Designing A Wine List
Article By: David Singer
The wine list is the primary venue for those of us in restaurants to showcase our wares to our clients. And with the evolution of modern technology, the internet has also given retailers the ability to create wine lists as well, via websites or computers kiosks in their stores. With the constantly increasing interest in learning about wine, it has never been more important to optimize the utility of the wine list as an information source. But successfully accomplishing this is no easy task. Here are some simple suggestions to creating an approachable, reader-friendly and effective list.
The classic wine list is organized by region, a system that has stood the test of time. But a more creative style that would be appropriate in both retail stores and restaurants is to combine casual settings with formal service - an increasingly popular trend. One idea is to organize the list by grape and then, within that section, organize it by the weight of the wines, from lightest to full bodied. The plus side to this is that your average consumer or waiter can, with some introductory knowledge, easily find what they're looking for. If you have a very large list, divide it into sections in order to reduce the intimidation factor. In a restaurant, even people who have a decent familiarity with wine can be very intimidated when they're brought a bible-sized list. Likewise, walking into even an average-sized retail outlet and looking at rows and rows of wines can be overwhelming. If you have a massive list, consider dividing it based on price with the first part being less than $5O and the balance of the list in another section. You may also want to create a recommendations page, displaying delicious value finds, deals or just a wine that you find particularly exciting. In addition, I'd encourage you to envision your wine list as something more than just a list of wines - make it educational. Tempt people to spend time reading your list, not just scanning it to find something they'd like to buy. The increased availability of fast and reasonably-priced color laser printers, along with the addition of maps, bottle sizes, regional highlights, and winemaker profiles offers endless creative possibilities to make a wine list more engaging. Depending on the size of the list, you could add in tasting notes, pairings or other commentary for each wine.
A final suggestion on organization and content: add a little personality. I've seen some great wine lists that organize their sections around themes. The now defunct AZ in New York had sections divided based on the Chinese philosophy Tao Te Ching, and used Chinese characters to symbolize different wines. For example, the icon for thunder was used to indicate big, fruit forward wines. Are there themes in your own restaurant or retail venue that you could build upon like this? You could incorporate nautical, cinematic, sports, or literary references. Or consider some humor. Cuvee restaurant in New Orleans added a hidden joke to their list by making the phonetics humorous. The Alsace producer Josmeyer under its formal description was "YoYoYos-meyer".
A great wine list is more than just well organized, clever content, though. It might seem obvious to some, but you should make sure your wine list is clean, clear and accurate. You can achieve clean and clear simply by having a list with an easy-to-read size and style of font. This should be tested by restaurants at a table with the same ambient light that occurs during service. For retailers, make sure that your site is viewed well by different kinds of computers and on different operating systems. With respect to accuracy, wines should not only be compared to the list during inventory, but also cross-checked by someone else in the trade. Simply ask a friend to review your list and you theirs. Everyone needs an editor to help catch simple oversights or to point out errors for regions they're not so familiar with. And this could save you future embarrassment with clients or respected peers who could spot a mistake you might have caught with just a bit more review.
Finally, consider what your wine list is bound with. These days, you aren't limited to the traditional burgundy colored leather - a more table-friendly binding is always welcome. And how many times have you seen a restaurant guest knock over a glass of water or singe the list on a table candle because of its ungainly size? 8 by 11 inches as a size works very well if you have a large desk to spread out on, but isn't very practical on a restaurant table that is already set with your finest sliver and show plates. A smaller sized list may mean more pages but it will add a level of comfort when it can be held in one hand and flipped through at leisure. As wine professionals, selling is not limited to verbal interactions. Make your wine list - whether leather-bound or online-read at a table or in a store - a tool for building a stronger relationship with your clients. Make it useful, make it educational, make it fun, and you'll see your clients come back for more.