One often hears that wine should not be intimidating, but it's a realm populated by thousands of styles, grapes, regions, producers, vintages and other variables. If you're creating a restaurant wine list, how do you put all the pieces in place in a way that's sensible and legible to your customers? And when you approach a table, how do you help diners navigate to a happy destination?
Some somms break it down by grape, others by region, others a mash-up—or some other system entirely. We asked six wine pros from Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winners with lists ranging in size from compact to encyclopedic to explain their strategies.
Wine Spectator: How did you organize your wine list, and how do you instruct guests to approach it?
Carrie Lyn Strong, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Casa Lever in New York
We organize our list by region, starting with bubbles, then whites, then reds, then sweet wines. Rather than instructing our guests how to navigate the list, I have a conversation with guests about their likes and dislikes, entrée selections—which can vary from guest to guest at the same table—and general price range expectations. Once we have a rapport, I give several options from the list. It’s my way of making a large wine list comfortable and approachable.
[Wine writer] Eric Asimov said that there is no other subject that Americans apologize for not knowing more about than wine. Guests consistently open the wine list and apologize to me about not knowing more about wine. I always say, "It's OK! If you knew more about wine, I would be out of a job!" It is my job to make this nerve-racking subject approachable, fun and delicious.
Amy Mundwiler, wine director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Maple & Ash in Chicago
The list is organized by region. Within each region I try to go north to south. It doesn't always work out that way, though. I spend hours trying to make everything perfect, but we're going on 86 pages and 1,400 selections. Mistakes get made, I'm afraid.
Our guests can get intimidated by the list, and I hate that. I try to make it fun and engaging by adding features and stories. Our "Dope Wines Under $99" is very popular. It's a way for guests to go to one section and choose an awesome bottle without having to browse through the entire list. We don't really instruct our guests on how to approach it; rather, we ask the right questions and get them to the right page. I'd prefer our guests be sitting back, relaxing and having a good time. We'll do the work for you, we just need to ask you a few questions so we can get you in the right bottle.
Ryan Fletter, owner and wine director of Grand Award winner Barolo Grill in Denver
We organize it starting with glass pours, then we crescendo into "Coravin wines" that are much older and fragile. We transition into sparkling wines, then white wines and finish with reds and the large-format selections. Much like with walking into a jewelry store, we want to have approachable items in the front and not intimidate the guest with library selections until they have shown interest in those areas of the list.
But ultimately we begin with Italian wines for the most part and transition into other sections of the world. We have a Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning wine list and therefore have thousands of selections, and within each section, each category has a slightly different approach. We have some sections alphabetized—for instance, Barolo or Brunello, where we have hundreds of selections, and verticals of them. But in the area of Burgundy, we travel from north to south, and with our super Tuscans, we organize by producer rather than bottling because the nature of those wines is more like Bordeaux.
The wine list at Maude is organized geographically. We offer a regional tasting menu experience that showcases wine and cuisine from wine regions around the world, such as our current Tuscany menu. While we do encourage our guests to enjoy wines from the region that will best complement the menu, we offer guidance for those who have other specific preferences for what they'd like to drink.
In terms of guiding, I'm a big believer in really listening to the guest and what they enjoy drinking. Our job is to pay attention and provide suggestions. In terms of how guests can approach our lists, I recommend taking a glance through first to get an overview of the offerings to see if anything catches your eye before requesting assistance from a sommelier.
Ashley Broshious, wine director at Award of Excellence winner Zero Restaurant + Bar in Charleston, S.C.
At Zero, our wine list is arranged first by style and country, and then each country is organized roughly by [the wine's] body.
I always first ask guests what they normally like to drink and then if they feel like being adventurous. I guide them through Champagne and sparkling wine—because it is always fun to start with bubbles—and then show them the country or region that I believe they would appreciate the most. We want to make our guests comfortable with a traditional-style wine list but also be able to show them fun options that are similar to what they drink but may never have had before.
Elizabeth Kelso, beverage director at Best of Award of Excellence winner Craft Los Angeles
The wine list at Craft is organized by grape variety, primarily. In certain categories where one grape variety is represented from many different countries, it is then sub-categorized. I have found in a number of my previous roles that many guests tend to categorize their understanding of wine by grape variety instead of by geographical region or country of origin. It’s more common for people to sit down and say, "I most enjoy Chardonnay" than for them to say, "I particularly enjoy Meursault." So in that instance, I will guide them to the Chardonnay section, point out the first page featuring the white Burgundies, labeled French Chardonnay, and the following page with the California, Oregon and international Chardonnays. I think making the list as easily accessible as possible is half the battle in making the wine-drinking experience less intimidating, confusing or alienating.
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