Why is it Difficult To Change The Wine List In a Restaurant?

The Difficult Task of Changing The Wine List

Making changes to a wine list or getting rid of the familiar labels can be very difficult for a restaurant. It is hard sometimes to take wines off the list for a myriad of reasons including:

  • Popular with guests
  • Familiar label (s)
  • Profitable for restaurant
  • Price Point

These are the first four that come to mind from our experience maintaining a wine list. Maintaining the wine list is a process all in its own, let alone the having to deal with the tastes of guests.  Add on the constantly changing prices and vintages, its a big task. That 2011 Pinot Noir which was blowing guests’ minds suddenly rolls to the 2012 with a $5 increase in wholesale price! On top of that, the 2012 is different; growing conditions were different and therefore another totally unique wine.A Crowd Pleaser on the Wine List

Wow! There is a lot going on. Also, be mindful that the wine list needs to be profitable and hit multiple price points. Yes, the wine list has multiple price points and different wines at these price points. It is part of a formula for wine list success that makes building the list a chess match.  With all of this going on, how do the four factors mentioned above figure in to a change on the wine list?

A Bottle that is Popular with Guests on the Wine List

Sometimes a certain vintage becomes very popular or a small production wine finds its way onto the list. When this happens it a great cause inventory that flies of the shelf is great…until it runs out! Then it is a different situation. The new vintage might not taste the same or those 1000 cases of production disappear of that oh so popular wine. The funny thing with wine is that many factors go into producing what goes into the glass; much of is only under the control of Mother Nature. Mother Nature can be both good and bad to a wine list.

Mother Nature has her own with a wine list that can be detrimental, especially when that 2012 tastes nothing like the 2011. Now albeit in much of the New World (anything that isn’t French, Italian, Spanish, Port or Greek) the magicians that make wine can do incredible things in the cellar to make wines taste similar year in and year out, however sometimes such as the case in 2004 editions of wine from the floor of Sonoma’s Alexander Valley, it is not possible. 2004 has a very hot and dry summer and the grapes suffered. Wines from that year have notes of dried fruit and dead leaves (none to appetizing) from many producers, including the popular Alexander Valley Bottling of Silver Oak.

So what happens when the 2003’s starting running out of the Alexander Valley bottlings?

There was probably a large amount of wine buyers hoping most guests didn’t know the drastically different tastes between the two wines. The good thing is that many that enjoy the large production of Silver Oak might not have noticed it as many wine drinkers are not aware of the nuances wine. This problem sometimes has a silver lining. However not always…Changes on the Wine List can be combersome

When wines are grossly different between vintages it might mean the end of a house favorite wine. It happens and unfortunately there is nothing that can be done about it. There are times when the wines must be sent back to the distributor or sold at a deep discount to remove them from the wine list. This is also not good, but easy to explain to guests when they order the wine or ask why it isn’t on the list anymore.

Familiar Labels on the Wine List

Previously this was mentioned, however Silver Oak is a premium label, think more like Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay. This is a wine that has production of nearly 2mm cases a year. This means it can be purchased anywhere, including gas stations! Many people drink the wine, its true, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be on the wine list!

Is there really a point to having a wine on the list that can be purchased anywhere, if only to have a “safe” wine there those that ask? It is difficult to take the wine off once it is there, but please be a little more creative and find something similar at a higher price point to put on the wine list. If there happens to be a frequent guest that demands it, then buy a case and leave it in the walk in for them when they come and leave it at that! This discussion is over, avoid putting familiar labels on the list unless the bottle will be at least in the top 30% of price on the list. Also, a creative thing to do is put the popular Santa Margherita on the list only by the bottle and with a huge markup. Offer an alternative at a reasonable price that is by the glass and see how it sells.

What Happens When A Profitable Bottle Leaves the Wine List?

This is always tough for the person making decisions on the wine list. Sometimes they come across a great deal and get a limited supply, maybe a few cases of a wine a say $20 a bottle for a wine that is normally $35 a bottle. At the standard 3x markup for bottled wine that means the previously $105 bottle would be $60, however this doesn’t happen. Experience says that price might fall somewhere between $70 and $85 on the list. Is this gouging? We think not, profit needs to be made in order to keep the doors open. Plus telling a guest that a wine is on sale for $80 from $105 always makes it easier to sell!

However, when those bottles run dry, it is very painful to the bottom and potentially a wine director/sommelier that gets paid on the profitability of their wine list. It is true, many wine directors get paid based on sales volume and profitability, similar to any floor manager or AGM or GM.


A Bottle that has A Friendly Price Point on the Wine List

It is always a difficult time when that value bottle at $60 has to come off the list due to availability or to make room for a special or hard to get wine. Wine managers often can only carry so much physical inventory or dollar total inventory. It is in our opinion the paramount problem of having a wine list. Sometimes a sought after label becomes available and being able to spread the word across Twitter is far more valuable for business than that $60 crowd pleaser.

Bottles at friendly price points do not have to be $60, it can be a bottle that is $20 every restaurant has a different price point and scale of their wines. Be mindful that wine might not even be a big seller at every restaurant. But the principles can be used in menu items, cocktails or even special menus at a restaurant. We spent much of the past 5 years working at high price-points and therefore refer to what we know best. Wine makes it easy to explain and is one part of the business we are very familiar with.

If the restaurant has an amazing selection of craft and local beers the exact same principles can be used except switch out beer for wine. This is a rapidly expanding market and will only increase in size, which in turn will also be good for the wine industry as palates evolve to different tastes in both wine and beer. Hopefully soon restaurants will be handing out both a wine list and a beer list with a Sommelier for wine and a Cicerone for beer.


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