The other day, I went into a new wine and cheese bar with a fun name, some bright and cheerful décor, and some decent wines. The food menu was in need of a few small dishes that were veggie heavy, but otherwise it was a smart and well done menu. Their wine list however was another story. The wines on them were fine (especially for a bar only open a few weeks) but how they were presented was weak and jumbled. It was like pre-1980s in the US!
Now let me explain this. In the 1980s a man named Tim Hanni became one of the first Masters of Wine in the United States. This is a big, big deal! A Master of Wine is a student and expert of all things wine. By taste they can tell you when, where, what, how, and why that liquid in the glass you just poured them came about. I can do ok with stuff I made and wines in California, but these folks can do it for the entire world! Super star is an understatement.
So, in the 1980s Hanni took all this knowledge of wine and made the world a better place for all of us wine drinkers in the US in two big ways. One was the idea of yum/yuck and vinotypes, and the other was better wine lists. Yum/yuck is and vinotypes is a subject for another day, but today wine lists are up.
Now, I’m guessing you never gave wine menus much thought, and if it’s done right you never need to. Hanni came up with a menu layout for restaurants and bars to follow and its pretty simple:
Light and Sweet -> Dry and Dark
Most places follow this not by taste alone but by style too. So, you have: Sparklings, Whites, Roses, Reds, Dessert wines, Ruby Ports, Tawny Ports, Sherries, Brandies.
Sometimes Sparkling wines are after the Reds and then classically after dinner drinks are on a dessert menu. But within each of these categories the progression from top to bottom should be sweeter, light, and normally more acidic to richer and dryer. This means my sister looks at the top of the whites and the roses, while my father looks at the bottom of the reds. And it doesn’t matter the restaurant you are in!
This also allows people to have some idea about what they are ordering if they do not know the name of the bottle, the winery, the region, or the variety listed on the menu. It is especially helpful with blends with fun names that have no barring (to the consumer) to the style of wine in the bottle, like Folie à Deux Menage Trois, a California blend of three red varieties.
No longer are you stilling there trying to be the “Great Guessing Wino”, so you can have a nice a glass of fermented grape juice.
Information for each wine listed on the menu at the minimum should include: Name, Winery, Varity or Blend, Vintage, Appellation, Price by glass and/or bottle (and size of bottle if not standard 750ml). Additional information on Vineyard blocks if important to that wine, Varity breakdown, Tasting notes.
These minimums are there for a reason. Primarily because they are key factors in how people choose wine when they aren’t simply looking at the picture on the label.
I normally choose wine according to my mood and what I’m eating. First type (sparkling, white, rose, or red), then style I want –which is a combo of where and variety, then age, and the final (sometimes the veto) price. Other times I simply pick the one I’ve never heard of before. Sometimes I go simply by price.
But here is a secret. Unless the second to cheapest wine on the list is your absolute favorite, DON’T pick it! All wine on wine (and beer) lists are marked up, that’s how a restaurant stays in business. But the mark ups normally are not the same across the board. The second to cheapest wine normally has the highest markup. Want to know why? Because we are all cheap, but we don’t want other people thinking we are cheap, so we don’t choose the lowest price, we choose the second to lowest price. So value wise, that is the worst wine to choose. Unless of course you like it, then drink up!
Often restaurants have wine by the glass and by the bottle. Most of these by the glass will come out of a bottle of wine. So, the restaurant can be in a pickle over profit here. Most set there by the glass price at their cost for a bottle of that wine. Then they at least break even if they aren’t able to sell the rest of the bottle by the glass before it goes bad. If they do, then they are simply making profit.
Some restaurants are super smart about their by the glass program and use keg wine. This seems very bro-ster, but let me tell you it is genius! It is the same exact wine, with less packaging cost, and greater shelf life. If I were to ever open a wine bar, it would only sell wine on tap, especially when companies like Free Flow Wines figure out how to do it with good sparking. (they are working with high end Champagne houses now figuring out how to keep the bubbles tiny and lovely). The future is good on this front.