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Perfection in print

Published:  23 July, 2008

Most wine lovers and industry professionals will have little difficulty naming their favourite restaurants and wine lists, but ask them to say what makes a good wine list and you'll find widely differing views.

Many, I suspect, think the bigger, the better'. While I have nothing against big lists they are not, by definition, better, and they are certainly not always appropriate. For a start, big wine lists can be anti-social, not to mention intimidating for some customers. For my money, a short, well-chosen list that suits that particular restaurant is as close to perfection as you can get.

To find that perfection, the smart restaurateur must start out by making sure they have a clear understanding of what they want to achieve. First and foremost let's not forget that a wine list, like a menu, details what a restaurant or bar has to sell its customers. Whether or not your restaurant has dedicated staff to sell the wine, the list should, to a large degree, allow customers to find something they can afford to drink and hopefully will enjoy drinking.

A good wine list must be appropriate. It must be appropriate to your menu, to the particular kind of regional or national cuisine you serve, and to the style. A bistro is likely to need different wines to those in a white tablecloth establishment. A good wine list must be appropriate for its location and its users. Take the time to find out who your target market is, whether they will spend money on fine wine, and whether they want - or expect - to be offered interesting and challenging wines.

There is nothing wrong with having an ambitious list if you are a wine enthusiast, but you may need to take things easy, certainly in the initial stages. Don't scare people off. Win their confidence and you may find you can expand their wine horizons as you expand your list.

Amid all the excitement of preparing a wine list and opening a restaurant you also need to address mundane tasks such as logistics. Assess how much accessible, cool storage space you have in the restaurant and for the longer term. Remember that temperature and humidity control are important for storage. Consider how much fridge space you will need, not forgetting space for beer and mineral waters. Ask yourself how many deliveries you can handle and, crucially, how much time you will realistically have to spend on wine-related matters. Can you afford to employ someone who can take all or some of the responsibility?

Before you worry about how you will present the wine list, think about what you need to list. You will already have established a theme for it, which may be related to the cuisine. Decide on the number of bins you can handle based on your logistical assessments. Establish maximum and minimum selling prices. Remember that the upper limit may be higher than you think, especially if you price realistically. When deciding this, try to work out in what price band the action' will be - in other words, where you expect to sell the bulk of your wine.

As part of this process you must address the thorny question of margins. Don't let your accountant bully you into setting a high, fixed-percentage gross profit (GP). A fixed GP may be appropriate for your restaurant, but many operators have success with flexible and innovative pricing systems. Cash contribution could be a better model for you. Lastly, don't forget to plan a regular update or review of your wine list.

Having done this preparatory work, some restaurateurs will then be faced with their own lack of knowledge and confidence about wine. A consultant may be an option, but it is still possible to choose the right wines and suppliers yourself. Start by making a pre-selection of potential suppliers. Get a clear understanding of their terms - do they suit you? Is there room for negotiation?

Decide how many suppliers you want. Ask around about their reputation. Test them by asking for their suggestions and advice, and get them to specify - in writing - what added extras will they give you. Promises of staff training and wine descriptions are commonly made. Make sure you know exactly what this means. Don't accept vague promises and ask to see an example of their descriptions. Sadly, many suppliers tend to favour clichs and jargon, which won't help your customers.

Give potential suppliers a detailed brief and ask them to write a draft wine list then present it to you and a business partner, a senior member of staff or even a friend. Sit down and evaluate each merchant objectively. Fancying the salesperson or even thinking he's a good bloke' should not be a factor, but it does help if you both relate well with each other.

Once you have identified several suppliers you may want to work with, find out what sole supply might be worth to them. Generally I would not recommend sole supply: having more than one supplier keeps them on their toes and always gives you an alternative if difficulties arise. Based on the draft wine lists submitted you should be able to write a generic list - that is, a list of the wine types and styles you need. Ask the short-listed suppliers to submit a limited number of samples of these types for you to compare. A good salesperson will want to sit in on your tasting. Discourage this. When you undertake your comparative tasting, taste like against like. Trust your own palate but be aware that your tastes are not necessarily the same as those of your customers.

With suppliers and wines selected, it is time to think about presentation. The list may need to sell itself. You need to decide how the wines will be grouped. Ask yourself whether the divisions you choose will help customers. Simply grouping by colour and in ascending price order may be enough for a short list. Geographical divisions are traditional but sometimes limited. Categories using variety and style cues can work well - grape varieties on their own may be limiting. Alternatively, opt for something quirky, but beware that one man's quirky can be another's pretentious, or worse, incomprehensible.

If you want to promote by-the-glass sales, consider listing them first along with Champagne, Sherries and other aperitif styles. Don't forget dessert wines and digestifs - consider listing them separately so they receive more focus at the end of the meal.

Check that the list is balanced. This doesn't mean it has to have an example of every wine style possible, rather that it has a diverse range of styles and prices so every customer can find a wine to suit them. Use a typeface that is clear and easy to read and choose a format you can print in-house. If your budget runs to a designer, ask them to produce a template that allows you to update it whenever you need.

Avoid the temptation of the dreaded laminated list: while it can save money, it is likely to be at the expense of flexibility.

In reality, there is no such a thing as the perfect wine list, but it is possible for you to create one that is perfect for you and, more importantly, for your customers.