a higher percentage than higher priced wines.
Wines sold by the glass are priced differently than bottle pricing. It is important to remember that generally you’ll get 4 to 5 glasses of wine from each bottle. For many years the rule of thumb for what is referred to in the restaurant trade as “wines by the glass” or “WBTG” was that the first glass of wine sold from the bottle was priced high enough to cover the wholesale cost of the bottle and at times a couple bucks extra. Today, that rule of thumb may not be as prevalent as in the past, but it is still practiced by most restaurants. Although, on more pricey bottles it might take 1.5 to 2 glasses to cover the cost of the bottle. So a wine that a restaurant pays $5 to $6 a bottle for, will price at $6 to $9 per glass; a bottle that costs $15 to $20 might be priced at $9 to $14 a glass. With a little math you can see “wines-by-the-glass” programs offer huge profit margins to the restaurant. Although I like and urge restaurants to have WBTG programs, they may not always be the best deal for the customer.
Now that you know a little more about pricing, let’s examine the actual wine list. The following are my thoughts on a few wine list types:
1) The “I Don’t Really Care About Wine Lists” List
This is a list that contains six to ten wines and perhaps a Moscato or two. Since Moscato is now the “in-thing” in wine, every list features one or two. Moscato wines have exploded on the wine scene with sales increases of 78% annually for the past couple years. These lists are usually found in bars, burger joints or small restaurants that are known for specialty foods and not their wine list. These lists, more times than not, are driven purely by price and there is typically little correlation between the wine being sold and the food being prepared.
2) The “Corporate Wine” List
These are the lists you will get when you go to chain restaurants such as Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Granite City, etc. Although these lists may have some wines with potential, most do not have memorable or boutique wines. The Corporate Wine List typically has lots of mass produced wines on it. Often these lists are assembled with more thought given to price than food pairing.
3) The “War & Peace” or “That is a Big Sucker” List
These are the lists that are leather-bound and offer thousands of selections and run from 60 to 400 pages in length. Personally, as a “wine guy,” I love to look at these lists. But they are very intimidating and confusing to most people. I did a little research on the Internet of big name or famous restaurants that I know of around the country, to see how large wine lists actually get. Some examples:
- Daniel (New York City): 40 pages with 2,000 selections representing 15 countries
- Wolfgang Puck’s Spago (Beverly Hills): 137 pages
- Cru (New York City) – Although this restaurant is now closed, when it was open it boasted of having one of the largest wine lists in the country with over 400 pages representing a 165,000-bottle cellar.
- Former Charlie Trotter’s (Chicago): When Mrs. Tiedemann and I dined at Charlie Trotters (see “Chef Trotter and the Mushroom King” post here), which unfortunately closed in August 2012, I was presented with a list of over 60 pages featuring 1,800 selections from a 7,000-bottle cellar.
- French Laundry, (Yountville, CA – Napa Valley): Worldwide representation of wine on a 120-page wine list
4. The “Safe” List
These lists feature the everyday predictable favorites or well know wines, such as Gallo, Beringer, Cakebread , Darioush, Robert Mondavi, Sterling, Silver Oak, Louis Martini, etc. Typically these are good wines for those who just desire a reasonable bottle of wine and tend to focus on brand recognition.
The “Good or Best” Lists
Eating at a restaurant that is passionate about wines is a treat. A good list reveals the excitement and enthusiasm of the people involved with selecting the wines; be it wine buyers, chefs or, as in larger establishments the sommelier.
I prefer a selection of between 50 and 100 bottles that is well-balanced in type and price. I want a list that has choices from all over the globe, which balances old and new world wines and one that features an extensive “by the glass program.” The list must be easy to read (from font size to paper color). It is amazing to me the number of restaurants that cram too much information onto one sheet, or use colored papers and crazy type fonts…all designed to impress you. They forget that they are presenting the list to aging baby boomers in a dimly lit room. More than once I have had to use Mrs. Tiedemann’s pen light to read a menu or a wine list.
I enjoy lists that are educational in some way: Offering me wine descriptions or simple tasting notes and wine ratings. I also enjoy lists that offer possible food pairings. After all, I may not have ever eaten in the restaurant before and I may not be familiar with the chef’s style of cooking. It is helpful to know the establishment recommendations. I want a list that is taste-driven and offers a good value. I want a list that provides wines that are interesting, adventurous and memorable.
In Part 2 of this series on wine lists I will share my tips on navigating a wine list and how to order wines. As always, I appreciate your thoughts and comments on the topics discussed. What do you enjoy seeing in a wine list? Where have you encountered the largest wine list?