April 10, 2020
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At some point, you might decide to add a little diversity to your wine list. Maybe you want to feature wines from a specific wine region in order to accentuate the food-wine pairings at your restaurant. Or maybe you want to become known for having the best selection of a particular varietal in the city. If that is the case, then what are the steps you need to take to create a regional wine list that customers will love?
It’s too easy for exotic varietals to get lost on a large wine list. If your wine list is close to 100 wines, for example, most customers will simply pass over wines that they don’t recognize. In order to highlight specific wine regions, then, you will have to get a little bit creative. For example, if you want to highlight Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Washington State, but have noticed that they are often ignored by customers ordering a California Cabernet instead, then it might be time to re-think the wine list.
Some restaurants even take the radical step of moving certain wine regions to Page 1 of the wine list and moving by the glass wines off the front page. This makes it very clear what customers are supposed to do – at least give passing consideration to the wines from a particular wine region. It’s hard to ignore Sicilian wines, for example, if they are the first wines you see when you open the wine list.
It’s also helpful to guide customers in other ways, such as by providing fuller and more lavish descriptions for wine than you might be used to providing. Let’s say that you are a Spanish tapas restaurant and you would like to introduce customers to wines from all over Spain. Since many customers may be familiar with cities like Barcelona or Madrid, but not so familiar with wine regions located nearby, it might be helpful to provide maps or other geographical markers to help customers with figuring out which wine regions correspond to which cities.
At the very least, you might want to provide a short text description about the region you have in mind, as well as a brief summary of what wines from this region typically taste like. Short, simple descriptions (“rich, lush, bold” or “fresh, fruity, crisp”) work best.
In turn, these explanations of different wine regions (or sub-regions) can then guide the physical layout of your wine menu. For example, you might decide to organize wine regions not alphabetically (as is commonly the case with many restaurants), but geographically. Thus, wines from a region might be organized from North to South, or from East to West. This will make it easier for the wine patron to understand how shifts in geography (and hence, shifts in terroir) can impact the expression of a certain varietal.
Choosing wines wisely is key. While you might want to highlight a quirky expression of a certain grape, it’s far more useful to choose wines that truly reflect the region. One guiding principle is that each wine should be a great example of what winemakers are doing in a particular region. This will ensure that customers are getting what they think they are getting – they might have read about a wine region on a wine blog or in a wine trade magazine, and already have preconceived notions of what wines from a certain region should taste and look like.
However, just in case, make sure that you have a “backup” in mind. For example, if you are a Spanish tapas restaurant, it’s almost inevitable that customers will look first and foremost for any red Rioja wines on your wine list. You can think of this as a safety net of sorts for customers who want to enjoy Spanish food and wine but aren’t quite ready to move beyond Rioja.
It’s impossible to overstate the role of training and education in helping your staff sell wines from a new region. First and foremost, you need to prepare them for standard responses they will likely receive (such as “I don’t like sweet wines”) when they suggest a wine. It might be helpful to come up with certain general guidelines about what pairs well with fish, chicken or beef, and then use those guidelines to steer diners in the right direction.
And, of course, you can always invite producers, distributors and importers to give informational seminars on their wines. If you can bring in the actual winemakers, that’s even better. It really helps the sales staff to move product if they can identify directly who is making the wine, and what it stands for.
As might be expected, pricing plays a huge role in determining whether or not a customer will sample a particular wine. For example, if a customer is absolutely convinced that all German wines are similar to white Riesling, and you introduce some German red wines on your wine list, you might need to offer that wine at a slight discount.
In terms of your by the glass program, most pricing is in the $8 to $15 range, so it helps if you can keep the price as low as possible (without spoiling your margins, of course). In terms of your bottle wines, make price diversity a key selling point. Most bottles of wine at a restaurant might be in the $50 to $60 range, but make sure you have some affordable $30 bottles of wine available, as well as some super-premium $200 wines. And, if you really want to demonstrate what’s possible to sample from a particular region, you might add in a very limited production wine at over $1,000.
From there, the rest is up to you. Customers appreciate innovative and adventuresome wine lists, and they will appreciate the time and effort that you put into creating a truly distinctive wine list that fully reflects the winemaking expertise of a particular wine region.