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.”


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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Singapore

© PressReader. All rights reserved.