No matter how you break it down, better wine menus make for better sales.

New year, new wine menu. Whether it’s because all the bubbles are gone, the staff has grown bored, or the same wine keeps getting ordered over and over again, every wine menu needs the occasional revamp. How it should be organized—by grape, region, or price—may just depend on your market and clientele.

While there’s no plug-and-play solution for creating the perfect menu for every restaurant, some sommeliers and beverage directors have found the sweet spot: menus that captivate and move bottles.

Many lists, many ways to organize

As the wine director for Happy Cooking Hospitality, Nick Grenier oversees the wine lists and menus for multiple New York restaurants—Fairfax, Bar Sardine, Fedora, Joseph Leonard, and Jeffrey’s Grocery. Each restaurant has a different size wine list, and each has its own unique menu. While Bar Sardine has just 40 wines, for example, Fedora has 120.

With so many lists, one might think the best approach would be commonality. Not Grenier. Instead, each menu is structured to its restaurant. The large Fedora menu is organized by regions whereas Fairfax is broken down by stylistic differences. Under whites, for example, there’s a “crisp and vibrant category” and a “full and textured category.” At the seafood restaurant, Jeffrey’s Grocery, the list is broken down by how the wine works with the food, including a white section titled “for when the sauce gets rich” and a red section called “for when you order steak at a seafood joint.” There’s even a section that helps guests choose a red to go with light fish.

“I see lists that say something but nobody understands it. So, they put the list down and order a cocktail.”

At The Franklin, one of two Traverse City, Michigan, restaurants under the purview of Amanda Danielson, the list is organized by what she calls “palate parallels.” Fundamentally it’s if-you-like-that, try-this. For example, under the “If You Like Pinot Grigio” heading, you’ll find an Aligoté from Burgundy; under “If You Like Sauvignon Blanc” is a Pinot Blanc from Northern Michigan winery Left Foot Charley. Those who like Cabernet Sauvignon are encouraged to try a Cabernet Franc from Friuli, Italy. The goal isn’t just to get people out of a rut. Danielson uses her wine menus to make it easy for guests to discover something new, be that a varietal or a producer.

Beware the money trap

For Jake Lewis, Momofuku’s beverage director who oversees the wine lists for all of the Momofuku restaurants, how the wines are categorized on the menu changes by the market. In some markets customers want the list organized by price; in others, guests like them organized by grape. The larger lists, regardless of market, are typically navigated by grape and then by price.

But, when revamping a wine menu, sommeliers encourage taking care not to rely too heavily on organizing by dollar signs.

When the menu at one of Grenier’s restaurants was broken into price categories, he noticed higher-end sales tended to depress. A slight adjustment can resolve that. Put a $70 bottle at the bottom of a section and it won’t sell much, but bookend that $70 bottle with a $100 or a $120 bottle and suddenly it seems more affordable, according to Grenier.

Now, he also likes to put unique varieties and less familiar regions in the value-priced range, and slide the usual suspects—familiar grapes, regions, and producers—into the higher priced tiers.

“If your least expensive white is a Sauvignon Blanc, you’re never going to sell anything else,” Grenier says.

Storytelling sells

Chad Walsh, the former beverage director for New York’s Agern, was given the opportunity to revamp his wine menu when a flood closed the Grand Central restaurant for a few months in 2017.

“Being able to say ‘this is the sweet spot on Seneca Lake, and it’s a single vineyard that’s farmed biodynamically,’ helps people feel comfortable spending more than they would normally would.”

He increased the size from a narrow sheet to a full 8.5-by-11-inch booklet and added illustrations. On the cocktail menu, this included depicting the glass shape, since a martini glass indicates a different kind of cocktail than a Collins glass, for example. For the all-American wine menu, he went geographic and included map illustrations. Soon customers understood not just a style, but also a sense of place.

“It was really fun to be able to point to the map and be able to say, ‘this wine is from this place, which is a little hotter so it’s a little riper,’” Walsh says. Such storytelling had commercial value, too, including helping people feel comfortable spending money on the unfamiliar, like more expensive wines from the Finger Lakes. Putting the page with high-end Finger Lakes wines—in this case, approaching the $100 mark—alongside the map page provided unique assurances. “It made them feel more comfortable about knowing the wine was from a special place, rather than just a wine from the Finger Lakes,” Walsh says. “Being able to say ‘this is the sweet spot on Seneca Lake, and it’s a single vineyard that’s farmed biodynamically,’ helps people feel comfortable spending more than they would normally would.”

At the forthcoming Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle the menu will be small—just 30-50 wines—many of which may be unfamiliar for guests. They’ll be wines Lewis likes to call “adventurous and delicious.”

To take people outside their comfort zones and introduce them to new wines, yet make the list easy for guests to navigate, Lewis will rely on content. Each wine will have a tagline that gives some perspective. For instance, the listing for Cremant de Bourgogne will talk about what the wine tastes like and reveal how the grapes are the same as Champagne, grown just a stone’s throw from Champagne, France, but with better farming in just wine.

No matter how you describe the wine, or how you tell the story, Lewis says to be clear. “I see lists that say something but nobody understands it,” Lewis says. “So they put the list down and order a cocktail.”

Beverage, Feature