Cocktails and craft beer programs might be the beverage trends of the moment, but wine still plays an important role on menus. Sure, it’s easy to throw a chardonnay and malbec on a list and call it a day, but that would be a wasted opportunity. A bit of research and a few minor tweaks can elevate your wine list into a unique point of sale.
Consider Your Concept
Make sure your investments fit the bill for your concept. Does your restaurant offer foods from a particular region? Look to that as a guide when making your selections. A small plates or tapas concept, for example, isn’t the place to roll out pricey bottles. Tapas bars in Barcelona typically use local Catalan wines, so use this as a starting point. Then, dig a little deeper. Wines that use Catalan varieties (Macabeo, Garnacha, Tempranillo, etc.), but come from other regions and countries, provide a wealth of possibilities while keeping a tight, conceptual framework.
Keep it Simple
Don’t go over the top in the quest for differentiation. A high concept wine list featuring bottles from the Canary Islands, for example, would be difficult to execute and could turn off diners unfamiliar with the region. Instead, devote a small section of the wine menu to an obscure varietal you feel passionate about, and use it as a way to engage guests.
Want to score a deal? Buying in volume tends to score the biggest price breaks, but more often than not, space is at a premium for restaurants. To make pricing more attractive to restaurants where purchasing tends to be in smaller drops, but larger volume can be achieved over time, many distributors offer by the glass, or BTG, pricing.
It’s possible to grab a deeper discount by committing to pouring a specific wine BTG until a certain number of cases have been purchased. Be careful, though: Smaller restaurants are often “married” to the larger placement negotiations for much longer than bigger restaurants. This becomes a hassle when you get menu fatigue, or the type of wine no longer makes sense for the food or season.
For your bottle list, there’s no need to purchase a whole case, though that won’t yield the best pricing. It’s also likely you’ll get hit with a split case fee, which can range from 60 cents to $1.50 per bottle. Negotiate with your sales rep to get a free sample bottle to offset the charges or offer a three-case bottle placement commitment in exchange for better pricing and no split case fee.
Check That Inventory
There’s no need to buy the farm your first time out. Opening inventory can be quite modest in most markets since many distributors offer flexible weekly ordering. Go a little heavier on BTG selections, and order conservatively in three- or six-bottle lots for bottle placements. A 65-seat, busy restaurant with two turns per night could easily run on $9,000 worth of opening wine inventory.
Shebnem Ince is a Chicago-based sommelier and consultant whose present obsession with Gamay borders on unhealthy.
Words of Winedom
Polish your list with these pro tips
Go Off-The-Beaten Path
Want to offer provocative, unusual selections without alienating your clientele? Consider familiar varietals like sauvignon blanc from a unique area like France’s Touraine region or Slovenia’s Primorska region, which have ideal climates for producing fresh, affordable versions.
Stock What You Can Stash
The sad truth is most wine storage in restaurants is not optimal. Reds need a cool, dark place; whites can survive in the walk-in but not long term. If storage will severely compromise quality, buy in very small lots—just what you would use in a week or less.
Nothing screams amateur hour more than misspelled words or inaccurate geography on a wine menu. Verify the listed producer, type of wine and origin. Resources such as the Guild of Sommeliers (guildsomm.com) can increase your knowledge and help with accuracy and education.