To create a wine list, consider the following: there’re the budget-conscious; those who order the same thing no matter where they go; the extravagant; the wine collector; the miserly; and the as-long-as-it’s-big-red-and-Australian – and these are just the customers. When it comes to assembling a list of wines that will effectively reflect the ethos of a restaurant and support and enhance the food, the customer is probably the most important element. But they are just one of the factors. The wine list is the other important document in a dining environment; it matters.
“The philosophy behind building a wine list is huge,” says Dan Sims, partner and project manager of wine consultancy The Wine Guide. “You could talk about it for days.”
The vastness of the topic comes down to the obvious fact that every restaurant is different and to enhance its individuality each restaurant needs a wine list that will complement and support all the other factors of the business. A good wine list will have customer favourites as well as a variety with different depth and nuance on the palate – these are the wines the sommeliers and consultants would like you to think about, even if you don’t order them. But a wine list is there for pleasure and for experimentation.
“The role of the wine list is pivotal in terms of revenue,” Sims continues. “Up to 40 or 50 per cent of revenue is generated by the wine list. It is an essential marketing tool to sell wine, like a menu is to sell food.”
Sims and his business partner, Ben Edwards, go into great detail when writing a wine list for a client. “You must look at the storage that’s available, the ordering system that will work best, the turnover of the restaurant and its profitability, the costs, and the flavours of the menu. Then it must be approachable, manageable and formatted correctly.”
Mahjong Black was a recent list that Sims and The Wine Guide put together. The brief was to be not a typical Chinese restaurant wine list. “The food at Mahjong Black calls for light to medium styles. Huge shiraz or cabernet don’t complement that kind of food but still, you’ve got to have them on the list,” he comments. “If you want an over-oaked Barossa Shiraz with your fish, who am I to stop you.”
The presence of the big Australian reds on lists is simply about understanding the marketplace. There are customers who will want that style of wine no matter what they are eating, from Chinese through to Thai flavours.
Kosta Kalogiannis, beverage manager at Longrain in the city, takes this into account for his wine list. “People need to have those choices; it’s what they want. And big Australian reds need to be on our list too.”
Kalogiannis is at the coalface of wine service, dealing with customers and their tastes daily. He creates a wine list on the foundation that it has to complement the complex layers of flavour on Longrain’s Thai menu. Aromatic whites, like riesling, gerwurtzraminer and pinot gris, are ideal matches and while many people still order Sauvignon Blanc more than anything else when it comes to whites, Kalogiannis encourages his customers to broaden their tastes. “If a customer likes sauvignon blanc, pinot gris might work for them. I’ll often say, sure have the sauvignon blanc but try a little of this.”
Wine lists, along with restaurant staff, are educators. The lists are built on the premise that what you like is there but what you didn’t even realise you like is there too.
Laurent Rospars is the wine buyer and head sommelier for The Melbourne Pub Group, which owns and operates the Middle Park and Albert Park Hotels, with The Newmarket Hotel opening later this year.
“To start a wine list you must look at the market of the restaurant, the food and the customers who will be there. The Albert Park Hotel is trendy and has a young crowd and a strong bar culture; you must take this into account and have the wines available that they like, that are affordable and popular. You must please the crowd but you must [also] please yourself – there’s nothing on the lists I wouldn’t drink.”
Rospars also works at the Middle Park Hotel, which is a very different beast. “The Middle Park is more conservative and the wine list is Victorian-only; that can be hard sometimes but there are elegant wines we use that can be expensive but we will sell them.”
The core of both his current lists lies in the menus (Albert Park is fish focussed and Middle Park is more about meat) and in understanding his market. So, despite the Albert Park menu’s focus its list still has big reds because “there will always be a group who will order a big tannic red with a dozen fresh oysters – that just seems to be an Australian thing – so yes, we always have that choice there too.”
The most important part of all this (from the restaurant’s point of view at least) is in getting the staff to sell the wine. Sims provides hands-on, ongoing training for the staff of the restaurant he works with at any particular time. Rospars trains the staff on a weekly basis, and they must attend. “I provide courses,” he says, and “the staff must go and we talk about grape variety, region, tasting every week.”
Kalogiannis, meanwhile, presents a wine for the staff often in terms of a new dish: “If there’s a new curry and we get a new wine to complement it I’ll get the staff to try them together,” he says. “That really helps them understand all the complexities of the flavours and how they work together, and that wine will sell really well after they try it and understand it.”
For us lucky customers, it’s all about trying, tasting and communicating. It may be worth asking for something similar to your favourite wine to see if you discover a new favourite and letting go of the big reds to see what else is out there – because there is a hell of a lot.