Balance is Key

A good wine list offers something for every palette and price point.

“’s important to include a range of options but not to go overboard on low-end wines because they can cannibalize sales on the high end.”

For my heart, and for glad-hearted occasions, I keep a good store of wine at home and rarely pass up the opportunity to pair a fine wine with my fine dining.

I know the difference between a gewürztraminer and a malbec, and I know which one I prefer with a steak. I know, where the cuisine allows me either option, I’ll always pick the red over the white. And experience has taught me that – at my usual price range anyway – I tend to prefer Argentinian and Chilean reds over Californian and Spanish.

So, yes, I’m somewhat ignorant. But I’m also the kind of customer restaurants should keep in mind when it comes to putting together a wine list.

Geoff Worden is a wine blogger, restaurant consultant and veteran of the retail and wholesale wine scene. During his more than two decades of uncorking bottles, he’s seen his share of restaurants getting their wine lists right – and wrong.

“The most important part of building a wine list is to actually care about your wine list,” Worden says. “And if you don’t, then you better hire somebody who does.”

He says restaurants often lay out top dollar for chefs, architects, furnishings and decorations, but leave the wine list and the staff development necessary to understand it as afterthoughts. To Worden, it’s critical that someone who regularly interacts with patrons be involved in selecting wines. That someone needs to keep in mind the general public, as well as the food the restaurant offers, while also spending time with wholesalers and cultivating a strong sense of the available options.

In some cases, the restaurateur may him or herself know a great deal about wine. This might work against a good list, however if the focus turns to personal favorites and esoteric selections.

“For wine geeks, it’s heaven,” Worden says. But for the typical diner, it may be mystifying.

You can try to build a perfect list around food pairings, but ultimately you need a variety available, even for the Philistines.

“You ought to be able to give the customer what they want,” Worden says. “Then you can go to the back and roll your eyes.”

On the other hand, he warns against dumbing down a list to the point where the bons vivants and wine connoisseurs will get bored.

“It’s just like a fine wine,” he says. “You’ve gotta have balance.”

Beyond that, there are the balances to be achieved when it comes to inventory and price. As to inventory, a restaurant must be careful not to “overpopulate,” Worden says, but you also can’t sell a wine you don’t have in stock. And when it comes to price, it’s important to include a range of options but not to go overboard on low-end wines because they can cannibalize sales on the high end.

Luckily, today’s selection is better than ever, allowing for richer pairings.

“The wine world has gotten to the point now where you almost have to work to find a really lousy bottle of wine,” Worden says. “There’s an inordinate number of really solid wines available, and they’re available from all over the planet in a way they never have been before.”

Peter Reichard is a native New Orleanian who has written about the life and times of the city for more than 20 years, including as a former newspaper editor and business journalist.



Categories: The Magazine