Equal Partners: Rethinking the wine list

Margaret Rand

16 October 2015

There has been a gradual move towards giving beer, spirits and softs more prominence in the drinks offering. But Yauatcha City’s latest list moves the debate to a whole new level. Margaret Rand reports

There are a number of different letters that crop up in this piece. One is Y, as in Generation Y – in their twenties to mid-thirties, for any readers too ancient to remember. Another is WI – here meaning Wine Intelligence, rather than jam and Jerusalem. Then there’s also the c-word – curated.

Like any right-minded person, Christine Parkinson of Hakkasan Group finds the word ‘curation’ annoying when applied to wine lists, but its frightful pretentiousness is, she says, something we should forget. ‘Ignore curation at your peril.’

The reason is that the new Yauatcha City list is not only very much shorter than it used to be, but is curated within an inch of its life. What’s especially interesting, however, is that the list gives equal billing to wine and saké, tea and spirits: its categories are Beginnings, familiar Old Friends, unfamiliar New Friends, Lucky Friends for when you’re feeling indulgent – think Roederer Cristal and 1980 Puer Tuo Cha dark tea – and a page of teas called Tea Break, or At Cha if you prefer.

The genius of it is that you want to try everything, a Lam Peak Martini and a Roussette de Savoie and a White Peony tea and a Bruichladdich Laddie and a mandarin and chilli fruit blend to ward off the after-effects of the aforementioned. It’s done with great intelligence – indeed, with Wine Intelligence.

‘We started from the point that we wanted to consider trends and come up with something better,’ says Parkinson. That’s where WI came into play. The WI Global Consumer Trends 2015 report provided Parkinson with some of the clues she needed.

Gauging the mood
One was a wish for instant results. ‘People don’t want one document for wine, one document for cocktails, and one document for beverages,’ Parkinson says. ‘Instead they want everything in front of them. I felt quite strongly that consumers are starting to see wine and other beverages as the same thing: they just think, what would I like to drink?

‘Fundamentally, people decide to have something familiar, or to try something new. They decide that before deciding whether to have wine or a cocktail or saké. I realised that we were already training sommeliers to explain what would work from that point of view, but the presentation of the list needed to go further.’

Hence reclassifying the list not by drinks category, but by the kind of adventures people want to have, as per the WI report.

‘We picked up a trend to upgrade,’ says Parkinson. ‘Everybody wants something a bit more special than usual. It’s all about tapping into people’s moods and emotions: people know what they want on a given day.’

And then the teas, for what is essentially a tea house. ‘All the teas have a very distinct character; all have a reason to be drunk,’ she explains. One might infer a slight bias to wine because it tends to come before the others, but New Friends, for example, lists 24 wines to 26 others.

‘Beer gets equal billing to wine – it has increased in response to how much we sell’ Hamish Anderson 

Each wine, saké and cocktail is tasted with four dishes, and if it fails with just one, it doesn’t go on the list.

‘The concept is very, very simple, but you have to cover a lot of ground to get there,’ says Parkinson.

Yauatcha’s Liquid Sweet Shop, a drinks list that evolved to match the cake and sweet counter, ‘was the first step’: it originally included grappa, an
Espresso Martini with chocolate, and so on. Now, the rest of the list has essentially been brought into line. There are no tasting notes, because the staff are well trained and Parkinson wants guests and staff to engage with one another.

Which brings us back to the c-word. ‘Generation Y is known for placing emphasis on peer review,’ she says. ‘But in a restaurant you have a printed list and no peer review, so there’s a trend to curated lists, and a slight shift of emphasis to smaller lists, with the implication that more care has been taken.’

Plate tricks
Hamish Anderson at Tate Modern doesn’t expect quite as big a feat of memory of his staff. He has no sommeliers, though on Friday and Saturday evenings, when the restaurant is open, he borrows one from Tate Britain. The list covers beer, cider and wine: 50 wines, 26 beers and ciders.

‘I would love to tell you there was a grand master plan,’ he says, ‘but it has evolved. Beer gets equal billing to wine, and it has increased in response to how much we sell. I’m very keen on craft ale, and we’re a British gallery, so I wanted to have only British beer.’

Where curation comes into its own here is on the food menu: each dish has a suggested match. On there, too, are the digestifs, coffees, teas, iced teas and smoothies; but it’s the pairings themselves that make Tate so Modern. I’d try Treboom Kettle Drum Best Bitter with Gressingham duck livers, ginger toast and poached rhubarb, and I don’t even like beer. It just sounds so interesting.

The premise for beer and for the more unusual wines ‘was to look for excuses for people to try them, and food is the most obvious excuse,’ says Anderson. Some 40% of visitors to the gallery are from overseas, ‘so we can put a Greek wine on and there’ll be a Greek tourist who drinks it’.
People come in in the afternoon for a beer and to look out of the window, or for a glass of wine and a snack, and Generation Y, working locally, treats the bar as a destination in the evenings. This is curation for the nation, or for quite a lot of it.

If you give equal billing to drinks of all sorts, the sales mix changes. Anderson is relaxed about Tate Modern’s 70% wine and 30% beer. So is Yauatcha’s Parkinson: ‘I could be shooting myself in the foot, and find we sell more iced tea and spirits,’ she says. ‘But I see no reason why the drinks spend should be less. And potentially it could be more. It will speak to people in a way that others do not.’

Imbibe’s Wine List of the Year shortlist is now available. Winners will be announced in the November/December issue.

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