Why are most wine lists so bad? Can anything be done?

Most restaurant wine lists aren’t fit for purpose. They drive me to despair.

Look, I’m a wine professional. I know a bit. But in most restaurants, faced with their list I’m just guessing when I choose a wine. So imagine how it is for normal people? Inspecting the wine list becomes an insane ritual. Choosing wine becomes a guessing game that alienates rather than includes. What should be a fun, relaxing occasion end up becoming stressful.

The only wine lists that work for me are in high-end places where they focus on natural/authentic wines that I know pretty well, or where there is a good sommelier who can read the table well and make good suggestions. That’s a very small proportion of the restaurants out there. Not many of them have staff who know the list, and who know how to read the table.

Too often, wine lists fall into two camps.

The first, is a high-end establishment with a book-like list of many hundreds of wines, where it’s simply a list showing the name of the wine and the price. Without a good sommelier, this sort of list is not at all user-friendly. Some places think that the bigger their wine list is, the better it is. At the extreme end is the over-long list where the sommelier doesn’t want to sell the last bottle of each wine, in order to keep the breadth of coverage.

The second is the sort of wine list you find all over the place, usually in more non-wine-focused establishments, which is an off-the-peg list from one supplier. These are usually inexpensive wines that are marked up highly. To cover the mark ups, the wines are given made-up names.

Look: restaurants have to make money, and we expect them to mark up their wines significantly – no one reasonable thinks they can drink in a restaurant at retail prices. This in one reason why consumers should be suspicious of private label or soft brands, or retailers who insist on exclusivity. It’s almost always to hide margin.

My big problem with these sort of lists, though, is that they tend to be spectacularly bad at helping customers choose the wine they want. Normally, they have tasting notes written in fluent wine-trade talk – these notes are essentially unintelligible babble to non-wine people. In these cases, it might be better to simply treat the wine as a commodity, and provide a list with simply the colour of the wine, or only the grape variety.

Could wine lists be done better? I think so.

They have to be written with their broad customer base in mind. In many establishments, most customers know nothing about wine and will find wine speak alienating. There must be a way to communicate about wine better than using wine speak. Wholesalers aren’t usually very good copy writers. Where is the creative spark?

Cash margin rather than gross profit could be a way to help us get out of this mess. High gross profit requirements restrict the sorts of wines that many restaurants can sell. Only very cheap wines will ever shift if the accountants insist on 70% GP. By relaxing GP requirements and paying a bit more for wine, there could very well be at least as good cash margin returns because customers will end up ordering more wine, or going higher up the list, because the wines are more interesting (or simply, they taste better). While many customers know very little about wine, I think a good proportion of them know whether what they are tasting is good or not. Sell rubbish wine, and people realise it in the end.

And simple wine lists can be great when the wines are well chosen. I went to a seafood restaurant in Aix-en-Provence where the list was simply ‘Chablis’ and ‘Muscadet’. I ordered both and they turned out to be excellent wines from good producers. That’s a restaurant I can trust.

And I’m all for wine on tap, when the wine is good. For simpler restaurants, do we need bottled wines (especially when these are often UK-bottled from bulk-shipped wine) with their fake names? Why not think of wine as we do of the ingredients: the restaurant should take pride in sourcing their wine well at a particular price, and serving it on tap. Why should wine be different to food, in being part of the brand promise of a restaurant chain?

But there are some reasons why it will always be a challenge to produce a good wine list. The first is the gap between perception and words. It is very difficult to translate flavours into verbal descriptions. Writing about the taste of wine is an abstract thing to do, and it’s hard to communicate flavour verbally.

I think that iPad or tablet lists, while they sound innovative, are a bad idea. Yes: they can communicate a lot of information. But this information, even if it is stories, will be too arcane for most customers. And unless you are dining alone, who is going to have time to navigate this information-rich resource? You need a way of leading people to a wine fairly quickly.

There’s the hybrid solution, of course. One short list, mostly with by-the-glass options, and short explanations about each wine. Then there’s a longer list for the more involved. This is a step forward.

The most important thing is to put yourself in the shoes of the different customers who will be reading the list. How effectively does it steer them? Is it creative? Is it fun? Is it useful? There’s no easy solution, but we have to try.

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