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What Makes A Good Wine List? A Few Master Sommeliers Weight In
By Jessica Dupuy
Sep 19, 2017
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When it comes to writing a wine list for a restaurant, the challenges are wide and varied.  In countries such as France, Italy, or Spain, you’re pretty much assured that the wine list will be driven by the region in which you are in.  But what happens when you’re elsewhere?

“One thing that’s different is that the whole globe comes to the UK and the US with wine, which means we’re constantly trying to achieve balanced diversity with wine lists,” said Master Sommelier Joe Spellman of Justin Vineyards and Winery at a recent panel discussion at TEXSOM, an annual educational wine conference in Dallas, Texas.  The panel discussion included a handful of sommeliers from across the country who gave their input on putting together a wine list. 

The truth is, constructing a good wine list requires considering a lot of factors.  There was a time when the hallmark of a high-end restaurant list was sheer length, most often presented in a leather binder or book.  These lists played--and can still play--a key role for those consumers who want a broader range of options in both geography and price when it comes to the wine selections for a meal.

But the length of a list isn’t necessarily an indicator of its quality…particularly if some of the wines on the list aren’t sold by the time the wines have reached and passed their prime.  “Selection is more the task for sommeliers when managing a large wine list,” says Spellman.  “And editing rather than gathering, collecting, accumulating and potentially often mis-managing that list.  I think a lot of those wines in large catalog lists languish in cellars for far too long.”

In Austin, Master Sommelier June Rodil manages a handful of different lists for the varied restaurant concepts under the McGuire Moorman Hospitality brand, one of which is a higher-end steak restaurant, Jeffrey’s, with a sizable wine list.  But the other restaurants require a different style of list.

“Our other concepts are more high-volume restaurants that are often selling from a by-the-glass list or for bottles listed by price so that customers can make a decision in 30 seconds rather than taking time to deliberate over a long list,” says Rodil who limits list like this to 30-40 wines.  “The selection is more progressive and fresh and less about digging deep into vintages and aged wines.”

The beauty of the shorter wine list is that it requires a customer less to comb through, but if curated too far in the direction of obscure wines, it can often leave them feeling alienated or without access wine types or styles that they might understand and prefer. 

According to Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth, there’s a fine line to striking the right balance. 

“It’s like writing a song, or taking a picture, or making a movie, there’s no official right way to do it, but there are a lot of wrong ways to do it,” says Kruth.  “Should you have a vision when making a list?  Of course, but if you're trying to be wine list artist, including wines that you think are the most interesting, that’s where things can fail pretty easily.”

Kruth emphasizes the importance of understanding the business model of the restaurant, and the clientele who will be dining there.  “It doesn’t matter how good you think the wine list is, if you’ve alienated the consumer, it’s not going to be profitable for the restaurant.”

In Rodil’s world, having multiple restaurant concepts to work with allows her to make some more aggressive decisions in how she prices wines at one restaurant versus the other, knowing they all funnel into the same bottom line. 

“I’m always looking at the margins,” says Rodil who employs a bit of a “Robin Hood” model between her restaurant concepts.  “The pricing and the cost of specific wines for the specific clientele at one of our restaurants is completely different than my bistro-wine bar, which is geared to a higher percentage of wine geeks.  So perhaps those very geeky Jura wines or those highly-allocated Loire Valley wines that my clientele may not be looking for at the first restaurant are at a more aggressive cost for my pocketbook at the bistro-wine bar.  I may not make as much money on them there, but I know we’ll sell them because of the kind of customer going there at a higher concentration.  And then at the first restaurant, where it’s a higher-end clientele, those pockets are a little bit deeper, and we price wines so that cost actually allows us to make a little bit more money.”

Rodil brings up perhaps the most important element that should be the primary motivation behind a building a wine list:  The customer. 

“The customer has to come first.  And the business has to succeed.  Which means you have to understand your margin contribution and your costs.  Because if those two things are in play, that’s what allows you to be more creative with what you offer, that’s what makes it special,” says Rodil.

In a world where chefs and sommeliers are becoming more and more fashionable through television competitions and food and wine festivals, it’s easy to get caught up in offering wines based on the sommelier’s preferences.  Or for sommeliers on the floor to try to sell wines from a list based on their current favorites.  But at the end of the day, it’s the customer who is paying to enjoy the wine. 

“Restaurant service and service interaction with the guest is rarely about facts and more about feelings and comfort,” says Spellmen.  “It’s difficult to wedge a wine conversation into one where the customer has told you that he’s in a business meeting, his wife can’t eat gluten, and they have to be home for the babysitter by 9:30.  That’s not going to give a sommelier much of a chance to hand-sell a wine list.  So you need to have something on that list that’s going to allow the customer to find something he or she likes, and for the restaurant to sell some wine.”

Indeed, at the heart of any dining experience should be the goal of hospitality, which puts the preferences of the sommelier at the bottom of the list, and the customer at the top.