(Editor's note: Zachary Pearson left Houston and the world of retail wine to move to Fredericksburg and help a friend open a winery. He now divides his time between dealing with permitting and regulatory paperwork and editing the cocktail website Kindred Cocktails, where I first encountered his work. I follow Zach on Twitter (@zachkpearson) and found myself often debating restaurant beverage programs and wine lists with him. I asked him to put some of his thoughts together, and this open letter to the industry is the result. Whether you agree or think he's out of his mind, we hope you'll jump in with your own thoughts in the comments section below.--Alison Cook)
I’m really not the person you want to have walk into your restaurant. First of all, I know that as a wine drinker, I subsidize the meal of every person who walks in the door. I’m prepared to accept that.
To make matters worse, I spent ten years in the retail side of the wine business. I know what things cost both at retail and wholesale, which means that it doesn’t take me long to figure out your markup, or that you’ve thrown up your hands and are letting one of your distributors write a good portion of your wine list.
The good thing is that I understand some of your needs. Wine professionals are expensive, difficult to retain and often aren’t useful in other aspects of the restaurant. The wait staff is often times too young to be able to drink wine and paid very little, while trying to cram the world of wine knowledge into their brains during the afternoon meeting is of much lower importance than being able to explain to customers how the fish of the day is prepared. Managers have other problems to worry about, meaning wine gets bumped down the list, though explaining to the wait staff what a corked or an oxidized wine smells like would be a very good use of their time.
Even more importantly, I’m the kind of customer you want to have in your place. I love good food and wine. I’m not afraid to spend money on good food and wine, and I’m quite vocal about places that I want to visit with my friends. And since we’ve already determined I help you keep entrée prices moderate, I’d like to exchange that for a few minutes of your time.
A great majority of the time I walk into a restaurant, I’ve done my homework, looked at your wine list and menu on your website, and thought about what I want to eat and drink. If you do not have your wine list on your website, I have no sympathy for you. Please don’t tell me it’s too difficult to update or that your wine list changes so rapidly that it’s not possible to do so. It’s really not.
Sadly, the feeling I get looking at most wine lists in restaurants is one of fear. Fear that if a wine list doesn’t have big names on it, no one will buy wine. Fear that somewhere out there there’s someone who must have sushi and Staglin Cabernet tonight even though you know they do not go together. Fear that a wine list of 30 selections might be thought less of than one with a 1,000. This fear leads to wine lists where a majority of the entries feel like they’re from a wine bar and there’s a small amount remaining to pair with the menu.
Chefs obviously don’t worry about this. How many restaurants have Pad Thai on the menu next to lasagna Bolognese, King Ranch chicken and pressed duck? None. Restaurants pride themselves on their culinary point of view, and it’s about time that people who write wine lists do the same. The best part of this? Showing people the world of wines that pair with your menu isn’t dictatorial, no more than focusing on Piedmontese cuisine or local seafood is. Having cohesiveness between your food and wine makes customers comfortable, and engenders trust and repeat visits.
I firmly believe that three things can help reduce this fear and uncertainty that lead to lower wine sales. First, smaller, better selected wine lists lead to less customer uncertainty. The era of a novel-sized wine list is over. By reducing available choices, not only can the remaining wines be better suited to your food, but customers will have an easier time finding a wine to go well with their meal without worrying if it’s alright to have red wine with fish. Not only that, but suddenly, carrying costs are less and inventory takes much less time.
Second, having a lower markup drives bottle sales preferentially over by the glass sales, and having to manage less open bottles of wine that are all oxidizing means that you pour out less wine (or serve less horribly oxidized wine to customers).
Third, allow a BYO policy if you are able to do so. If corkage is $15 or $20 to cover the cost of glassware, breakage and other things, that’s fine. If it also stops customers from bringing in magnums of $8 wine, that’s all the better.
Please allow me to give a few examples of people who I think get it right. The Monterey in San Antonio is eclectic. Housed in what looks like a 50s diner, it has a varied menu driven by local ingredients and a real sense of playfulness, with a healthy borrowing of Asian flavors and techniques. It’s divided into six things that you might call appetizers and seven that you might call main courses.
Their alcohol list is one page, and contains all of 43 beers, 43 wines and three sakes. While there are some big name wines on their list, a great majority of it is well chosen, interesting things that work well with their menu. It is easy to buy a bottle of wine there and feel confident that it will go nicely with dinner.
The other is the newly opened Oxheart. I wish that more restaurants displayed the confidence and knowledge they do. They’re unabashedly minimalist and local, with a strong emphasis on vegetables. There are three tasting menus and a grand total of 21 alcohol selections. While I’m sure that everything on the wine list is chosen to pair beautifully with their food, the best thing to do is to buy the wine pairing addition to the tasting and trust them to amaze.
As a former wine professional, I understand the value of making smart decisions about what wines to put in front of customers. I know there’s a world of wine out there that’s getting larger every day. I would like you to show the same level of passion for your wine point of view that your chef does for the food you serve. I would love to see wine lists that were smartly chosen and small enough to be manageable so that I could feel better about buying wine in restaurants again.