The Fig Tree Restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina, offers 1,025 wines to its guests. Across the country, Queenstown Public House in San Diego, California, offers 20 wines and Mahina & Sun’s in Hawaii offers just 18.
That’s quite a discrepancy in the number of wines on display, but each restaurant has its reasons, as do others doing something similar. There’s no one-size-fits-all, but mostly it depends on what suits a restaurant’s clientele.
“We knew we wanted to have a broad wine list when we opened 12 years ago,” says Greg Zanitsch, owner, executive chef, and wine director at The Fig Tree. “Big lists become a destination for people who are into wine, who search out boutiquey and hard-to-find bottles. I like showing people a lot of different things, including the boutique wines that have 80 or 90 cases made.”
But Zanitsch is careful, believe it or not, not to carry too many wines. There’s no point storing 10 Pinot Grigios, for example, he says, but he likes to offer great variety with Cabernets or Burgundies.
It’s also important to carry verticals—wines going back in every vintage to 2002, Zanitsch says. And, he has more than 100 half bottles. “People enjoy half bottles; for a husband and wife that come in and he wants a big red and she wants an oaky Chardonnay, it’s perfect.”
He also likes being able to introduce guests to wines that they may never try, and being able to offer more obscure wines. To this end, his wine list contains a mixture of bottles from large wineries and some from boutique operations.
Having so many wines also means Zanitsch can offer vinos by the bottle ranging from $24 to north of $5,000. On average, wine costing $80 to $150 is the comfortable range for most people, but he has noticed that over the past five years consumers are willing to spend more.
Zanitsch knew he wanted wine to be integral to his restaurant, having worked in Napa Valley and in a retail wine shop beforehand. “People know us for our wine and we started doing wine dinners with wine makers the month we opened and we continue them to this day, monthly. I don’t even advertise them and they sell out in an afternoon.”
Darren Roach, a partner at Queenstown Public House, likes offering a limited selection of wines to his guests.
“It makes life easier for the customers. We have something to pair with every dish and something for every taste, but we don’t overwhelm them with choices,” he says.
It also makes it simpler for his staff to learn the wines and it makes inventory much easier. “If I had a lot of wines on a list, it would take a long time to sell those wines. We’d have a lot of money in inventory so it would sit there.”
Roach and his partners are very critical of the 20 wines that make it onto their list. Because of this, they don’t change the offerings very often. Guests like coming back to find a wine they loved the previous time they dined, he says.
“For a wine to make it onto the list in the first place means we really believe in that wine. So we give it a couple of months on the list for our guests to discover it. After a while, if it fails to become popular, we find another wine in the same category that meets our standards,” he says.
In Waikiki, Hawaii, Mahina & Sun’s also offers around 20 wines on its list, though unlike Queenstown, it changes up the list once or twice a month.
“Our food menu is fairly complex, so having a wine list with a few options, but not too many, makes things easier for guests,” says Robert Bidigare, Mahina & Sun’s bar lead. “I’ve found people are relieved when they see how short it is.”
Big wine lists, he believes, “can be intimidating—with the size, the pricing, the wording.” Diners have even told Bidigare they’ll pick the wine that’s the easiest to pronounce. “If you are coming out to have a good time you should feel comfortable, relaxed, happy. Having a small list with a by-the-glass option gives the guest a little more freedom,” he says.
Mahina & Sun’s is still less than a year old and a short wine list allows the restaurant to confirm what works with this market. “It allows us to test something, see if it works, and it and keeps us away from major commitments.”
But Bidigare also enjoys constantly changing the wine menu. “It gives us a chance to try something new,” he says. “It makes it a lot more exciting for me and gives me insight into what customers are drinking.”
“Servers need to be knowledgeable, regardless of whether the descriptions are detailed on the list.” — Arlene Spiegel, hospitality consultant.
The length of a wine list really needs to be right for a restaurant, says Arlene Spiegel, a hospitality consultant in New York City. “The wine list a restaurant offers tells as much about the concept as the menu, décor, and hospitality. A wine list needs to be relevant and fit the overall dining experience,” Spiegel says.
Long and short lists each have their challenges. A short list can be harder to curate, since there are so many choices out there, while a long list can lead to over-buying and excess inventory, she points out.
In general, Spiegel offers these guidelines: “In a simple trattoria, 12 to 20 Italian wines, offered by the glass or bottle, may be the perfect number. For a restaurant with more complex dishes, the list needs to be longer. Fine dining restaurants also offer dessert wines, which can add six or eight more to the list.”
None of these three restaurants offer descriptions of wines on their menus, preferring instead that servers provide that information, which also helps create relationships with the restaurant guests, Roach explains.
But whether or not you offer descriptions, you must educate your servers, warns Spiegel. “Servers need to be knowledgeable, regardless of whether the descriptions are detailed on the list. In most cases, the diner will ask the server, or sommelier, for a suggestion. That’s where the real sale happens—tableside.”