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8 tips for an award-winning wine and drinks list (according to a wine list judge)

November 30, 2022

As anyone working in restaurants, bars and clubs knows, the quality of a drinks list can make (or break) a business.  Do it well, and you'll keep customers happy, increase the spend per head and make a venue more profitable.

So what's the secret to crafting a wine and drinks list that works? We've called on Australian Wine List of the Year & China Wine List of the Year judge and former wine list consultant Andrew Graham for tips on what works (and what doesn't) in creating a list that will win over customers (and even bag a few awards too).

Big is not best

Making a huge wine and drinks list is (relatively) easy. You hunt through a few top distributor portfolios (and trawl Kaddy Marketplace), then a few auction catalogues, before ordering one of everything premium - a few vintages of Grange, some Hibiki single malt, a Louis XIII etc. Yet the urge to make a phone book-sized drinks list is problematic, if purely from a stock control point of view. Too often, large lists are full of tired wines and same same spirits, where charismatic drinks get lost in among attention-seeking icons or tedious verticals. A smaller selection, where every line is an interesting drink, and yet with a larger range of price points, can be so much more interesting (and much cheaper to service).

The benchmark Cru Bar + cellar list. Source: Instagram

But there is a place for a drinks list full of wonder

You only have to look at this year's winner of Australian Wine List of the Year, the sublime Cru Bar + Cellar, as an example. The sheer depth of wines by the glass (over 80 under Coravin alone, from inexpensive to wildly expensive), the huge selection of Champagne, beer (split by style), craft spirits (especially whisky/whiskey) and the commitment to QLD products is something to be celebrated. This 'all of the things' model CAN work, but it requires a particular type of venue to make it work.

Great by-the-glass selections are an asset

Many venues treat 'by-the-glass' (BTG) lists as an afterthought when they can be a USP. With a range of options at different price points, BTG can increase spending per head, act as an upsell in casual dining and help turn over slow-moving lines. A Coravin is a massive help here as it both adds shelf time to open bottles and communicates to customers that a venue takes providence seriously (also, premium wines BTG can be very profitable). You only have to look at how Coravin is highlighted on lists like Bennelong's multi-award-winner to see how this can be done. Lots of venues make the mistake of having limited price points BTG, typically with an imbalance between light and full-bodied reds (Pinot and Grenache is your friend), or a lack of mature vs fresh white wines.

Give more non-alcoholic options

Mocktails are dead. With an explosion of pre-mixed non-alc cocktails from makers like Smug, Lyres, Seedlip, Yes You Can etc there is no longer an excuse for poor non-alcoholic mixed drinks on a list. As the IWSR pointed out back in January, there has been a huge rise in consumer appetites for more interesting NOLO options across the board, it now means this category is an important part of a list. Especially given the superior range of non-alc beer (hello Heaps Normal) and wine (Giesen), plus more interesting adult sodas (like StrangeLove) that are just good drinks.

Australian-made Peroni is not imported beer

This is a bugbear but indicative of a bigger problem. With many international beers now brewed under license locally, it's a disappointment to see them listed as 'imported' on drinks lists. Further, the Australian beer industry is now incredibly diverse, and Australians drink more than just lager. Your customers deserve a wide range of beers as much as a selection of wines, spirits and aperitifs. Even a handful of well-chosen diverse brews is more interesting than five similar clear lagers.

Listing wines by variety is just one way to do it

List wines by style, mood, or anything relatable. A little creativity is often welcome, especially if your wine list is easily navigable and it helps with customer discovery of new things/regions/varieties etc. This especially extends into cocktails, which suit unconventional categorisations perfectly.

Settlers Tavern Margaret River. Source: facebook.

Support the locals

Go local. Support your neighbourhood brewery, or champion the wines from the closest winery - it all helps give a sense of identity. The best lists showcase local drinks, even in European-focussed restaurants and bars (like the excellent and proudly Italianate Il Lido in Cottesloe).  Wine and drinks lists heavy on imports that ignore what's in our backyard is a huge issue, to the point where NSW wine producers created the NSW Sommelier's Wine List Awards to address a lack of NSW representation on the state's wine lists (especially in Sydney). Everyone wants more local drinks! For an example of how to do it well, I like how the superb Settlers Tavern does this in a regional setting - you're smack bang in the middle of Margaret River, so why not go long on local beers, locally-distilled spirits, cider, wine etc?

Finally, don't forget the extra content

After combing through fifty drinks lists, it can get very tedious to see just single-line listings when a bit more background is needed - especially about why certain wines/spirits/waters/everything have been selected. More relevant context and information will only help guide customers into more premium products. This sample Cru Bar + Cellar list shows an example of how it can be done, where it's easy to get lost in the stories behind the wines. How can you not want to try them all?