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The goal of any wine list should not be to showcase the wine knowledge and experience of your restaurant – it should be offering and presenting great wines that pair well with the food dishes being served every night. In other words, your wine list should not be a “museum exhibit” of vintage wines that nobody really orders – it should be a living, breathing document that responds to customer tastes and preferences. With that in mind, here’s a quick guide to developing a wine list that sells wine.
In the restaurant industry, the 80/20 Rule can be used to guide your selection of wines as well as the pricing of those wines. When applied to your wine list, the 80/20 Rule suggests that the Top 20% of the wines on your wine list will account for 80% of the total sales. In other words, if your wine list has 100 wines on it, there will be 20 wines that are going to be your bestsellers and your staff favorites. So your first task is simply to figure out which wines (in terms of varietals and wine regions) are selling well, and which ones are languishing in your storage room, waiting for customers to order them.
As a general rule of thumb, you will want to focus the most attention on the Top 20% of your wines. These are your moneymakers, and you need to allocate as many resources as possible toward supporting them. For example, if your bestselling wines are all Cabernet Sauvignons, that would be a clear signal that your restaurant staff needs to be absolutely up to speed on Cabernet Sauvignon. When you organize staff tastings, for example, make sure that Cabernet Sauvignon is included. When you feature wines in any marketing or communication (such as email newsletters that go out to your customer base), include a special item about Cabernet Sauvignon.
There’s no rule that says all wines have to be marked up the same amount. While the average markup for a bottle of wine is 400-500% at restaurants, that figure can differ widely across different categories of wine. In order to figure out the appropriate markup, you first have to understand your Cost of Goods Sold (COGS), which is basically just a way to figure out how much you paid for a bottle of wine, and then how much you need to sell it for in order to make a certain profit.
This is where your relationships with suppliers and distributors come into play. If you are able to secure wine at an incredibly discounted price, for example, then there is much less pressure to charge a certain markup on a bottle of wine. You are essentially passing along any cost savings to your customers – and they are likely to reward you by ordering more wine if that wine is perceived to be a “value.” It’s important to point out here that “value” does not mean the same thing as “cheap” or even “affordable.” It’s perfectly within the realm of possibility that a $75 bottle of wine could be an extreme value if the restaurant across the street is offering that same bottle for $100 or $125.
Another way to use the pricing strategy is when it comes to your by-the-glass (BTG) program. If you are looking for ways to encourage customers to try certain types of wine, then the easiest way to do that is by pricing down your by-the-glass wines. For example, let’s say that customers are not ordering your new Tempranillo wines from Spain by the bottle as you might have assumed at the outset (when your Spanish wine distributor offloaded cases of Tempranillo at a huge markdown). You could instead choose to offer Tempranillo by-the-glass and price it $1-$2 below comparable red wines BTG. That gives customers a real incentive to try that wine.
Without a doubt, your wine sommelier or wine director knows more about wine than your customers. However, it is not always the case that they know more about changing customer tastes. Here is where it is very important to have an ear to the ground and understand what customers are really thinking. Encourage your server staff to forward customer suggestions (and complaints!) to your sommelier or wine director, who can then review them for later action.
The reality is that certain wine styles go in and out of favor with wine drinkers, much like any other product. The key is being able to spot these changes in taste and preference before anyone else does, and then make the appropriate changes to your wine list. For example, if customers are routinely asking if certain wines are “organic,” or if one long-time patron suddenly starts asking about “natural wines,” that might be a real clue that your wine list should be updated to take those preferences into account.
Your wine list is just a list of wines. The presentation layer, though, is what accompanies that list, gives it context, and guides patrons to make the perfect wine selection. It could be the case that making a change to the presentation layer can do wonders for your wine sales. Typical presentation layers for a wine list include a single sheet of BTG and BTB wines, a multi-page book, and a leather-bound tome.
For example, you might be quite pleased with your nightly wine list, which is presented to customers in the form of a leather-bound tome with 50-100 pages. That might look impressive, and it will no doubt give customers plenty of options, but is it always practical? If you are unable to update the wine list without going to an expensive local printer, for example, then you might not be offering customers an accurate, updated wine list. What are they going to think when they order a wine from the wine list… and it’s not available? It could be the case that a single, 1-page wine list presented on 11” x 14” cardstock would work just as well, especially if you plan on updating your wine list regularly (if not daily).
Staff tastings and staff training should be a regular occurrence at your restaurant, and not just for new staff members as part of their orientation. That’s especially true when adding new wines to your wine list. Staff members need to have a basic knowledge of the wine, including an understanding of why it was added to the wine list, and how it differs from other wines in the same category. In other words, if your restaurant already has two Pinot Noirs on its wine list, what is the role of the third Pinot Noir you just added?
As noted above, a key part of this staff training should focus on food-wine pairings. What dish does this new wine pair with? Should it be recommended for entrée orders or for desserts and appetizers? What is a fun fact or story about the wine that will help to make it resonate in the minds of customers? Any staff wine training should take all of those factors into account.
Finally, it is important to understand what the competition is offering on its wine list. Are there some categories of wine that you have overlooked? Are your wines priced competitively? Do you have the right mix of BTG and BTB wines?
For example, the restaurant across the street might be having a lot of success with its “local winemaker” program, in which it highlights and features wines from area winemakers. This is an idea that you can easily integrate into your own wine program. If you have a list of 5 Chardonnays by-the-bottle on your wine list, it might be time to swap out one of those Chardonnays for one that is produced locally.
This is about more than just “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s about fine-tuning your wine list so that it is a living, breathing document. If wines are starting to pile up in inventory, it could mean that customers are looking for something different. Young millennial wine drinkers, for example, could be looking for Moscato wines that are sweeter than those currently on your wine list.
Creating and developing a wine list that sells wine all starts with figuring out which wines and which categories are performing well. From there, you will have the necessary insights to adjust your pricing and margins. And you will also have the building blocks for a high-quality, successful wine list that changes and evolves over time in response to changing customer preferences and tastes. Working directly with your chef, your sommelier will be able to create the perfect list of wines that showcase the great food-wine pairings that are possible to enjoy with every single restaurant visit.