Tricks and tips for a successful wine list
Wine lists are a lot like today’s music scene. Plenty of new albums and acts are seemingly fabricated on a conveyor belt of pop schlock. They’re successful, no doubt, but they’re also unchanging, formulaic and uninspiring. There is a similar option available to restaurateurs. Owners can snap their fingers and as fast as you can say, “Wolf Blass Yellow Label,” produce a standard selection that will sell a few bottles of decent vino, and Aussie Shiraz by the glass. As with the truly great bands though, building something that will inspire the masses requires time, attention and originality.
Forget the paint-by-numbers approach that can be parachuted into just about any dining situation across the country, master sommelier, wine writer and restaurant consultant, John Szabo, believes that for a wine list to be exceptional (read: exceptionally profitable) there are a few key differentiators that need to be ironed out. “The first considerations are always the where, what and the who,” he says. “Where is the restaurant located, what’s the neighbourhood like and who are the customers?”
According to Szabo, knowing the customer is critical, particularly when it comes to deciding how trendy or cutting edge you can get with your wines. “Your clientele should drive how creative you can be,” says the Toronto-based oenophile. “Who’s in your restaurant? How old are they? Are they wearing funky clothes, hats and shoes? If so, unique indigenous offerings or lesser-known wine producing regions could be a fantastic option. Portuguese and Spanish wines are offering great value and Chile is very hot right now as is Argentina,” he suggests.
While quite a few stewards have been getting on board with the newfound quality and calibre of Ontario and B.C. wines, Szabo says VQA is still not the best fit for every list. “A lot of restaurateurs serious about advancing wine in this country have a selection of VQA wines, and they’re not shying away from them, particularly in establishments with a younger demographic, like the thirtysomething crowd,” he says.
However, foisting a VQA-centric wine program on an older crowd, regardless of its vastly improved juice, is a mistake, he says, as a lot of older diners still associate VQA with the plonk they were served in the early days of the Niagara wine scene. “If you’ve got a bunch of blue-hairs in your restaurant, then a VQA focus is just not the right direction to go,” he warns.
As a final note to those looking to build their own winning list, Szabo insists that size does matter, particularly in more casual settings where short, unchanging wine lists are often the norm. “In casual dining, a longer, thoughtfully compiled list can create a sort of ‘this is a place where people drink wine’ feel. It makes it seem less of an afterthought, which will encourage more people to order from the wine list as opposed to grabbing a beer. You don’t need to carry a huge inventory; you just need enough to give the impression that it’s normal for people to enjoy wine here,” he concludes.
Bar of the Month
Vin Room, Calgary
Calgarians are used to seeing a bevy of beers on tap across their fair city, but when Phoebe Fung, a recent foodservice convert from the oil and gas industry, set her sights on opening a wine and tapas bar, few could have imagined the vast array of vinous varieties she would unleash on Cowtown’s burgeoning wine scene. “Vin Room is truly a wine and tapas experience,” says Fung. “We serve 70 different wines by the taste, and we offer two-ounce and full-glass options, so we encourage people to learn and explore what they like about the wines.” And exploring they are; Calgary is in the midst of a wine boom, says Fung. “Calgarians are developing a wine culture, and it is gaining momentum. Wine is really a cross-generational trend.” The sheer number of new openings in town over the past two years demonstrates the point, but Fung says more wine bars just mean more people are getting exposed to wine culture. “Competition is a good thing,” she says. “It creates choices for people, and the beautiful thing is, everyone has their points of differentiation. We serve the most wines by the glass, and switch our list every three months, so there’s always something new to try.”
And Tastings For Al
Thanks to an innovative new product from an Old World hotbed for wine, the days of miniscule by-the-glass wine offerings are becoming a thing of the past. Enomatic Wine Serving Systems, an Italian company that’s pioneered a unique wine-service technology, is helping restaurateurs enhance their wine programs and turn an increasing number of customers onto the complexity and joy of good wine. According to its website, Enomatic has invented a totally unique, patented system that inserts nitrogen into the bottle. (Nitrogen is an inert gas that avoids the normal alterations to food due to oxidation.) Once the nitrogen is passed into the bottle, the flavours and characteristics of the wine remain intact for more than three weeks, as if the bottle had just been opened.
Canadian sommeliers are jumping on board, with the system already in place at Toronto’s Mercatto, West Coast chain Joey Restaurants, and Calgary’s Vin Room (see bar of the month).
“It’s a beautiful thing,” says Phoebe Fung, Vin Room’s owner. “It keeps the wine we’re serving by the glass anywhere from 20 to 60 days.” In fact, Fung enjoyed the idea so much she bought eight of them, to accommodate Vin Bar’s 70 wines by the glass commitment. At an average of $10,000 per eight bottle unit, that’s one tall order.
New to Market
Charmes-ing New Label
Many experts believe the particular shape of a wine bottle or the artwork on its label can influence shoppers to select one bottle over another, and it seems Niagara, Ont.-based Château des Charmes winery agrees — it’s beginning the new decade with a brand new look. Designed by Toronto-based Fish out of Water Design, the company hopes the new labels will entice a younger demographic to drink its wines. “Our mandate was to take the wines from a fairly traditional look, to the right combination of contemporary but classic design,” says Rebecca Hamilton, partner and vice-president of Client Services at Château des Charmes.
Adding to the buzz is a scanable QR (Quick Response) Code, a first for the Canadian wine industry. Thanks to a QR Code appearing on the newly designed label, customers can be directed to online info about the wines they’re pondering at the shop, simply by taking a photo of the code with their web-enabled camera phone.
While Ontario icewine may not be in the running for a peace prize, the sweet, golden elixir did earn itself a spot on the menu when U.S. President Barack Obama was presented his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo last December. As part of this prestigious evening, Inniskillin’s 2003 Gold Oak-aged Vidal Icewine from Niagara was selected and poured at the Nobel dinner, served with caramel- and chocolate-glazed banana mousse and peanut meringue. Over the past decade, Ontario icewines have made a serious splash on the international wine scene, and its appearance at the Nobel gala dinner in Oslo should only cement its status further.
“I would never have dreamed that when I started making icewine in 1984 it would ever be served at a Nobel Peace Prize Dinner,” says Inniskillin co-founder and icewine maker, Karl Kaiser, who produced this particular vintage. “I am particularly thrilled that this icewine was chosen to be part of the dinner honouring President Barack Obama.”