A restaurant wine list is an extension of your menu that can drive revenue while offering your customers delicious beverage pairings that complement your food. Wine is a classic food accompaniment, and it is easy to sell by the glass or the bottle. However, not every guest reads your wine list (some can find wine intimidating), so your wine list should be enticing to wine experts and novices alike.
In this article, I look at the basics of how to list wine on a menu, alongside advanced considerations like flavor combinations and wine varietals you’ll want to consider.
How to Create a Wine List for Restaurants
Creating a wine list requires careful consideration and a little bit of time. Below are some of the major steps you will take in building out a wine list.
Step 1: Recognize the Restaurant You Operate
Recognizing the kind of restaurant you operate involves considerations like your service and food style, pricing, location, and even storage space. I discuss each point in more detail below.
- Style of food and service: The style of food and the way you serve your food is very important to your wine list composition. If you have a multicourse menu, your wine options and presentation will be much more involved than a simple, sit-down restaurant for a quick course or two. Also, the cuisine you specialize in and the regions it is from will help dictate where you source your wine and what is on offer for your list.
- Price point: Somewhat related to your food and service is your price point; it will also dictate the kind of wine you are bringing in to serve to guests. For example, if you are a multicourse fine dining restaurant, then your customers will expect a wine list that is as adventurous as your food. If you serve a more rustic and approachable menu, you should aim for affordable yet good-quality wines.
- Restaurant location (or the culinary region your restaurant represents; i.e., France, Italy, etc.): Your wine list should also reflect your restaurant location. Farm-to-table restaurants will often look to local suppliers nearest to their restaurant for local options to put on the wine list. But if you are representing certain cuisine types, such as a French restaurant focused on French culinary tradition, then pairing wine from the regions your dishes come from would be the best move in order to entice guests to buy from the list.
- Available storage space: Finally, space is a major factor when creating your wine list. Many restaurants that want to show off wine have wine racks or other installations in their dining rooms to show off select bottles. Beyond just showing off your wine, storage of wine is important. So when you make your list and predict how many bottles you will offer, note where exactly the wine will be stored to keep it safe and of high quality.
Step 2: Find Suppliers
The next important step in creating your wine list is finding suppliers that carry the wines you want. There are many different wine suppliers you can find throughout the US; some are major distributors who handle a wide array of wines, while others specialize in specific regions.
Southern Glazers, for example, is a reliable major supplier of alcoholic products—wine being one of them—that I have used in order to get bottles into my restaurant for a reasonable price. It carries a broad selection of wines, which is what you may start to look for in a larger vendor. Large vendors like Southern Glazers also tend to provide services that make it easy to sell their wine, from regular wine tastings to sales representatives who help you design your list.
Wein-Bauer is another example of a supplier that many businesses in the Midwest rely on for specific types of wines—it has a focus on wines from Austria, Germany, Portugal, Hungary, France, and South America. It also has options from other parts of the world and spans most states in the country for delivery, but niche distributors like this are a great fit if you specialize in a specific regional cuisine.
Lastly, going straight to select vineyards or producers for specific bottles that might not be available at other sources. This route is generally more expensive, so finding a niche supplier that would have access to a hard-to-get winery tends to be better, both for your budget and for delivery options. Either way, buying from the vineyard is always an option, especially for smaller vineyards or those with a very limited selection. An example of this could be a limited vintage from a specific winery that you pick up from auction, but is not commonly sold anywhere else.
Step 3: Sample Wine
Sampling wine is the next—and possibly most fun—step in the process of building your wine list. We should point out that everyone’s palette is different, so working as a team is great to see how the wine you are trying affects different taste buds. Additionally, going from light to heavy in flavor is the proper way to taste many wines in one sitting, so keep this general rule of thumb in mind.
The world of wine is large, so having the experience to know where to start is a big one. Below is a quick list of some of the factors you should take into account when tasting wine:
- Vintage: The vintage is the year that the grapes were harvested; the conditions for growing and harvesting the fruit that particular year determines the flavor. This impacts not only taste but also the inherent value of the bottle. So certain wines, such as a 2019 Barbaresco, are considered good-quality in vintage due to extremely favorable growing conditions in that year.
- Region: Each region that grows wine has a specific terroir, which basically means the taste of the land. Since wine focuses intensely on the flavor of the grape it is made from, it is very easy to find the many subtle flavor differences in different wines. A Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Bordeaux versus a Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Napa Valley will have many flavor and aroma differences. Region is a very important factor in tasting wine.
- Varietal: The varietal of the wine is the actual grape type used in the production of the wine itself. It will determine the color of the wine and the overall expected flavor. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is a varietal that offers dark fruit flavors, as well as deep flavors of wood and vanilla. On the other end, Rieslings often offer the flavors of peach, pear, and apricot.
- Producer: The vineyard or winemaker is very important in determining the style of wine, how the wine is stored, and how it is bottled. There are many, many different winemakers out there, and too many to list in this single article. However, knowing reputable wine brands that are known by customers and wine pros alike is a good thing to have when making a wine list. A sommelier or beverage industry expert will bring this knowledge to the table when building out your wine list.
- Flavor characteristics: Sweetness, acidity, tannins, alcohol, and body are considered the five factors that will decide a wine’s flavor. The amount of sweetness and tannins, which are phenolic compounds that provide astringency in the wine, will balance out to make the wine have a unique flavor. Acidity also plays a part in this and how well a certain wine goes with certain foods. The alcohol level plays a part in not only flavor but also drinkability, and the body affects the mouthfeel when a wine is consumed.
- Aroma: While aroma is also a huge factor in taste, it is also one of the most prominent features worthy of its own focus and plays a huge part in the wine-drinking experience. Just from the aroma of wine alone, it is possible to pick out fruits such as cherries and strawberries to more interesting items such as leather and soap. It is a culmination of factors that have chemically made the wine into a perceptive experience unique to each glass and bottle. It is what many wine professionals pride themselves in excelling at.
Step 4: Pairing Your Wine With Food
Pairing your wine with food is the next step in building out your wine list and one of the most important parts of offering wine in your business in the first place. There are a few creative ways you can go about doing this, but the main takeaway is that your wine should be an extension of your menu, enhance the food you are preparing, and improve the overall dining experience for your customers.
If you are offering a tasting menu, you can have recommended wines underneath each selection while still offering a wine list on the side. This allows you to deliver a recommendation that you have personally vetted and is a chance to go above and beyond for customers when they do decide to opt in for that wine pairing. It also takes away the risk of customers ordering blindly and ending up with a meal that doesn’t match.
Wine is very subjective, so as a restaurant operator, you need to fill the space of an expert when it comes to dining. Customers will put trust in you, so make that count.
Variety is key in a wine list as well when it comes to pairing with food. Below are some types of wines that you should aim to have on your list and their associated food pairings:
- Sparkling: Think of fatty foods or savory foods when you pair sparkling wine with food. Cheese, creamy sauces, fried foods, hearty veg, and umami-heavy foods such as caviar all pair well with sparkling wine.
- Light Red: Light red wines do really well with game birds such as duck and pheasant, as well as chicken. You can pair pork, some roasted vegetables, some cheese types, and some starches with this wine.
- Medium Red: Dark meats, heavy pasta sauces, cheese, deeply roasted veg, and cured meats can all go with a medium red wine. This style of wine is pretty versatile and can cover a lot of ground when it comes to food pairings.
- Bold/dark Red: When you think of a bolder red wine, you really want it to mesh well with stronger flavors. This would include red meats, hard cheese, starches, savory sauces, and other umami-heavy foods.
- Dry White: My personal favorite, a dry white wine can be paired with raw and roasted vegetables. It can also be surprisingly paired with some sweets. I personally also find it can hold up to some specific sauces.
- Sweet White/Red: Soft cheeses, hard cheeses, pastas, breads, and obviously desserts are what pair best with this kind of wine.
- Rich White: Rich white wines pair well with seafood, especially rich fish or shellfish. Some cream sauces, soft cheeses, and other starches can hold up to rich white wines as well.
- Dessert Wine: For dessert wines, you are focused on sweet foods some charcuterie, and limited cheeses. But keeping sweet wine with sweet foods is standard practice.
Step 5: Price Your Wine
With your wine list options selected, it’s time to price the wines. The standard wine markup is products by 2 to 3 times the cost of a bottle of wine. Glasses of wine are typically priced close to the price you pay for each bottle; if your cost for a bottle of rosé is $8, then a single glass might be $7.95.
This is a general guideline for low and mid-priced wines. As you get higher in price, this markup starts to become unreasonable for many diners. So, for bottles that cost you $20 to $30, this higher markup works great. But look for slightly lower margins as the cost of the wine increases. At the end of the day, you are trying to sell a product, and marking a $400 bottle up to $1,200 is a drastic jump that most customers simply will not pay.
Step 6: Design & Arrange Your List
With your wines selected, paired with your food, and priced, it is now time to lay out your printed wine list. You’ll need to gather some key information about each bottle of wine you plan to sell, how you plan to sell it (by the glass, by the bottle, or both), and the price you plan to charge.
A wine list should be arranged into groups over price. For example, if you are offering a couple of sparkling wines on your menu, then have a “Sparkling Wine” section that groups the wines by their style over their price. You can then organize by price from cheapest to most expensive.
You will also want overarching sections for by-the-glass wines and by-the-bottle wine offerings. For example, a by-the-glass section would then be divided into sparkling wines, red wines, white wines, and dessert wines. The same goes for bottles. Offering both single-serving and bottle options is great for high-profit or popular wines you may have on your list. You can capture guests who want a glass or two while also catering to those who want to splurge on a whole bottle.
With your sections organized, you’re ready to list your individual wines. There is a traditional way to list wine on a restaurant menu. Within each category, the industry-standard wine listing format is:
Some of this information is optional; what you include in each listing depends on the bottles you select and the section of the wine list they appear in. The bin number is a number you design to tell your staff where in your restaurant they can find the bottle. If you don’t have a lengthy wine list, you may choose not to use bin numbers.
Some wines have a special name applied by the winemaker (Caymus “Conundrum” is a common example). If the wine has a special name, you should list it, but if it does not have a special name, you won’t use this section of the listing. Also, you won’t always list the varietal of the wine in the individual listing. If you have a whole page of Chardonnay, for example, you won’t list the varietal of every bottle unless it differs from 100% Chardonnay. But you’ll always want to list the varietals of your Champagnes, as there are seven approved varietals in the Champagne region.
Some wines may have additional information, while others do not. When listing a French wine, customers tend to look for the bottle’s “Cru,” or growth designation. This is a detail that is specific to French wines, and including this information will help you sell these higher-priced wines. You should always list the vintage, or the year the wine was made. If the winemaker has listed the wine as non-vintage (aka “NV”), as is common with Champagne, then you typically write “NV” in this section. The price is commonly listed on the far right of each wine. That’s just basic salesmanship; let customers fall in love with the bottle before you show them the price.
Step 7: Train Your Staff
If your staff is not knowledgeable about your wine, you simply will not sell as much of it. Any good front-of-house operator will ensure their staff is properly trained on all of the wines they have on offer on the menu. As stated earlier, wine is very subjective. Knowing how exactly each wine you offer tastes and what it pairs well with is a surefire way to not only sell to guests but also to show off your knowledge as a business. If your wine list is extensive, with many bottles, then having your staff trained on the most popular ones and those that are paired with any tasting menus is key.
Training does not happen overnight. Take each week to do a tasting of a grape varietal on the menu, maybe even have some food made for these tastings. Break down the different types of that grape varietal on your menu and what that wine should be paired with. Consistent and established training on your wine program will have a tremendous effect on sales later down the line. Also, have cheat sheets made for your staff to study the wine you offer and recommended dishes to pair it with to make training easier. You are basically asking your staff to study, so make it fun, easy, and rewarding to be a knowledgeable employee in your restaurant.
Tips for Building a Wine List
Above, we shared the different kinds of steps it takes to build a successful wine list. Below are some quick tips on the major types of wines consumers may expect to see on a menu, the balance of selling a glass versus a bottle, and other relevant information to make your wine list a success.
Consider Popular Wine Types
While the world of wine is vast, there are some major grape varietals consumers are drawn to due to their comfort with these grape types and past enjoyment. Below are some of the most popular grape types you should consider offering on your wine list.
- Chardonnay: Maybe the most popular white wine type, Chardonnay is made in regions such as California and France and is very drinkable with many dishes or on its own. It offers citrus, yellow melon, vanilla, and caramel notes, depending on whether it is aged in oaked barrels or not. A truly accessible varietal you need on the menu.
- Sauvignon Blanc: A white wine that can be a little divisive due to its grassy notes and the very “green/melon bowl” flavor it offers on the palette. A wine known for its best quality out of New Zealand and France, it is a white wine that many diners love to order.
- Pinot Gris: Pinot Gris offers a more delicate fruit and citrus palette but can also evoke honey and tropical fruits in later harvesting periods. Burgundy, France, is the most notable home to Pinot Gris, and this grape type is a great addition to any wine list.
- Riesling: My personal favorite, Riesling, offers stonefruit flavors, with variations into grapefruit and ripe grapes. Notable producers often come from Germany, but I actually find the Finger Lakes region of New York a hidden favorite.
- Cabernet Sauvignon: Cabernet Sauvignon rivals chardonnay in its popularity and accessibility. It offers black cherry, currant, and black pepper notes. It can also gain vanilla and clove flavors if aged in oak barrels. France, California, Chile, Spain, and many other regions produce this wine, and it is a must-have on any wine list.
- Syrah: The fun-name hides the boldness that Syrah can have. Flavors include blueberry, tobacco, cured meat, black pepper, and blackberries. It is grown in the Rhone Valley of France, but Australis is another popular producer as well.
- Zinfandel: Five-spice, tobacco, stone fruits, and red fruits dominate the palette of a quality Zinfandel. Cinnamon can also be found with some oak aging. California is one of the best producers of wine, but Italy, other parts of Europe, and Croatia are also great options to choose from.
- Pinot Noir: Deep red fruits and floral aromas are what make up the Pinot Noir palette, with mushrooms and cloves also finding their way in. This grape is found everywhere. Many US states, various regions of Europe, and Chile are where you can find great producers of this wine varietal.
Strategize Selling by the Glass vs by the Bottle
There is always the question of which wines to serve by the glass versus by the bottle. For starters, selling a bottle of wine is a much more efficient way to make money. Simply put, you avoid any leftover wine from going stale as the consumer pays for all of it, and it is a bigger purchase with a little more profit to be made.
That being said, not every consumer is in the market to buy a whole bottle of wine the entire time they dine out. So it is better to sell popular wines in the most common varietals you may sell and then to keep bottles of those and more niche wines or higher-valued wines in the bottle section. This is how most operators approach this issue.
Find Opportunities to Sell More Wine
We mentioned in the wine list creation section some ways to design your list that will offer more sales of wine in general. Below are a few tip quicks in order to sell more wine overall at your restaurant:
- Wine Dinners: A wine dinner is an excellent way to show off what your wine list has to offer while introducing your customers to new wine types and pairings. A wine dinner offers the diner a curated experience of food and drink, and you can take it however you’d like. You can show off certain wine regions, highlight new brands you have brought in, or try to push certain wine bottles that may have been hard to sell normally.
- Train Your Staff To Upsell: Upselling is the act of suggesting to customers more products in order to make more profit. As we discussed, when a staff is trained on a wine list, it is much easier to sell said wine. Train your serving staff on suggestions and bottle recommendations, and make sure they feature and call out that you actually have a wine list for all customers.
- Offer Tastings: The beautiful thing about glasses by the bottle is the fact that you can offer small tastings to customers in order to sell them the wine they may be interested in. This is a great way to really drive home the flavor of the wine, and it gives the guests a little bit that will most likely make them want more.
- Assume A Second Bottle: When you do sell a bottle, if you perceive a guest is enjoying the wine, you can always suggest another bottle. For example, if you are serving a chilled wine, you could say, “I see you are enjoying your wine. I’ll put a second bottle on ice for you.” They can say no to this, but this takes all the friction out of the decision-making for them on getting more product.
A wine list is an extension of your menu and what your menu represents. It can be the factor that makes a dining experience go over the top for your customers, so extra care should be given when creating it. A solid wine list shows exactly what a customer can order and makes it easy for your customers to make a solid choice that they will enjoy. Use the tips in this article to build out your wine list and sell more wine. And don’t forget, the more knowledgeable you and your staff are on wine, the more of it you will sell.