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Building a successful wine program means keeping it real

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I wrote my first wine list for as much beer as I could drink. It was a great deal, and good beer too. The list was for the Alibi Room, the mecca for craft beer in Western Canada. One afternoon at the bar, the owner, Nigel Springthorpe, let me know about his challenges with wine reps. A stream of vaguely similar, unnervingly chipper men and women poured into his restaurant trailing black roller bags crammed full of bottles and promises. Each rep told him they had wines he needed. A killer little red, white, rosé from California, Italy, Canada that over-delivers. Not that points matter, but this wine got 89, 90, 91 points from Decanter, Parker, Schreiner. While Nigel knew as much as anyone in the province about local beer, he felt lost in wine. He’d built an uncompromising craft beer program by being proactive but didn’t know where to begin with wine. I can help, I said, I’m a sommelier. A few beers later we struck a deal; one wine program for all the beer.

This should be easy, I thought, I’m an expert. It wasn’t. There are thousands of wines available in Canada, where do you begin? What wines make sense for a craft beer house? How do I find them? Fourteen years later, the answers to those questions continue to guide my work as the Corporate Sommelier for all of Earls Kitchen + Bar’s North American locations. They can be distilled into four pillars.

Have a Vision

A clearly communicated vision about a wine program helps hone in on a set of wines from which to choose and communicates a sense of purpose and curation to guests. Restaurateurs generally lead with concerns about which wines pair with their food. I suggest starting more broadly by deciding which wines go with the restaurant’s overall brand and experience. For Cuchillo, a hip restaurant offering Latin cuisine from local ingredients in Vancouver’s Railtown neighbourhood, we chose a list that offered the same. It comprised a by-the-glass selection of up-and-coming local wines complemented by a premium bottle selection of Latin American and Spanish wines with a preference for the esoteric, organic and biodynamic.

Create an Outline

Next, rather than jump into selecting specific wines, write an outline of how the menu should look. Decide how many wines will be offered by the glass and bottle as well as from which varieties and regions and at what price points. From there, it’s a process of filling in the blanks. At Earls, I offer different wines at different locations depending on the province, city or even neighbourhood. There’s no corporate list. I keep it consistent, and my work manageable, by following the same basic outline at each location.

Assign a Role

Every wine on the menu has a job to do, and no two wines share that job. Some wines make money. Others give credibility or communicate passion. Some wines give people what they want, while others challenge them to try new things. Each fills a role, even if that role is as simple as being a pinot gris by the glass at a reasonable price. Assigning roles to each wine, then not doubling them up, makes the wine list an opening rather than an obstacle to sales. If you have two wines of the same variety, offer different price points or regions. Points of differentiation present clear choices and avoid cannibalizing sales. The days of the giant wine book are fading. A successful contemporary wine menu is concise rather than comprehensive.

Drink a lot

Drink all the time and encourage your staff to do the same. Well, sort of. Taste may be a more appropriate term here. With your wine menu’s vision, outline and roles in mind, tasting at festivals or with reps becomes a process of determining if and how a wine fits on your list, and not just a simple question of preference. Moreover, once the menu is created, tasting with staff is the best way to communicate a wine’s attributes and why it’s perfect for your restaurant and guests. It’s also kind of the point.

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