When dining out, wine is a great accompaniment to any meal, but deciding what to order can be stressful and intimidating. A wine list doesn’t have to read like a doctoral thesis to be good.
The four key factors to what makes a list really good are compatibility, diversity, consumer friendliness and pricing.
Let’s start with compatibility. The selection of wine should match the overall character and palate of the food offered. If the food is generally spicy, then wines that play that style should be on the list. I’m truly a believer that any ethnic restaurant should focus on wines from the country that the food represents. In other words, Italian wine for an Italian restaurant, French wine for a French restaurant, Spanish wine for a Spanish eatery, etc. What better wine to match the cuisine than those wines created for that particular food? Same applies to a regional restaurant! It should offer regional wines.
Next up is diversity. Within the realm of the style of food offered, the list should contain both red and white wine, even rosé and bubbly if applicable, using different varietals and styles. An Italian eatery, for example, could have varietals and styles from different parts of Italy to pair with dishes from those specific regions. If it’s more of a general restaurant without an ethnic theme, different varietals and styles from around the world would work, so long as the character of the food is kept in mind.
Consumer friendliness is a biggie when it comes to wine lists. Hundreds of selections will only overwhelm – it’s simply not necessary. The list should be easy to read, with dark lettering against a lighter background. Long-winded tasting notes, if available, will only bore the diner. Simple and sometimes funny work best. Remember, patrons are there to dine, not study a document. Although you don’t see it very often, some half bottles on the list would be a nice addition as not everyone wants to consume a whole bottle. As a wine instructor, I always think there should be an educational aspect to any wine list. That’s where wine-by-the-glass selections are a good idea. It allows diners to broaden their palates and experience by sampling different wines without having to buy a whole bottle. A featured wine or varietal from a certain country or region, changed regularly, could be a wonderful addendum to any wine list allowing the consumer to try something new at a special price. Even some menu suggestions next to specific wines on the list could reduce the intimidation factor for the consumer.
Finally, there is the pricing issue. I’m talking about mark-ups and every restaurant on the planet does so to varying degrees. Although there are numerous methods of marking up wine, the bottom line here is to keep them reasonable. If wines are purchased from a local monopoly like the LCBO, the consumer generally knows what the retail value of the wine is. If a wine you normally buy is three or four times that cost on the list, you’re not going to be pleased. You may order once, but next time you may vie for a beer or cocktail, or not even go back to that restaurant. I advise all my restaurant clients to keep their mark-ups down. It results in happier diners, who often order a second bottle and offer return business.
A carefully thought-out wine list is a bonus for any restaurant. More time and effort should be put into them.