How will restaurant wine lists develop post-Covid?

I first met Peter McCombie at the 2019 Restaurant Show. He was running a very informative session on Sake which included tasting a number – you can read the account of what we learned here.

In fact, I discovered later that Peter is a Master of Wine with a wealth of experience in the industry built up over three decades. He ran restaurants before beginning to sell wines (for Winecellars), then moving on to act as a judge, examiner, teacher, trainer in all things wine, as well as offering consultancy services.

We know a lot of restaurants are concerned about their wine lists, post covid. How will customers take to paying considerably more for a bottle of wine than they’ve become used to?

I couldn’t imagine anyone more qualified to give advice on this – here is what Peter had to say.

SD: How will wine lists develop post covid – will they be as adventurous?

PM: It will be interesting to see what happens with restaurant wine lists post-Covid. It’s hard to know. If, as seems likely, a fair number of restaurants either fail to reopen or  fail to survive under the twin challenges of social distancing measures combined with consumer caution, what will that mean for the restaurant landscape? I suspect the high end will survive and with them adventurous and high-priced wine lists. Perhaps there will be resistance to excessive pricing from consumers who’ve got used to drinking good bottles at home, though some of those in my experience don’t seem too bothered. The bland high street chains, already too often hampered by debt-driven over-expansion will probably claw their way back and I can’t see much change with their wine offer (safe, generic, high margins).

SD: Will price be affected – if so how?

PM: Plenty of owner-operated and independent restaurants may well return and prosper. Here we might seem some wine action.

SD: It seems wine lists are likely to get shorter – which wines will fall out and why?

PM: I am not sure shorter lists are a given. For some operators (chains, some ethnic restaurants) lazy short lists can be an excuse to dumb down and make safe, generic choices. For others a short list can be a way to manage cash flow, while offering good, albeit somewhat limited choice. As a consultant I would take the opportunity to make rolling changes to keep a list fresh, keeping some customer favourites, while offering challenges too.

I would hope that boring wines disappear (with the caveat that the odd boring-but-well-made – wine is necessary simply because that’s what some consumers want!).

There is always a trade off between our individual opinions and biases about wine styles and accepting that not everyone shares our tastes. I would like to see the back of highly alcoholic, over-ripe reds but they have their fans and a diligent wine list writer can find a good example to include, with a bit of effort.

I would like to see the back of highly alcoholic, over-ripe reds but they have their fans.

Rather than suggest what wines will go, I’d rather look forwards. The trend towards fresher, lighter reds will continue; orange wines will continue to occupy their niche, but I can’t see them exploding; ‘lo-fi’ (for me a more useful term than the nebulous and perennially controversial ‘natural’) wines will also maintain visibility, albeit not everywhere and ‘Mediterranean’ (in the loosest, widest sense) white wines will continue to regain status and listings.

guide to Slovenian wine
Orange wines will continue to have their niche.

SD: Will there be more take up of wine being sold by the glass – if so, how would you advise selecting the wines on offer?

PM: I am always going to say there should be more wine by the glass in restaurants, not only because if lists are shorter then it helps to improve customer choice, but also allows operators to ‘work’ their assets better. Which wines to offer? If you believe the wine is good enough for your customers then it’s good enough to be offered by the glass. As ever, what is most important is maximising customer experience: the wine should taste good and be in tip top condition, while at the same time making money. The smart operator will actively manage the selection, making sure once a bottle is opened that every glass sold is as good as the next. This does not happen by accident.

SD: Which types of wine are becoming popular now?

PM: Price is still the most important determinant of purchase (maybe excluding colour!) Customers will, more than ever, require value for money. This does not necessarily mean cheap but nor does it – with some obvious exceptions – mean expensive. European wines will remain in demand, with Italy in particular building on its existing success. I’m not sure the predicted Brexit benefit for the Southern Hemisphere will happen, but innovation, particularly with respect to fresher styles and more offbeat varieties will mean more visibility for the wines of these countries.

Italy, in particular, will build on its existing success.

SD: How are the most effective menus compiled and written? (will they still be paper? – if not, what?)

PM: The best wine lists sell the wine themselves, starting with clarity and legibility (good contrast, readable font etc). They present plenty of information so that the customer can make their own choices and style cues really help.

I can’t see printed lists disappearing completely but I saw a menu presented as a QR code laminated on the table top the other day on Instagram, so that the customer accessed it via their phone. This could take off. Tablet based lists which never really lived up to the hype might make a return, on hygiene grounds.

SD: What non-alcoholic drinks should be considered?

PM: Non alcoholic cocktails should be a winner, but too often seemed vastly over-priced. Artisanal bitters with mineral water are a good bet too. If I am not drinking alcohol, I don’t want something too sweet, especially if eating. I was sniffy about kombucha until someone gave me a culture during lockdown and I have changed my tune. It seems to have something approaching vinosity, certainly it has lively acidity which makes it potentially very interesting to pair with food. 

SD: What are the trends in glassware etc?

PM: Fine glasses, such as Zaltos definitely have their place, but for some operators the costs (& logistical issues including cleaning and breakages) rule them out. Stemless wine glasses have their place, particularly for more casual dining.

Stemless wine glasses have their place, particularly for more casual dining.

SD: If there is a squeeze on price, how will restaurants make it up?

PM: For many years I have banged on about restaurants charging excessive prices for wines, using gross profit percentage margins. the excuse is allegedly they need to because they can’t make proper money on food. Firstly, I see a parallel with tips. Danny Meyer in NYC recognised that tipping was bullshit and ended it in his restaurants, deciding to pay his staff properly, knowing he would have to increase prices. Perhaps it is time we saw realistic menu pricing. Secondly, accepting you need to make a certain income from beverage, doesn’t mean you need to fall into the GP trap. Everyone should know how much cash margin they actually make on average per bottle (or per customer) on beverage. If they set that as a benchmark, at a flat rate, maybe with some variation, it should be possible to bring down the price of expensive wines, making them more accessible and tempting customers to spend more. Customers might well applaud transparency about margins and pricing too.

SD: We’ve launched a ‘restaurant at home’ service whereby restaurants and chefs can deliver quality meals… how might they be able to offer wine with this, bearing in mind that customers are able to buy their own wine without the restaurant mark up?

PM: Flat rate margins, set not too high, are I think the only way to go.

“I would hope that boring wines will disappear.”

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