In Vino Veritas LI: You Wine List Is Too Long

One of the fundamental marketing principles I abide by is: Keep It Simple Stupid. While that fourth word is often incorporated only to make it into a highly memorable acronym (KISS), it is not far from the truth.

Perhaps the more apt word is ‘busy’ in that we are all too rushed and distracted to notice everything that’s happening around us. For example, you stand at a busy urban intersection. Have you noted what the make and model of every car that passes by? Have you read every billboard? Do you notice the attention to detail that goes into each person’s fashion sense?

We have so much on our minds that concentrating on any one particular thing for an extended period of time or even giving something the attention it deserves is impossible. In this sense, we are all indeed stupid because there are so many worldly fascinations and so much beauty all around us that we fail to notice each and every day.

So you’re an idiot, and I’m an even bigger one. Big whoop. To this day it amazes me that we’re all still able to keep society functioning, let alone create marvels like cellphones and rocket ships. Thus, keeping your marketing message simple is of the utmost importance because if a customer has to think about your offer – even for a moment – you’ve lost them; they have better things to do.

Keeping your wine list as succinct as possible gets to the heart of this marketing tenet because if you give your guests too many options, it can have dire consequences on the overall dining experience.

For starters, a longer wine list means more time spent deciding what glass or bottle to order. Even if this boils down to a matter of seconds, those seconds will amount to – especially if your restaurant is busy –fewer table turns per day and less alcohol ordered. Next, and related to this, placing the order will consume more of your servers’ time. While this may be preferred in some instances in order to deepen the rapport with patrons, oftentimes it can delay the waiters from helping another table. Again, the seconds add up; an extra minute of wine list indecisiveness at 6pm could mean a 20-minute backlog by 7:30 – that is, if you are running a happening spot.

Part of the reason why the contemporary wine list – and the entire drink menu for that matter – often becomes too long is that it tries to be everything for everyone. Another marketing mantra to deploy here is, “If you are good at everything, then you are great at nothing.” Or, to react it back to the axiom in the opening sentence: Keep It Specific Stupid.

Often these extensive wine lists which generic offerings from around the world are the result of a wine merchant acting on behalf of those wineries or vendors who are willing to give them a few perks on the side for pushing certain brands. A common result here is an focused mess of a wine list with no overall unity to make it at all memorable to the guest. For instance, why do many American restaurants offer a full range of Australian shiraz when they already have impeccable equivalents coming from their own backyard?

My response to this is to give such acts of collusion the middle finger and focus on being as locally authentic or regionally specific as possible. As an example of the former, if you operate a hotel in Southern California, you might opt for a wide array of bottles from Santa Ynez and the Central Coast with only a token acknowledgement of Napa and Sonoma and nothing from anywhere else.

The latter is a bit different, insofar as it’s not necessarily local, but it is paying tribute to the core theme of the restaurant. If you run an upscale Southern Italian eatery, you might opt for a list that only includes standard skews and private imports from Sicily, Calabria, Basilicata and Puglia with nothing from the northern mainstays of Abruzzo, Tuscany, Veneto or the Piedmont. Regional specificity also means knowing when to eschew your wines in favor of other culturally relevant beverages. For example, a casual Mexican restaurant would best let wine take a backseat to margaritas and cervesas with perhaps only a few tempranillos or other easy drinkers from the Latin world offered by the glass.

In this sense, the number of different labels and the types of wine you offer must relate directly back to the restaurant’s USP. And be forewarned, if every bistro and eatery already had a high degree of confluence between the beverages and the dishes that are presented to customers, then I would have no reason to write this article.

The flip side to this argument for brevity pertains to those places at the very upper end of haute cuisine or those that are bona fide wine bars. Five-star dining restaurants are well within the definitions of ‘special occasion’ and so the expectation is to take your time with what bottle to choose as well as to have a knowledgeable server or sommelier help you with your selection. For these sorts of eateries, an inventory consisting of hundreds of different bottles may be advantageous in order to help patrons feel like it truly is a special occasion.

And even then, simplicity in the wine list can help you to ‘nudge’ customers into buying the more expensive offerings. You decide, but if you have to take away one lesson from all this, it’s that there’s a reason why the KISS principle has stood the test of time and it isn’t just that it’s a catchy acronym.

(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky in HOTELSmag on October 14, 2016)

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