Wine Lists

I recently had the pleasure of accompanying my wife on a business trip to Charleston, South Carolina. Having never been there before, I asked a few friends where might be a good place to dine. I did not solely count on my friends, I also used this thing called the internet.

I was able to come up with a few possibilities, and when I called one of them–clearly the favorite–to get a reservation, and was told that they were booked (five weeks in advance), I knew I was on the right track. I wouldn’t use the word determined, because I didn’t really care if I got in to eat there or not, but as a gesture to my dear wife, I was committed to finding a way to have dinner there.

Sorry, not sorry, I still don’t name names

Sure enough, I went in without a reservation, and they told me that they could seat me in a half hour. Great. We went across the street and enjoyed a cocktail before returning to the restaurant.

The wine list please…

When we were seated, we were handed a copy of the wine list. Now I have seen my share of wine lists over my many years, even compiled a couple of them myself, but never had I seen a wine list organized by soil type.

I tried valiantly to get past the preciousness of it all, and sifted (that, by the way, is a soil reference) through the list and found something we could both enjoy.

The point?

It’s true, I do teach a wine class, however I am by no means trained by the International Sommelier Guild, and therefore don’t have the deep appreciation for soil types. Shame on me. I don’t care if it is limestone, sandstone, granite, gravel, schist, or any other type for that matter. I would be willing to bet that 95% of this particular restaurant’s customers feel the same.

I mentioned this to a co-worker of mine, who was trained by the ISG, and she did not have a problem with it. She thought it was a good idea, and, in fact, very helpful. I don’t often disagree with her, she knows volumes more than I do, on virtually every subject, however…


Like I said before, most people are not going to have an appreciation for this particular restaurant’s approach. And most people are what we call your customers.

But enough about that restaurant’s wine list. I want you to walk away from this post with some ideas on how to organize your wine list.

The starting place for any restaurant’s questions, always starts with: Who are your customers? If you start here, and answer it honestly, you will have some idea of how to put it together. Now if you are lucky enough to have a sommelier on staff, make sure you are not leaving it entirely up to them to compile. They will have their own agenda, and often it will not be in line with your own.

Too often these decisions are made, not with the customer in mind, but rather, how cool it would be/look/etc…. And don’t get me wrong, I want to be as cool as the next guy, but more important than that is making it so customers can find a wine and enjoy it.

Finally, a point

Most customers are going to expect wine organized by region, varietal, and vintage. This is a good place to begin. Make it easy for them to find a wine they will like. Without the pretense of something else…


3 Comments Add yours

  1. b says:

    as the Sommelier who thought that organizing a wine list by soil type was interesting and could be helpful, I was thinking about me- not the average customer who just wants a good wine to pair with their dinner; so I agree with Tom wholeheartedly. That said, however, it COULD be both fun and educational to include the soil type in the wine description, and on the back or last page of the wine list, describe the effect soil type has on the flavor and aroma of the wine. If a customer was not interested, they wouldn’t bother reading that last page; but the person who likes wine and wants to know more about it would likely find it both interesting and helpful in defining their own palate and make it easier to choose wines that they would like in the future. Wine geeks of the world unite- we have nothing to lose but bad pairings!

  2. Fred Dick says:

    I own a small winery. In my tasting notes, I always try to include something about the soil where the grapes were grown. However, if you include the soil type its important to then also identify what traits that soil could impart. To simply say “the grapes were grown in alluvial soil over laid by claypan means nothing unless you attach some sort of characteristic of that soil type. Something like, “chardonnays grown in these alluvial soils tend to have green apple and pear notes.”

    To organize a wine list based entirely on soil types would be incredibly interesting to some oenophiles. However, to the average customer, I think, it would come off as confusing and pretentious.

    1. Tom Bethel says:

      I hope to try some of your wines someday, Fred.

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