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Readable Wine Lists Aren’t Hard To Make

When you organise your wine list, it may help you to follow international practices. Make it easy for your guests to navigate the list and feel encouraged to order the wines that you would like them to buy, writes Subhash Arora.


It's an established fact that, globally, wine is the preferred beverage accompaniment to meals. From an F&B perspective, the logical corollary of this consumer behaviour is that if we increase wine sales, food sales will also be pushed up, especially for cuisines that go well with wine. The next obvious conclusion is that a properly designed wine list can help you achieve higher sales and profits.

A wine list, like an accountant's ledger, has two sides -- the right, which lists the prices, and the left, which details the wine offerings. Much has been written about the right-hand side, which essentially follows the pricing policy adopted by the management of a hotel or a restaurant. I find it difficult to resist the temptation to dwell on the subject, but I'll restrict my comments to how F&B managers and restaurant entrepreneurs can organise the left-hand side.

First, The Essentials

The problem with wine lists in India is that their right-hand side puts off consumers. The majority of them also get discouraged by the left-hand side, though the food and the mood, or the ambience, may cry out for wine. A badly written, incomprehensible list makes them stick with a cola or a beer.

I have yet to come across a list that matches the dishes on the food menu with the wine offerings. Instead, they carry cut-and-paste versions of tasting notes, which don't make sense in the Indian milieu. I have yet to come across a person who can detect notes of raspberry or cassis or what have you. But I know many people who just like to enjoy a good, uncomplicated glass of wine.

Before writing the wine list, you've got to have a good selection of wines, reflecting the diversity and the international appeal of the product. Once you've decided on the number of wines that should be on the list, let your cuisine and your client profile, not your wine importer, or a sommelier, drive your selection.

Sixty, I believe, is the minimum number for a restaurant serious about wine and this list must include a well-rounded presence of Indian labels. Left to myself, I would prefer to see 80-100 wines on a list; beyond this level, the list gets difficult to manage. The higher the number, the greater the variety, but the greater the inventory hassles and training requirements for the staff.

An Eye For Detail

What follows may sound elementary to many of you, but I'm emphasising these points because they're missing from most wine lists. A good list must have neatly organised categories of useful information (and not unintelligible tasting notes) for each wine. It's almost like how books are classified in a library. The categories are: Country, Region, Classification, Grape Variety, Producer, Vintage, Dryness, Tannin/Acid, Body, Serving Temperature and Food Recommendations.

Region/Grape Variety: This is not as easy as it may seem. Many people are not sure, for instance, about the grape that goes into a Chablis. Or into a Barbaresco. Or into a Chianti. You'll be helping your guests make an informed choice by listing the grape varieties, especially when the information isn't intelligible to people who aren't all that knowledgeable about wines. In the same spirit, restaurants must list the relative percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the Bordeaux wines on their lists.

This little exertion will go a long way in demystifying wines for your guests and getting them to be more adventurous about ordering. By planting this seed of interest, you'll ensure your guests eventually become wine connoisseurs who believe in spending good money on good wines.

The Appellation: For a French wine, mention whether it is AOC or VDP. For an AOC wine, give the guests a fair idea of the quality that they should expect by mentioning whether it's a premier cru or a grand cru, or, if it's a Bordeaux , its position in the 1855 Classification.

Your non-Italian guests also have the right to be informed about the quality difference between a DOCG and a DOC, for they'll be paying more for one than the other. They must also know why a Super Tuscan, though it has an IGT classification, commands a higher price.

Why's a gran reserva, among Spanish wines, rated higher than a reserva or crianza? What's the difference between a QbA and a QmP in the world of German wines? How's a Single Barrel Selection different from a Private Reserve or a Vintner's Reserve?

The bottomline is that you must strive to make your lists more readable by giving as much relevant information as possible. You must also train your serving staff to help your guests understand wine labels. This kind of suggestive selling will be a worthwhile investment in making the market grow.

Producer's Label: This is an important part of a guest's mental image of a wine. It matters that a wine is a Sula or a Grover, an Antinori or a Gaja, a Kendall-Jackson or a Mondavi, a Goldwater or a Montana . Producers take pride at whichever price point they make a wine and their reputation catches up with consumers.

The Vintage: With the exception of table wines, which shouldn't be on any list in any case, or an NV Champagne, each wine comes with a vintage. It is important to know the vintage, because it's an indicator of the quality to expect from your wine. Is your Bordeaux red ready for drinking yet? Or does it belong to a year when the region experienced indifferent harvests? Remember, wine is primarily an agricultural product and its quality varies from year to year.

Among Indian wines, for instance, Sula rolled out a great Sauvignon Blanc in 2002, the quality dipped in 2003, but it experienced a turnaround in 2004. Dom Perignon 1996 is considered a lot better than the excellent 1995, but it doesn't measure up to a 1990. The 1995 may also be better off in the cellar than the 19 96 and your guests must be apprised of the fact before they exercise their choice.

A number of restaurants are reluctant to print the vintages because they fear they may be confronted with a situation when a particular vintage runs out and the replacement doesn't come from the importer. In such cases, I believe , it is better to apologise and offer your guests the available vintage. Most of them will understand and appreciate the gesture.

Food Recommendations: People, more often than not, don't know what food to order with a particular wine. This is one reason why wine sales move sluggishly. You can raise the interest in wines and in your food by suggesting perfect matches. Your guests will thank you for it. But why isn't anyone biting the bait?

Be Wine Friendly

To promote wine sales, you've got to make your guests feel comfortable about ordering their first glass of wine. You can't do it, as I have pointed out earlier, by reprinting the tasting notes given in the back label of a wine bottle. In fact, if you follow the vintner's tasting notes, you'll make each wine sound like a grand cru classé. If you have read the back label of Riviera by Chateau Indage, you will understand what I mean.

Tasting notes, moreover, describe the real or imaginary flavours of fruits and flowers, many of which are alien to our part of the world, leaving the wine lover completely at a loss. Don't give information that guests will find hard to connect with and waste valuable menu space. So what should you offer by way of information to your guests?

When I go to a restaurant, I don't carry a wine encyclopaedia, so I expect the wine list to tell me in simple terms that a Meritage is a wholesome blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc from Napa Valley, or that a blanc de blanc Champagne is made with Chardonnay grapes only, or that Hunter Valley, birthplace of the acclaimed McWilliam's Mount Pleasant Semillon-Chardonnay, is 130 km north of Sydney.

An understanding of the body of a wine is important when you're matching it with food. A full-bodied Chardonnay, for instance, may be too much for grilled fish. Likewise, a margherita pizza may not have a long-lasting marriage with a full-bodied Shiraz .

Power Of Suggestion

These may sound like generalisations, but they'll help the serving staff to make wine recommendations, and the guests to make informed choices. Each wine menu worth its red stains must carry this information with the food recommendations.

The dryness or the sweetness of a wine becomes a big issue for palates that are still evolving. Many guests like a wine with a sweetish finish, but there are others who like their wine to be bone-dry. The level of dryness, or sweetness, also determines the matches between food and wine.

Spicy food go well with wines with a sweetish after-taste; they are also popular with novices. It may be a good idea for restaurants to rate the dryness, or sweetness, of wines on a scale of 1-9 for the benefit of their guests. A Chablis can be 1-2 on the scale, but an Ice Wine made from Chardonnay will qualify for a rating of 8-9.

Related to the 'dryness scale' is the issue of the level of tannins in a red wine, or acid in a white wine. Some people prefer their red wines to be austere, and their white wines to be tart.

By mentioning the levels of acid and tannins in the wines on your list, you'll again be helping your guests to exercise their right to choose. Not only will it indicate whether the wine one has ordered is suitable for one's palate or not, it will also give one an idea of the level of maturity of the wine.

Now that we've covered so much ground, let's settle the contentious issue of serving temperature once and for all. It may sound too trivial, but no one seems to get it right. Let's be sensitive to our weather conditions and add this variable to our wine lists even if the practice is not followed anywhere else in the world.

Temperature Control

It's as much a guideline to the serving staff as an aid to guests to help them understand what to expect. With this addition to the wine list, we'll be able to end the interminable arguments about room temperature, an issue that continues to baffle serving staff across the board. Absence of temperature control, much to my horror, is widespread in the industry and is responsible for putting many people off wine.

Full-bodied reds must be served at 16-18 degrees C, so that they attain their ideal serving temperature of 18-20 degrees C in the glass as the meal progresses. Most medium-bodied wines, like Pinot Noir and Chianti, must be served cool, at 14-16 degrees C. Beaujolais and Valpolicella are served even more chilled at12-14 degrees C.

If this information is on the list, even a rookie waiter won't have a problem serving wine at the right temperature. Likewise, guests who only know that a red wine has to be served at “room temperature” will think twice before imposing their limited wine knowledge on hapless waiters. With this critical addition to wine lists, we'll be able to rid them of any vagueness that may lead to confusion.

Vibrancy & Clarity

With all these elements in place, the big question is: How do you go about organizing a wine list? Should you follow the age-old practice of dividing your wines into Sparkling, White, Red, Rosé and Dessert Wines? Should you list them according to countries? Should you list them according to the ascending or the descending order of prices?

I would like to see wines lists organised according to categories: Champagne , Sparkling Wines, Whites, Reds and Dessert Wines/Ports. In each category, with the exception of Champagne , the wines can be organised according to their countries, or regions (in the case of France and Italy ), of origin. And I suggest the wines be listed in each of these categories in a way that the lowest-priced are at the top.

Eventually, I foresee a time when we'll have ‘progressive' lists, where the wines are organised according to their body, fruitiness and style. In these lists, the lightest-bodied wines will be followed by those that are medium-bodied, and so on, though the basic categories will be the same: Champagne , Sparkling Wines, Whites, Reds and Dessert Wines/Ports.

Wine prices, and the lists themselves, need to be revised periodically after taking into account market factors and inventory conditions. Wines must be added or subtracted to account for the new suppliers entering the fray, offering new products and better values for customers. This will also keep the suppliers on their toes.

By following this practice, it is possible to locate gems and get better profit margins by getting a great wine in at an initial offer price, before the competition starts buying and listing the wine. Consumer preferences have to be kept in mind when you're re-ordering wines or modifying the list.

A good wine list should keep changing every three months. All you have to do is format the list, save the file in your PC, keep amending it to reflect the state of your inventory or of the market at large, and get new printouts whenever you need them. Don't change the menu's designer cover remains the same, but keep tweaking the contents inside to create some excitement for your guests whenever they come the next time.

One last piece of advice. Double-check your spellings. Remember, you are catering to a global clientele. Even your local guests are well-travelled and well-educated. Don't make them suspect your credentials because of errors that can be eliminated with some extra hours spent surfing the Web or checking with a decent wine encyclopaedia.

A good wine list will encourage a guest to order that bottle you want him to buy. But for an encore, you must ensure that the quality of wines, storage and serving temperatures, the body language of your service staff and, most importantly, the prices are right.

-- The author is the President of the Indian Wine Academy . His e-mail address is:

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