What's Progressive on Restaurant Wine Lists In 2009?By Randy Caparoso
2008 marked thirty years since I wrote my first restaurant wine list. Which makes a dude who's been through all the wars ponder: what constitutes progress in 2009?
The Cellar Comes Out of the Closet
First, the "cellar" itself need no longer to be somewhere off the restaurant floor. Just as exhibition kitchens in the center of dining rooms have revved up fascination in the culinary arts, glassed temperature controlled cellars in the front of dining rooms or running alongside tables have a higher percentage chance of stimulating fascination in wine.
Going further, hands-on accessibility to bottles has always worked for consumers in retail stores, where they can pick up and examine bottles, and carry them to the cash register. Why not in restaurants? There is no reason why restaurant guests should not be able to walk into a cellar or look at bottle displays next to tables, lovingly touch them, make a selection and bring it to the table themselves. This breaking down of barriers is now done in many wine bars across the country, and it's only a matter of time before we see more of it in formal restaurant settings.
The Wine List "Invades" Food Menus
Everyone's primary objective is to get the best possible wine to guests for the best possible culinary experience. Why is something seemingly so simple, so difficult? As captivated as today's consumers are by food and chefs, specific wine suggestions on food menus may be the single most significant thing being done to increase their sensory experience, and ultimately our sales. There may be obstacles - like too many dishes crammed onto a menu to allow for wine suggestions, or menus changed too frequently to keep up - but it's worth the effort to overcome them. Simply put, many of today's food conscious guests care more about the best wine for their dish rather than the best wine to drink.
Quality, Not Quantity
In today's harsh economic climate, the restaurants in the driver's seat are those stocking wine for quality rather than burdensome quantity. And besides, do you honestly think a list of fifty Chardonnays, most tasting pretty much the same, is more impressive to contemporary consumers than just six to ten truly representing distinctive quality, value, food affinity (your food, not the restaurant's down the street), and your personal recommendation? Variety and choice are important; but in the end, most guests prefer one "perfect" choice above all the selections in the world.
Full Court Service
Sommeliers are most effective when they are involved in the selection process and wine list composition. If you've done your due diligence (re staff training), servers are most effective when they are involved in the same way: attending supplier tasting, filing reports and making recommendations; assisting with inventory, stocking and re-ordering; doing research and taking turns running staff tastings; penning their own descriptions on a page of "Staff Favorites" in the wine list; and of course, taking responsibility for new employee wine service training. What would be better for you: a staff of one or two sommeliers, or an entire team of personally staked, enthusiastic, wine savvy servers?
The Guest Whisperers
What else is up? Wine lists that actually "talk." Consumers in retail stores, who attend tastings or visit wineries, are no different than restaurant guests interested in ordering wine: they want wine lists that say something, dammit. Lists that give them a hint about the taste of this wonderful little Friuliano or tasty Nero d'Avola that you've discovered, or that incredible high powered Cabernet Sauvignon that only one or two other restaurants in town were able to get.
Just Saying No to "Progressive"
Finally, there are things like the "Progressive Wine List" formatting, which endeavors to list wines in some kind of order, like "mild" to "strong" or "light" to "heavy." But is such a system enough for today's consumers? I don't think so. Just as there is no substitute for well trained managers and servers who can stand at the table and talk about wines in specific terms, there is no substitute for wine lists that also contain actual descriptions, regaling guests with information and entertaining them at the same time. Progressive or not, no simple "list" can do that. And besides, the biggest flaw of so-called "progressive" formats is that wines rarely end up being listed in an order truly pertinent to the average guest because judging whether one wine is "milder" or "stronger" in flavor than another is just about the most inexact science there is.
But if your wine list is, in fact, organized "progressively," it may not be necessary to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I would suggest sharpening the order, but also shifting your focus to wines of singularity rather than an accumulation a large, all-encompassing "list." Given the fact that our guests grow more sophisticated by the day, they are more likely to be wowed by a discovery of a single wine "gem" never experienced before, as opposed to another long, dreary list of the same ol' brands, even if they are recognizable or listed in some kind of progression.
So that's progress, at least in my book. There is no "easy" way to manage an effective contemporary wine program. You need to take the time, do the work yourself, summon up all the creative energy in yourself and your staff, and still do it over and over again until you get it right. Same as it ever was, as it were.
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