Long vs. Short Wine Lists

Eastside Café
Located on an acre of land with a garden, east of the huge University of Texas at Austin campus, the Eastside Café features a fresh, diverse menu, from grilled fish and steaks to vegetarian and gluten-free items. The wine list has only two dozen varieties served in bottles (between $30 and $45 each) and by the glass (from $7.50 to $9.50), says owner-chef Elaine Martin, who recently bought out her business partner to take sole control of the 100-seat, 24-year-old restaurant.
Bin 26 Enoteca
With walls made from cork and light fixtures of steel mesh to represent the filtering process, wine is obviously central to Bin 26 Enoteca. The restaurant serves Italian cuisine and more than 300 different bottled wines ($30 to north of $200), plus 70 by the glass ($5 to $13). Babak Bina, who with his sister owns Bin 26 and a several other restaurants, says the six-year-old enoteca in Boston's historic Beacon Hill area got its handle because it's housed at 26 Charles Street.
What is the philosophy behind your wine list?
I am a practical person, so we have 10 reds, 10 whites, two bubblies and a rosé, with some specials now and then. The last thing I want to do when I go to a restaurant is work, so I want people to look at the wine list, find something familiar or rely on the servers, and get on with their lives. They are here to relax and enjoy dinner. If they have wine, I want it to be great. There is nothing worse than ordering a glass of wine and it's not fresh.
From the very beginning, we concentrated on Old World wines that are not mass-produced, so we primarily serve wines from Italy, France and other European countries. We do have some New World wines, mostly American, if they move us. In trying to achieve a quality Old World wine list, we ended up with an extensive list. There are great wines coming to our country all the time, and we have to put those on.
How did you select the varieties on your wine list?

My former business partner was in charge of the wine list, and it was very esoteric. I'm more casual. I work with a wine representative, whom I trust, and we just sit down and talk. Our wine list is small enough, and we don't serve wines from giant producers, so we can really discuss which wines work best with our menu. I don't consider myself in the business of educating people. I'm interested in creating a great experience.

Does the wine give you a sense of place, like that ravine in the Rhône region or the sunflowers of Umbria? That's the basic test. The wine transports you to that area. As a result, many of our wines are from small producers and are hard to get. There are wines no one else sells in Boston, and you would be hard-pressed to know every wine on our list, but that's fine. We're trying to be non-threatening and approachable but still novel.

What are some of the challenges you face with this kind of wine list?

With a limited wine list, you want to choose wines that lots of people can enjoy with various (menu) items. The wines shouldn't just fit one niche. Most of our entrees are around $15, and we have a very diverse menu. And we are in the heart of Texas, the land of barbecue and chicken fried steak, so people aren't real fancy. I want our guests to say, 'I want a great red wine with my tenderloin,' and I'm able to provide that.   

Having a large wine list means carrying a large inventory, and that means a considerable commitment and investment. Frankly, it's not the size (of the wine list) that matters here, but rather the quality. We truly believe wine was invented to be enjoyed with food and with other people, so we are constantly tweaking and constantly learning and constantly introducing new wines—those that can be enjoyed by themselves and paired with food.