Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit.
Robert Mondavi

Friday, August 28, 2009

When a wine list is more than a wine list!

A restaurant’s wine list say a lot about who they are, what their aspirations are, and what they think about you. This is very evident in locations that you will visit across the country. From Applebee’s, to The Cheesecake Factory, to Mario Batali’s Del Posto, you will find very different, yet appropriate, wine experiences that fit the atmosphere, cuisine, and crowd that typically dine at these establishments.

I bring up Batali’s Del Posto, because a good friend of mine recently dined there while taking a long weekend in NYC. Once he returned, he had a few questions for me regarding his wine experience at Del Posto.

"On a recent trip to NYC, I went out for a truly fine dining experience. After being seated I was greeted with a massive wine list. When I mean massive, I mean over 2,500 selections. How does a restaurant build and maintain such a large list, and is it necessary?"

This is a certainly a legitimate way to look at the situation. A wine list of this magnitude can be overwhelming to say the least. The answer to the first part of the question will be a bit wordy, so let me address the second part first.

Using my friend’s example, Del Posto is in the food and wine Mecca of the US. Day in and day out they go up against culinary giants such as Daniel, Jean Georges, Le Cirque, Tribeca Grill and countless others. Competition is fierce and there is a significant amount of prestige that is placed on an award winning wine list and the service that is provided by their resident sommelier(s). Having truly classic wines available is an appropriate necessity when you are dining on a truly classic meal! This is true not only for NYC, but anywhere a high level of importance is placed on quality.

Del Posto, as mentioned before, is one of many restaurants owned by Chef Mario Batali. Besides being an extremely successful restaurateur, he is also a partner in Italian Wine Merchants, which is a high-end wine shop that has a selection of Italian gems unlike any other I have come across. It is this passion for bringing together the complete dining experience that sets restaurants and restaurateurs, like Batali, apart. It is also what allows them to charge a premium for the experience that they provide, while maintaining a waiting list as long as Madison Avenue!

"How does a restaurant build and maintain such a large list?"

To build a wine list with the breadth and vision of Del Posto, locally based Left Bank at the Stonehedge Inn & Spa (Tyngsboro, MA) and Bedford Village Inn in (Bedford, NH) or any restaurant with a tremendous wine offering takes a very structured approach. Once the structure is in place, knowledgeable people are needed to implement the list, along with an owner(s) with exceptionally deep pockets.

Initially, the most important steps are to realistically assess your clientele, menu, storage space and budget. Not everyone can afford a bottle of a Bordeaux First-Growth, Chateau Petrus, Gaja Sori Tilden, or E. Guigal Ermitage Ex Voto, especially when marked-up to restaurant standards. This means that there must be a number of wines to bridge the gap between reasonably-priced wines and the classics.

The job of creating any wine list typically falls either to the owner, a wine director/sommelier, a consultant, or unfortunately in some cases, a distributor. Now a list that is of notable quality will probably not be developed solely by a distributor, so we will avoid speaking about them any further.

Depending on the size of a wine list, the owner, if truly knowledgeable, or a consultant can put into place something very special that will convey to the patrons that their experience is of the utmost importance. This takes a massive amount of time and effort, so unless you plan on doing all of the leg work, hire someone to do it for you. A good example of this is Unums in Nashua, NH. They have a modest wine list compared to Del Posto, but it is well thought out and looked over by the owners. A different example is Junipers at the Wildflower Inn located in Lyndonville, VT. The owners and management did not have the knowledge to put together a thoughtful and quality wine list. They decided to hire a consultant do so. It was rewarding to see them embrace what a thoughtful wine list could do, not only for their patrons, but for their restaurant.

Creating and maintaining a list such as the one at Left Bank at Stonehedge, which offers 2,000 selections (101,000 bottles in inventory), or Del Posto, which offers 2,300 selections (39,000 bottles in inventory) takes a team effort. The organization is typically led by a wine director and generally includes personnel working beneath them (i.e. assistant director and sommelier). The task is a daily exercise in taking inventory (thank goodness for computers), reordering, blind and regular tastings, negotiating, rotation, research, promotion, etc. It is a daunting task, but a task that is energetically undertaken, because wine professionals are exceptionally passionate about what they do.

Ultimately, a restaurateur’s goal is to create an experience that is positively unique and memorable. A strong wine list is essential in conveying the message of a restaurant to its patrons. If this is done effectively, the guests will leave happy and be more likely to return.

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