What Makes A Good Wine List?
Debra Taylor Smith, trade development manager at Select Brands
Let's Lift Your Spirits

Recently, I had the chance to catch up with Debra Taylor-Smith, fellow food and wine enthusiast, and trade development manager at Select Brands. My introduction to Debra began while listening to her on A Moment with Wine , a radio programme she co-hosted with Francois St Juste. Debra's journey began at 18 years old as a PR professional. However, her wine adventure started in 2004, as then brand manager at Lascelles Wines & Spirits (now Campari).

As we chatted and looked forward to our new normal and a return to life outside, we pondered: Have we evolved?

Has the local dining landscape been enhanced? Has this time of pandemic caused a shift in our approach to capitalise on the total dining experience? How do we chart a new course in gastronomy? Debra had some useful views on the matter, and we discussed one easy addition that would help.

“The simple addition of a wine list would help,” she said. A wine list, she believes, is a “gold mine waiting to happen”. Every establishment that sells wine should have one, as it presents an incredible sales opportunity that enhances and brings value to the overall dining experience.

“A restaurant wine list can be daunting for your customer,” she noted. “Not only do they have to show wine knowledge (or lack thereof) in front of the group they are hosting, their friends. or worse, a date, but they must choose wines that will impact the whole evening's dining experience.

“A good wine list should not be a secret, it is to be shared, and every adult seated at a table should receive one. Ensure there are enough. Note that brunch and lunch times provide other occasions outside of dinner to present a wine menu and get wine sales.

“Curating a wine list is an important part of my job. Creating a wine list that complements the cuisine of the establishment, the ambience, experience of the team selling the wines, and ensuring it has something to make everyone that visits happy in variety and price point is the challenge.”

Here are some of the key things to ensure when putting together the ideal restaurant wine list:

1. Easy to read and navigate

Varietal and brand are generally what customers look for first. I find the best layout is: 'Brand, Grape, Region, Country — vintage optional'.

Tasting notes are invaluable especially where wait staff is reluctant to upsell, but keep them as concise as possible as most people do not read tasting notes. Use specific descriptive terms that are punchy, eg “Bold & Hearty”.

It is helpful to group wines by grape variety, weight or region/country depending on the number of wines on the list and the knowledge of your team. It helps to have the groupings done by grape varieties and makes for an easy read!

Make the fonts big enough and clear enough to read, as many restaurants are dimly lit.

Use icons on the menu to help highlight special offerings, eg organic.

Keep it simple! Around 10-15 wines between sparkling, white, rosé, and red, with at least four wines by the glass (BTG).

When printing menus a hard paper stock is best — not flimsy!

2. Reasonable mark-up

This is critical. Consumers understand that restaurants sell wines above retail prices but there is a line we do not want to cross. Consumers are savvy and if they see that you take a reasonable margin, it may be a place where one would want to order a more expensive wine and would be likely to try something they would not normally order.

3. A good selection of wines by the glass

A robust selection of wines by the glass is appealing as it gives your customers choice in variety and price points, and this encourages trial. Do not limit your customers.

4. Align with the theme of the restaurant

The wines on the list should be aligned with the theme of the restaurant, so, for instance, an Italian restaurant should have a good selection of Italian wines. Naturally, pairing these with the cuisine will enhance the dining experience for your customers. A few other popular styles/regions could be added for diversity, if necessary. Asian and Indian cuisines work well with Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Moscato and Riesling and will make the food more enjoyable and elevate the dining experience.

5. Suggested pairings

While this is not quite a requirement of a good wine list, it can be helpful for the staff and the consumer, even those with some wine knowledge. It's also useful to have your team try the pairings!

6. Diversity

The list should be balanced between old world and new world wines and offer different varietals and styles — it would be great to include vegan and kosher options if possible.

A good wine list is nothing if the wine is not properly presented and served. The right glassware, in particular, can impact the wine's flavour. Similarly, serving wines at the right temperature is key.

As you would with your food menu, do not be afraid to review and refresh your wine list periodically to appeal to your consumers as wine drinkers like to sip around and try new things.

Find me on Instagram @raihndrops! Let's lift your spirits!

Debra Taylor Smith, trade development manager at Select Brands,noses the freshness of the Luca Old Vine Malbec
Debra Taylor Smith, trade development manager at Select Brands,explains elements of wine labelling
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Example of a red wine menu
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