Read Any Good Wine Lists Lately?

Santé
The Magazine for Restaurant Professionals
November 2002
Page 22

Read Any Good Wine Lists Lately?

Dan Perlman is the beverage director for the three-star restaurant AZ and the new Pazo in New York City. He is also the food and wine editor and a regular contributor to Q San Francisco and Passport magazines.

Dan Perlman is the beverage director for the three-star restaurant AZ and the new Pazo in New York City. He is also the food and wine editor and a regular contributor to Q San Francisco and Passport magazines.

I like nothing better than to sit down to dinner and having a wine list put in front of me. I’m even more delighted when I see that its author thought about making it an interesting read. I enjoy reading quotes and quips and seeing artwork and classy design. I like interesting categories that aren’t just a formal listing of appellations.

The J. Peterman Principle
The purpose of a wine list is to present a catalog of offerings for sale to your guests. When was the last time you paid attention to a catalog that didn’t spark your interest? A boring catalog or wine list is fine for looking up information when you already know what you want, but not when you don’t. Try imagining the Land’s End catalog with no pictures or descriptions: just a listing of product code, product name, fabric type, country of origin, and price. Sound familiar?

In most restaurants there is no sommelier. When there is, he or she doesn’t visit every table. And, to put it bluntly, not everyone dining wants to talk to the sommelier. Surprise – some diners actually want to pick their own wine! So how do you go about dispensing your brilliant advice without actually being at the table?

Wine Words
Think about how you describe wine when you are at a table. Do you start by enquiring if your customer wants “a wine from a small commune just south of Beaune?” Probably not. More likely, their food choices are your starting point. Or maybe you like to being by finding out if they want something lighter or fuller, younger or older, richer or poorer … or by playing on their mood that evening.

Plan your list around categories that harmonize with how you would approach your customers when standing at the table. In other words, put wines together that you would naturally group together in your mind when you’re talking. It allows your customers to see how you, representing your restaurant, think about wine. And, if you do approach their table, you’re set-up for an easy entry into the conversation.

Two wine lists I’ve seen recently do this job well: one at a fairly new Chinese restaurant has categories that contrast – Tart Fruit versus Red Fruit, or Black Fruit; the other puts wines into easy-to-understand categories such as “bright, sunny, citrusy” and “rich, dark, earthy.”

Consider adding some descriptions to the categories, or, if you have a relatively short list, to individual wines. Avoid long “geeky” narratives with arcane references to such things as “day-old tiger lily pollen” or “melanges of wortleberries and cloudberries with a hint of wet reindeer fur.” Long-winded explications will keep the host reading for extended periods of time and make the experience boring for the other people at the table (unless they don’t want to talk to the host!). Try simple, two- to four-word quips that mirror how you would initially respond if someone asked you about the wine.

The list I mentioned above with tart, red, and black fruit, further described each with a sub-heading. For example, the tart fruit section listed “apple, green grape, citrus” as the dominant flavors.

List Layout
Give thought to the layout of your list. Is the font type and size you’re using easy to read? How about the paper color? Given the lighting in your dining room, is the wine list still easy to read? Does its cover design match the restaurant’s style and focus? Call on your colleagues for their input.

Above all, remember that your primary goal is to sell wine. If you can make the difference between printed page and your sparkling conversation as seamless as possible, you’ll start selling wine even when you’re not there.


Santé is a glossy format trade magazine for restaurant wine buyers and educators. I wrote as a freelancer for them on and off from the first issue in November 1996 until November 2002 when they decided to stop using freelance writers.

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