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Moving away from “the wine list”

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Lucy Shaw’s interview with Christopher Cooper, reported in the drinks business, contains some wise and useful insights, especially Cooper’s contention that sommeliers “need to work harder, take more risks and open their eyes to the bigger world of drinks, taking in beer, cider, cocktails and spirits.” Declaring the traditional wine list “dead—boring…wine bibles [that] are crap,” he even charges that customers “are being forced into buying wine rather than other drinks in restaurants as it’s profitable.”

Wow, lots to break down here. It’s true that restaurants make a lot of money selling wine, although I don’t know if wine is more profitable than beer and cocktails—perhaps someone can enlighten me.

Since I’m a wine guy, representing wineries, I do wonder if this suggestion—that restaurants open their wine lists more or less equally to beer and spirits—will cut down on wine sales. This would be a serious impediment to wineries, especially in this day and age when on-premise is so important to them. But I don’t think so. Here’s why.

To begin with, the gigantic wine list—the size of the Manhattan telephone directory—has clearly had its fifteen minutes of fame. It won’t disappear overnight, but I assume and hope than eventually it will be seen for what it is: a bloated appeal to snobbery. Diners don’t even want such mammoth wine lists anymore; they want something with, maybe, 30 wines and an attractive by the glass selection, creatively chosen, moderately priced and—this is key—curated by someone who knows and loves wine, and doesn’t just throw the Big Names on there for the hell of it.

So restaurants shouldn’t just add beer and spirits to already-overweight wine lists, they should shorten their wine lists. Who gets to stay on such coveted real estate? Ahh, glad you asked. It’s the wineries that offer the most bang for the buck.

The real action these days isn’t in the critical scores or the latest magazine cover stories, it’s on the sales turf. Everybody—Bill Harlan to Fred Frenzia—is out there thinking of how to stay relevant. Nobody really understands the rules because frankly, my dears, there aren’t any, or very many, and such rules as there are tend to get broken quickly as the landscape undergoes constant mega-change. There’s a lot of bull out there that masquerades as expertise when in reality it’s just another service being pitched. The details differ at each price scale, but basically, the question for vintners is: Am I still going to be able to sell this stuff five, ten, twenty, a hundred years from now?

This is a worthy question for a vintner to ask—indeed, the only worthy one. I have a feeling that wineries that can prove to the world that they are in this for the long haul, will find themselves a leg up, because having a real long-range plan means they’re performing at the top of their game. Nobody wants overnight successes, built on some phony formula, that won’t exist tomorrow. We want to support wineries that have been doing a good job for a long time and haven’t gotten complacent.

And that gets us back to wine lists, which, according to the Cooper theory of reality, should actually be called “wine, beer and spirits lists.” It’s a good idea that will upset the wine industry temporarily, but in the long run will be good for consumers, and that’s what it’s all about.

  1. Bob Henry says:


    If any of your readers are grads of hotel and restaurant management programs, they can cite from their studies the metrics (such as indexing input costs and selling prices) on wine versus cocktails.

    Some metrics found on the Web:

    “While there will always be exceptions, here are a few beverage cost rules of thumb that we’ve found to be quite reliable over the years when working with operators who have collectively managed thousands of diverse restaurant operations.

    “Alcoholic beverage costs: Liquor, beer and wine costs will vary among restaurants due to a number of factors but here are typical costs in percentages:

    “Liquor – 18 percent to 20 percent.

    “Bar consumables – 4 percent to 5 percent as a percent of liquor sales (includes mixes, olives, cherries nd other food products that are used or consumed exclusively at the bar).

    “Bottled beer – 24 percent to 28 percent (assumes mainstream domestic beer, cost percent of specialty and imported bottled beer will generally be higher).

    “Draft beer – 15 percent to 18 percent (assumes mainstream domestic beer, cost percent of specialty and imported draft beer will generally be higher).

    “Wine – 35 percent to 45 percent (the cost percentages of wine can vary dramatically from restaurant to restaurant depending primarily on the type of wines served. Generally,the higher the price per bottle, the higher the cost percentage).

    “NOTE – All percentages above are the ratio of each item’s cost divided by its sales, not total sales or total beverage sales. For example, liquor cost percentages above are based on liquor costs divided by liquor sales. This applies to the non-alcoholic beverage costs discussed below as well.”

    [Credited to Ritesh Mishra, a hotel management professional trained in India who works in Central Africa. Posted to a LinkedIn discussion group.]

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