Developing a restaurant wine list requires time, effort, knowledge and a lot of patience.
Lettie Teague of The Wall Street Journal recently found out how difficult it can be to put together the perfect restaurant wine list that excites and challenges diners, and offers great bang for the buck. Michael Stillman, restaurant owner, and March Passer, wine director of Quality Eats, a new restaurant in New York City, offered insight as they created their wine list and menu.
The Greenwich Village eatery, conceived as an “affordable steakhouse,” is the most recent addition to the seven-restaurant portfolio of Fourth Wall Restaurants, where Stillman is president and Passer has been corporate wine director since 2011. The two men have put together many notable wine lists over the years at the group’s other Manhattan restaurants, which include Smith & Wollensky New York, Maloney & Porcelli, Quality Italian and Quality Meats, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Quality Eats’ wine list would be a departure of sorts for the team, Stillman said. Unlike their other wine lists, which are quite large (Smith & Wollensky’s list has almost 1,000 bottles) and full of fancy, four-figure selections that appeal to expense-account diners, the Quality Eats list would be small and modestly priced. The selection, Stillman said, would have “a real neighborhood feel,” mixing well-known wines that comforted diners with ones that challenged them, a formula designed to entice patrons to return again and again. For example, to nudge diners out of their comfort zone, Passer might offer a Cabernet but not one from a famous region like Napa, sourcing it instead from a less popular, and cheaper, place, the Wall Street Journal reported.
To encourage experimentation, the restaurant planned to offer all of the wines on the list by the glass and bottle. For fun, they’re introducing a new concept, “stackable wine,” three separate, small carafes that can be stacked to create a standard 750 mL bottle. This would allow diners to order one-third white, one-third red and one-third rosé. They would include nine to twelve stackable selections of popular varieties, with a stacked trio costing $40, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“We want a wine list that everyone will get,” said Stillman, meaning one with a familiar look and feel. “Maybe the list would be in a report binder,” offered Passer.
What about pricing? The partners insisted that they wanted to keep Quality Eats’ markup in check. Passer thought it would likely be two to two and half times the wholesale cost. He especially wanted the wines at the lower end of the scale to be impressive. “I want to wow someone with the entry-level offering,” said Passer. “When someone says, ‘I want the cheapest wine,’ I want to make sure it’s legitimately delicious.”
Passer had emailed a number of wholesale-wine sales representatives, asking each to suggest bottles that were unusual or challenging “diamond-in-the-rough wines” and not from usual-suspect wineries such as Cakebread and Duckhorn, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“We’re looking for wines that are approachable and delicious,” said Passer at the official wine tasting for the restaurant. The tasting, which lasted less than two hours and included close to 100 wines, was an opportunity for each salesperson to give a short spiel on each selection.
For Passer, it wasn’t just a matter of his personal likes or dislikes; he had to figure out where and how a wine fit in with the rest of his list and had to anticipate the preferences of his customers. For example, Passer needed two Chardonnays, one that was entry level (“never say cheap,” he noted) and one that was pricier (probably Burgundy). He also needed at least two Pinot Noirs, one that was rich and fruity and another in an earthier style, the Wall Street Journal reported.
After several weeks and tastings, Stillman and Passer whittled the possibilities down to a final list: 34 bottles, plus 12 stackable offerings. The list was arranged according to color and grapes (i.e., Arneis, Ribolla Gialla, Kerner, Sauvignon Blanc).The partners had also decided to put the stackable wines on their own separate table card, the Wall Street Journal reported.
“I’ve never trained staff in a situation [where] there wasn’t some form of chaos,” said Passer. He was opening a number of wines for the staff, instructing them not only in how to taste but how to talk about them as well. He wanted them to describe wines in a relatable way, avoiding fancy words or excessive adjectives. “Use words like ‘bright acidity’ or ‘well balanced,’ ” Passer explained to his staff.
As the staff tasted the bottles, Passer described the wine, from the grapes to the region where each wine was produced, and then quizzed them in turn. Did any of them drink Merlot? Did they know the flavors that oak-aging gave to a wine? And when a producer notes that a wine has been aged in 25% new oak, what does that mean?
Quality Eats opened on time the following week. The bar was finished, the wine list was printed and the staff was conversant in proper winespeak. Choosing the right wines for the restaurant hadn’t been easy or fast. The customers who stopped in for a glass of Cabernet Franc from Domaine Philippe Alliet in the Chinon region of France’s Loire Valley might never realize how much work went into the wine list. But then that’s the point. A really good wine list looks effortless, the Wall Street Journal reported.