Compelled by the economy, consumer insights, and a “less is more” philosophy, fine-dining operators are rebuffing the long-held notion that bigger is better in favor of more strategic, thoughtful, and tighter wine lists.
“A great wine program doesn’t need to be a deep one driven by huge amounts of labels,” says Chad Ellegood, kitchen sommelier at Chicago’s NoMI.
It’s not that expansive wine lists are disappearing—every major city can point to leaders bucking this trend—but rather that restaurants old and new are increasingly embracing slim and simple.
Christie Dufault, wine and beverage instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, says the nation’s economic tumble fueled the trend of downsizing wine lists.
As fine-dining sales dropped and customers traded down, Dufault says many restaurateurs assessed their capital and became less willing to tie up as much as seven figures in wine inventory that often collected more dust than revenue.
“The reality is that wine is not perishable in the same way as food, so if a restaurant felt the strain of economic woes and the internal money needed to be spent on rent, labor, food costs, or wine, it became easy to see where the priorities [should] lie,” Dufault says.
Restaurateurs, especially those new to the game or those burned by the economy, embraced smarter buying, while many established spots simply didn’t replace the few treasures that were purchased.
As much as Dufault acknowledges the prestige of awards that excite wine directors and consumers alike, she says the reality remains that fewer restaurants have the financial means to invest in a far-reaching wine program that might earn recognition from Wine Spectator.
“If a restaurant only has $25,000 for initial wine purchases, they can still get started with a small, but intriguing and exciting, wine program,” Dufault says.
Interestingly, the economic tumble coincided with something else, namely the rising consumer desire for restaurants to deliver compelling culinary adventures.
As diners pursued more ambitious, flavorful experiences—evidenced by the mounting fascination with chef-driven menus—elite restaurants were challenged to provide food expertise alongside beverage know-how. This created a strict focus on wines that complemented the menu or a program with a clearly defined edge, says Douglas Marello, director of sales at Chicago-based wine distributor Tenzing.
For instance, NoMI’s list, still some 500 labels strong, carries wines from five distinct global areas: the U.S., Italy, Spain, France, and Germany/Austria, an idea spurred by the restaurant’s 2011 reconcepting. Less than a year into the job, Ellegood now continues contracting NoMI’s list and removing wines not from those five regions.
“It’s the idea of sticking by something and applying a firm concept to it,” Ellegood says, adding that the emergence of craft cocktails has further undercut the need for a deep wine list.
And much as the fine-dining category has embraced more casual restaurants and smaller menus, wine programs have similarly adopted a quality over quantity mindset with more diverse, offbeat—though not necessarily expensive—wines.
“Sommeliers are sourcing wines from all over the globe and selecting carefully,” Dufault says. “Every wine has a story to tell and the prices can often be reasonable.”
In addition, Marello sees a growing number of sommeliers crafting thoughtful lists with an eye on taste, yes, but also on the bottom line.
“When you’re looking at the big picture, which includes the bottom line, a restaurant needs wines that sell,” Marello says.
Quite effectively in restaurants across the country, wine inventory is moving from collection to curation. Dufault points to San Francisco’s rising upstart State Bird Provisions and its one-page wine list as one example of an elite eatery delivering rich diversity and intrigue in a smaller list.
As Ellegood watches such successes play out, he understands the downsizing movement could reverberate throughout the industry.
“To a large extent, the victors are writing the history here,” he says.