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What makes a wine list? Glen Montgomery, Eòrna

Published:  25 May, 2023

In a new online series, Harpers is going back to basics with members of hospitality to find out exactly what is the secret sauce that makes a modern wine list successful.

We continue our series with Glen Montgomery, formerly of the Heron, who is on the cusp of opening Eòrna, a new 12-seater chef’s table style restaurant in Edinburgh.

In your opinion, what are the three main things which make a good wine list in 2023?

  • Personality. I want to have a concept of the style and taste-preference of the sommelier when I read their list. I think it’s pretty boring when you read a cookie-cutter list of standard or ‘expected’ styles (although there’s no shame in having the most ‘popular’ wines either). I want to see some esoteric bottles with meaning for the person who chose them. There’s no harm in also having some classics in there, too.
  • The sourcing of the wines. Have they used huge import companies whose wines are made in large quantities and probably lack individual character? Have they tied themselves to just one importer to get a good deal? Or have they bought from a number of smaller suppliers with different specialities in order to showcase interesting examples of more specific countries, regions and producers. Of course, the final option is my preference, but I appreciate it’s not always a viable option depending on resources.
  • Pricing. Money and price-points can be a slightly unsavoury conversation topic in the world of fine wine (and fine dining in general). But perhaps more than ever I want to feel like the wines have been priced as well as possible by the sommelier or business. It’s so obvious when a flat gross-profit percentage has been applied, or when a popular brand is over-priced to take advantage of those loyal to it. It smacks of lack of faith in the customer. Or worse, a cynical attempt to take advantage of those who don’t know better. I love to read a list where I’m wondering to myself ‘how can they sell that bottle for that price?’, and will be more prepared to spend more if I get the sense they’re pricing fairly.

Wine lists are essentially the supermarket aisles of a restaurant. In your opinion, what is the best way to approach organisation and design? How do diners ‘browse’? Are there any elements of psychology which should be considered and how should lists facilitate that?

Wine list organisation and design are paramount, but for me the real bottom line is clarity and intuitiveness. It seems obvious to say, but a clear, legible font and appropriate spacing and layout go a long way in the experience being smooth for everyone. In my opinion, the list is basically just a directory of wines that’s there to contain the important details. The true wine experience comes from the interaction between sommelier and guest, when they communicate with each other to find the perfect options for that meal.

I see more and more of the ‘stylistic’ approach to wine lists (headings like light wines/fruity wines/rich wines etc.), which I think can be great where there are fewer listings. I personally prefer to fall back on the traditional ‘country/region’ system, as I consider it the most useful and familiar overall. Accuracy is also crucial: there’s nothing more frustrating than spending 10 minutes choosing a bottle only to learn it’s not in stock, or the vintage is incorrect.

What are the ‘must include’ categories or sections and what are optional? Must certain categories or styles go in certain places? 

Here in Edinburgh, I feel like there’s no longer a ‘must-have’ category when it comes to wines. We’re very lucky here to have an amazing spectrum of styles of restaurants with different levels of wine focus and sizes of lists. It’s no longer necessary to have an Argentine Malbec, Kiwi Sauvignon or Prosecco anymore, as long as you trust the business you’re visiting to have picked something they like to drink themselves. This comes back round to my first answer on ‘personality’. If there’s a consistent ethos present across food and beverage, then I’m going to relax and trust things are there for a reason. Hopefully, I can have a chat with the sommelier to make sure I’m picking the right thing for that occasion.

How have wine lists changed over the past few years, particularly with regard to Covid?

In the post-pandemic world, I do think there’s been an effect on wine lists. Overall, they’ve been scaled back. The loss of so many staff in the hospitality sector has led to lots of evaluation of working practices, which is usually figuring out which aspects of restaurant service are able to be reduced or eliminated to be achievable with fewer staff.

Listing fewer wines means less hours spent managing stock/placing orders/spending time training staff, etc. When this staff-shortage is combined with extra difficulties in obtaining wines here in the UK due to changes in legislation, or the recent string of difficult vintages in traditional European regions, it’s obvious why restaurants have streamlined their offerings to ease wine list management.