How to Craft a Standout, Profitable Wine List

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08/07/2023 No matter what the size of a restaurant is, small or large, the wine list serves as its ultimate business card. Know the strategies to craft that perfect, profit-oriented wine list

No matter how small or large your restaurant, it is possible to create a well-rounded, profitable wine list with just a little strategic planning. Along the way, you will need to pay attention to your current food menu, your brand and your overall approach to wine. A wine list should be the perfect expression of all three of those factors. When you are able to combine all three, that’s when you know that you have crafted a standout, profitable wine list.

The perfect wine list must pair well with your food menu

Remember – customers are coming to your restaurant primarily for the food, and not for the wine. With that in mind, you need to use your restaurant’s unique strengths and points of emphasis to come up with suitable wines for pairing. For example, let’s say that your restaurant is a classic Italian trattoria. You will probably need to build your wine list around bold, red wines. And, to pair well with cream dishes, you will need a few hearty white wines as well. An extra rosé or Zinfandel wine would help to round out the menu, especially for lighter fare.

But what if your restaurant is a classic American steakhouse? You’d probably want to go heavy on full-bodied red varietals, especially Cabernet Sauvignon. And, since it’s a classic American steakhouse, you’d be best off focusing on California wines, especially Napa Valley Cabs. In fact, some steakhouses have gone so far as to create an entirely new category – “steakhouse reds” – to define this category.

That same basic approach can be applied to just about any restaurant concept. For example, a Spanish- or Mexican-themed restaurant would presumably focus on wines from Spain, Portugal, Chile or Argentina. A French bistro would, of course, focus almost entirely on French wines.

Where you have a little more flexibility, of course, is with the “fast casual” restaurant category. Here, you are better off focusing on wines that can be quickly consumed over a single-course meal, rather than wines that must be savored over multiple courses. Some fast casual establishments even offer their wines on tap, much like beer, in order to keep with the whole “fast casual” ethos. But just be aware of local laws and regulations, especially if you are offering some meals for takeout or delivery.

The perfect wine list should match your overall branding

This whole concept of food-wine pairing brings us to the whole issue of branding. Your wine list is really an extension of your overall brand, and thus it must maintain the character or personality of that brand. For example, let’s say that you are the wine director of a farm-to-table restaurant that prides itself on sourcing ingredients from local farmers. A wine list that embodies that branding might be relatively short, focusing only on local vineyards that are nearby, or regional vineyards that pride themselves on eco-sustainability.

But that same type of branding wouldn’t work for a Michelin-starred restaurant. Here, the expectation is that you would maintain an extensive wine list that might include as many as 1000 different bottles, from a variety of wine regions and vintages.  Most likely, though, your restaurant can get by with a wine list of less than 200 bottles of wine.

The pricing of the wine matters

As a rule of thumb, the pricing markup at a restaurant is 2-3 times the actual bottle cost. That means that a $20 bottle of wine would be listed at anywhere from $40 to $60 on your menu – just about what most people are prepared to pay for a nice wine when they head out to a restaurant. But just how successful would that pricing strategy be if you were trying to sell a $200 bottle of wine? Charging more than $500 for a bottle of wine is going to be challenging, even if you have a well-heeled clientele.

This, naturally, leads to a whole discussion about margins. If you are still intent on selling that $200 bottle of wine, you might have to accept a lower margin on your sale, just to bring it down under the psychological price hurdle of $500. But if you simply marked down every bottle on your wine list by a comparable amount, you’d probably end up losing money at the end of the year.

As a result, one tried-and-true strategy is to offer higher-cost wines at lower margins, and $10-$20 wines at much higher margins. Your lower-cost wines are essentially subsidizing your higher-cost wines. The exact amount of the margin you charge will be guided, in no small part, by your overall branding.

Thus, if your restaurant is known as providing high-quality fare at affordable prices, it could be jarring to see a wine list where all the wines have been obviously marked up beyond the standard 2-3x. One way around this conundrum is simply to offer wines that are not commonly found elsewhere – or at least, not by your competitors. This makes it much easier to adjust margins as needed.

By the glass or bottle?

Most restaurants, if given a choice, would prefer to sell a bottle of wine to a customer than a glass of wine. For one, there’s the matter of profitability – if you just sold a $50 bottle of wine, that’s going to represent much more of the total dining tab than if you just sold a $6 glass of Merlot. For another, when a customer orders a bottle of wine from you, it represents a much deeper emotional relationship with your brand and your food.

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