What does your wine list stand for? Is it meaningful for customers? Does it fit with the theme and business plan for the parent restaurant?
These are important questions to ask because not only can your wine list be a tremendous profit-maker for those who already have reservations, but a well-honed menu can also act as a marketing tool in its own right, helping to bring in new customers and build your restaurant’s prestige. Perhaps this is the early fourth quarter project you need to give this revenue stream a boost.
While most of the branding and promotions will be handled by the restaurant itself, the hotel and the marketing department, your wine list must still match the greater vision if it is to truly shine. For this, I’ve come up with the fun acronym of C.A.M.E.R.A. so you can take a big ‘picture’ look at your beverage offerings with seven key guidelines to help you craft a menu that doesn’t induce yawns or sneers.
To repeat the obvious, all alcoholic offerings must fit with the restaurant’s theme and its intended clientele. It must be a harmonious effort to tell a consistent narrative. For example, if you’re opening a fancy, thousand-dollars-per-meal steakhouse, then, sure, stock a few bottles of Mouton Rothchild. But if you are running a bustling pizzeria designed for lots of covers and fast turnovers, you might consider only a few whites and reds to simplify the decision process. I’ve even seen a swanky trattoria realize incredible success with only one house red for a buck an ounce.
Although not necessary the same as affordability, there is a significant overlap. While there will always be the high rollers and special occasion diners willing to splurge on expensive champagne or a rarified Bordeaux, such individuals run contrary to current restaurant trends. The future of dining is one of reasonable pricing and sampling the unknown while still inviting patrons into in environment that’s fun and enlightening. With the millennial cohort now acting as the guiding force for new concepts and openings, start to think about small batch, craft infusions, exciting glassware, tasting flights, wines with a story behind them and all without any egregious sticker stock.
If you were to distill your restaurant’s beverage offerings down to one single sentence, one phrase, one elevator pitch or one quintessential drink that will be the bell of the ball on Instagram for next five years, what would this be? Consumers nowadays are so bombarded with media and businesses vying for their attention that sometimes the only way to cut through the noise is to simplify your concept down to its most emotionally titillating component. Once you find that, work to amplify it and complement it to round out the drinking experience.
In a nutshell, if all you have in stock is what’s also offered at the local liquor shop, then whoever built your wine list is just plain lazy. True, one can make the argument that what’s familiar to guests is what makes it approachable and thereby increases sales, but I would argue strongly for the opposite point of view. After all, if what you have on your beverage list what’s available at the convenience store down the street, then you’re also giving your customers a direct price comparison so they can see just how much you’re ripping them off! Instead, it is the unique twists and subtle differences in both the beverages themselves and their presentation to each guest that will earn you buzz, return visits and the ability to justify a higher price.
As an offshoot of both memorability and thematic congruence, diners nowadays want to delve into the story of a specific geographic area. Even if only for that one meal experience, they want to immerse themselves in a culture, time and place, for which your wine list is but one element of the overall equation. For instance, a trend of late for which I’m a big fan has been the hyper-regionalization of traditional European eateries. No longer can you simply open an Italian or French restaurant and hope to garner any level of sustained attention without an edge, like a Michelin chef or celebrity benefactor or some sizeable marketing oomph. Instead, people are opening Sicilian, Genovese, Provencal or Savoyard restaurants, with the beverage selections narrowcast on each respective territory’s local produce and heritage.
Different from approachability, this pertains to the actual physical display for your list. The key here is you want to enhance a patron’s sense of discovery while also not inducing decision fatigue. You want your alcoholic listings to be a pleasure to read – that is, legible fonts with breathability on the page – but not too long so that it makes it difficult to come to a final selection within a reasonable timespan. In other words, it’s as much an art as it is a science, and definitely a job more suitable to a graphic designer to help you figure out. Still, though, it’s up to you to ensure that the list only features the wines and other spirits that best represent your theme. Less is more. And if you have a long list, then consider an abridged version accompanied by a binder or a tablet app for servers to hand out on request to true oenophiles.