SORTING THE GRAPES
As wine culture blooms, restaurants are putting more effort than ever in crafting their wine lists. But what makes a good list?
Restaurants are putting more effort into crafting their wine lists. But what makes a good wine list?
Wine service used to be simple. Back in the mid-90s, as part of my hospitality studies’ curriculum, I did frontline stints in a couple of fine dining restaurants. Sommeliers barely figured in the dining scene then. Thus, waiters became de facto sommeliers. This was difficult for us. Wine was (and still is) complicated. Fortunately, our supervisors taught us five magic words to guide us through the murky valley of terroir and tannins: ‘Red: Cabernet Sauvignon. White: Chardonnay.’ It was enough to answer most of the guests’ queries. Diners weren’t as savvy then, and Sideways wasn’t filmed yet. Plus, the wine lists were usually less than a dozen pages—segmented by red, white and sweet— and only a handful of quaffs ventured beyond Cabernet and Chardonnay.
How things have changed. With the rise of the sommelier and the wine consumer, today’s wine lists have shed their status as mere appendices, and evolved into tomes of vinous options: sommeliers deconstruct wine, categorising them by regions, grapes, vintages, producers, flavours, and, of late, cult factors. MORE OR LESS
Presenting such a large, diverse amount of vino information lucidly to the diner—via a list—is a challenging task. Sommeliers also have to play graphic designer when crafting the list: Is the layout neat? Does it flow well? Does this font make the extra zeros on the price tag look less daunting?
First impressions matter. Call it an occupational hazard, but I think a wine list is badly presented when I find myself flipping through it back and forth, trying to find a wine or section that is orphaned by misplaced headers or broken up paragraphs.
“Wine lists should be easy to read and navigate,” says oenophile Nicola Lee, managing director of Malayan International Corporation, and Consul General of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne in Singapore. “Some fine dining restaurants put their wine lists on tablets, but I think wine lists printed on good quality paper and bound in a smart book make it just a bit more formal. Wine is, after all, a sensory experience.”
“Deciding how much information to put on a wine list so that it can function efficiently is a tricky matter,” says Lim Hwee Peng, who runs wine consultancy WineCraft. “Too much
writing and details can result in a bulky list, which can inconvenience the diner.”
Thick vino lists are becoming de rigueur these days. Amir Solay, Group Wine and Beverage Manager of the Unlisted Collection—a restaurant group that includes Pollen and Esquina—says having more wines on the list allows for “breadth and diversity”.
Others like Gerald Lu, head sommelier of Praelum Wine Bistro, think a fat wine list is a double-edged sword. “If the list is not well thought out, not sellable for the sommelier, and doesn’t make revenue for the shareholders, then having more wines isn’t better,” he says. “Having a wide selection is good if the quaffs on the list are relevant to the type of customer who dines at the establishment. For example, if a café has a list that offers complicated wine selections from obscure regions, it’s not going to work with diners who understand only basic grape varieties.”
A QUESTION OF SUITABILITY Indeed, conceptual relevance to the restaurant is one of the most important criteria to consider when drafting a wine list. Lee takes the opportunity to try out unfamiliar wines when dining at winecentric bistros as they “tend to have interesting wines”.
She says, “Naturally, price matters at such establishments. I look at how the wines are priced by the glass, carafe and bottle. Wines by the glass at a formal restaurant should be of a wide scope and offer a good range of styles.”
Matching the wines’ provenance to the restaurant’s cuisine, such as having a majority of French wines in a French restaurant, is also a cornerstone of any good wine list. Lim thinks this is essential in an established regional cuisine restaurant, where the traditional expectations of customers have to be met. A classic French restaurant’s wine list can ideally include 20 per cent of wines from outside of France, he notes. These days, it is also possible to include “non-French wines that are similar with a certain French wine expression, such as an Oregon Pinot Noir or a Yarra Valley Chardonnay”.
“If it’s a steak restaurant, then naturally, you should have more reds,” says Solay. “It’s also wise not to have too many labels from a single house or winery. For example, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot of the same vintage from the same producer isn’t as interesting as having varied vintages.”
Lim thinks sommeliers should avoid a repetitive regional grape variety scenario: “If Sauvignon Blanc is needed on the list, it is not recommended to have three New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, unless the trio are distinctly different in price points and wine styles. Instead, consider offering a Sancerre, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a Fumé Blanc from Napa. This way, you have diversity within a varietal range and price point, too.”
THE DINER’S ROLE
For sommeliers, the wine list represents a constant challenge of including less expensive, sellable wines against expensive marquee names or cultish, lesser-known producers. There is no formulaic way to solve this, except for continuous tinkering of the list to keep up with changing demands.
“The mistake [of sommeliers] is to pick inexpensive or artisanal wines for the list, and then try to convert your customers to accept what you are trying to do,” remarks Lu. “Firstly, [sommeliers] have to listen to their diners and understand what wines will sell and what price points are considered acceptable. Then you train your staff with the knowledge to move the right wines to the right customers—this way, you and your staff can move the wines in your list with greater ease.”
Lim reveals that the amount he spends as a diner is influenced by the wine selections on a wine list: he scans the list before ordering his food. This is an interesting perspective. Traditionally, the à la carte menu is seen as a driver of wine sales: you pick a steak, and then decide you want a Malbec. As diners become more wine savvy, perhaps restaurateurs and sommeliers should start exploring the flipside: Can a sensibly priced wine list, with lower margins, bring in more à la carte sales? Is this a win-win situation? (Restaurants with BYOs usually do well commercially, partly because the diner doesn’t have to free his cash on the establishment’s vino.) As a diner, if I can have a top Burgundy for a good bargain, I’d pick the highest grade wagyu my wallet can handle, and then some.