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Bar Boulud
Wine time at Bar Boulud.

Why Restaurants are Keeping Wine Lists Short and Sweet

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A pared down, more approachable wine list could lead to better sales overall.
By Samantha Weiss Hills July 2019 Wine

It can be something of a misnomer to call a wine list “short” when in reality that can mean a book of 75 bottles. But, when you take into account that a “long” wine list can sometimes number in the hundreds or thousands, the idea of an expert choosing a particular selection can be enticing.

For establishments of various sizes and styles, stocking fewer wines has become a strategy to engage guests, more closely align with menus, and, surprisingly, offer more options by the glass.

Rajeev Vaidya, head sommelier of Dinex Group, explains that limiting the list at New York’s Bar Boulud has allowed the team to pivot away from verticals of trophy wines that offer too many options. “[We] offer a concise selection of ready-to-drink wines for our guests,” Vaidya says. He still buys and stocks extensively, but the shorter list makes it more digestible and easier to handle for guests.

To complement Bar Boulud’s menu of French Lyonnaise cuisine, the team focuses primarily on producers from the U.S. and France, paying particular attention to Burgundy and the Rhône Valley. Instead of thumbing through a multi-page document, guests can easily locate and choose bottles, which has helped business, Vaidya says. “We see a trend toward higher expenditure than before, and I believe the reason [is] that the short, smart group of selections makes it easier to focus on the value presented at the higher end of the list,” he says.

With the margin for error when building a wine list already razor-thin in the industry, for “superfluous” or “pet” selections, as Vaidya puts it, the margins are minuscule. “One has to really be sure that the choices presented to our guests are all excellent and delicious at that moment,” he says.

At Saltyard in Atlanta, a shorter list can arise out of necessity. Tara Madar, general manager at the neighborhood restaurant, says the restaurant isn’t a large enough operation to employ a full-time sommelier.

“Having a small list allows our servers to have more in-depth knowledge so they can guide guests in making thoughtful selections,” Madar says. Cultivating a small but interesting list helps the restaurant stay true to its globally-inspired concept.

Saltyard’s pared-back menu gives the restaurant the freedom to offer more options by the glass because there isn’t as much inventory space tied up with low-selling stock keeping units, or as much money tied up in inventory. “We can afford to chance a little waste from spoilage, or to take a lower margin by pricing an item so it will move better by the glass,” she says.

Madar feels that a smaller list with a bigger by-the-glass selection makes it easier to scope out new trends. “Our variety of by-the-glass options allows a low commitment,” she says of the guest experience. “If one ends up not being your new favorite, you can move on to something else quickly. It also gives you the flexibility to pair a new wine with each course instead of trying to find a bottle that will pair with multiple courses.”

Sarah Tracey, sommelier at The Lush Life, presides over restaurant wine lists like Villanelle in New York. She uses a concise wine list as a barometer for what guests are excited about and finds that they often drive more sales. “With a small list, you can easily tell from watching the sales which selections are resonating most with the guests,” she says. “There’s undoubtedly a very user-friendly aspect of having a small program—guests can feel comfortable and confident perusing on their own.”

Tracey also adds that building a small, focused program can be even more challenging than having a larger list. Every single wine should have a reason to be included, whether that’s the pairings agreed upon between the sommelier and chef, the story behind a producer, or an affinity for a certain region. “I think guests should see a small list and be confident that there’s really not a bad option there,” Tracey says. “Each selection has been thought through.”