Here at Serious Eats, we see a lot of restaurant wine lists. Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised at the thoughtfulness that goes into ensuring that the wine list matches the menu. Other times, we stick with water. It seems obvious to say it, but the best way to encourage your customers to order wine with their meal is to make sure that the wine complements the food.
Wine writer (and Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Direct to Consumer Marketing Manager) Meg Houston Maker advises: “First, integrate the wine program with the food program. The wine director and chef must work together to understand what each is trying to accomplish, and should strive for harmony and balance, since the wine and food will naturally be experienced together. I've seen many menus and wine lists that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with one another. I recently found a tasting note on a wine list that suggested the wine would pair beautifully with duck confit -- yet there was no duck confit on the menu, not by a long shot.”
Consider including food-friendly Riesling, lighter reds like Gamay, and versatile options like Pinot Noir so that your customers can enjoy wines that truly complement their meal. Watch alcohol levels as well: a carefully prepared dish might be totally overpowered by a booming 16.5 percent ABV Shiraz. And alcohol’s not the only concern: too much oak in a Chardonnay can leave your food tasting like pencil shavings. When you’re meeting and tasting with wine distributors, be sure to discuss which dishes from your menu would work with each wine -- if nothing goes with it, don’t buy it!
Age is also an issue. A powerful young Bordeaux might sound impressive, but it may not be ready to drink, and can actually be quite unpleasant if opened too early. Wine writer Talia Baiocchi says, “This epidemic of buying high-end wines young and placing them on the list straightaway is an issue. Put those wines away for a few years, invest in your list, and go to auction to add wines with some age.” Back vintages of wines will show better on their own and taste better with your food.
Make the wines you’ve chosen accessible to your guests, whether through a sommelier, helpful descriptions on the menu, or simply well-trained waitstaff who can describe the wines on the list. Making sure your staff has tasted everything has two purposes. First, they’ll be able to help customers choose a wine they’ll like. Second, as Maker says, “The best wine list descriptions don't come out of a distributor's book. They come out of the mouths of your kitchen and service staff after they have sat together, tasting the food, drinking the wine, and imagining what might be.”
Offer pairing suggestions and encourage experimentation -- let your customers know that they can order a flight of glasses or half glasses recommended for the dishes they ordered. And don’t just automatically pair each dish with the second-cheapest bottle on the list; find out if your customers are up for stretching their boundaries a little and trying something they may not have ordered on their own.