That shrinking feeling: What wine lists look like out of lockdown

Jacopo Mazzeo

Jacopo Mazzeo

17 November 2020

Circumstances forced venues everywhere to slim down their wine lists, but many are enjoying the newfound simplicity. Jacopo Mazzeo asks if we are emerging from lockdown with leaner and fitter selections?

Months of disheartening lockdown went by before venues could reopen their doors (for the first time) to the public on Saturday 4 July 2020. Re-opening was a bit like making the first tentative steps after a broken bone, with venues having to traverse new health and safety regulations and walk the line between ‘business as usual’ and inventive ideas to overcome the unpredictability of the new post-lockdown era.

Shrinking wine lists have been the most common response to the uncertainties across the entire sector, from large restaurant chains to small independent bars. Shorter lists, often on single A4 or A3 pages, are cheaper to produce and easier to dispose of or clean, if laminated.

Crucially, with contact between servers and guests reduced to the bare minimum, they’re also much easier to navigate and choose from. ‘We wanted to condense our wine list to a third of what it used to be, about 150 bins, getting that down to 50 to fit on a disposable A3 page,’ says Charlie Stein, who oversees the drinks offering across the Rick Stein group of restaurants.

‘A shorter list also means less time wasted for the staff. Our somms are now basically working behind the bar, they’re not doing the traditional sommelier role. We don’t have that time at the table, we don’t have that interaction, we’re wearing masks and we’re not pouring.’

Pre-Covid, Stein’s wine lists used to be fairly different from each other across the group’s numerous sites, but he’s now pushing towards a more similar offering, stripping it of many by-the-glass wines ‘just to get to a point where we have a list with wines we know are good sellers and that people will be able to pick very quickly.’

We don’t have that time at the table, we don’t have that
interaction... we’re not pouring

Charlie Stein

For a more agile service, some venues scrapped the piece of paper all together, and moved menus online. Shortly after reopening in July, Elly Owen, group somm at No6 in Padstow and Imbibe’s Sommelier of the Year 2020, told me she had quickly developed a virtual wine list that guests could access via smartphone through a QR code. Two months later, she updates me: ‘We are still all online for the wine list as this has proved quite successful. A few teething problems but it’s been a revelation on our side: less paper, easy to change.’

Craig Blackburn of the Lake District’s The Old Stamp House restaurant found similar benefits with the list now being presented on a tablet. ‘There are a number of benefits to this in that the tablet is easy to clean between viewings, really easy to update and handily there is less printing too, which is good from an environmental point of view,’ he says.

Blackburn has roughly halved his offer, but he is one of many who are seeing a positive in shrinking selections. He’s taken the opportunity to take a closer look at his list and ensure that all wines featured ‘sit really well alongside the food being served’.

Sam Harrison decided to revise his wine offering too, ahead of reopening Sam’s Riverside London brasserie: ‘I have totally rewritten my wine list, dropping from nearly 100 bins to under 30,’ he explains. ‘I looked at every wine and thought “does that deserve to be on the list?”, “does it offer our guests something different?”, “does each wine offer value for money at each price point, whether £25 or £125 a bottle?”’

It’s a positive response to a force majeure event, a silver lining of the pandemic that helped restaurants like The Old Stamp House and Sam’s Riverside move away from the varietal/region box-ticking exercise that characterised a dreary amount of pre-pandemic wine lists, providing their new offering with a more potential unique selling point, as well as simplifying stock management and admin work.

Going flat

With restaurants adopting cautious buying methods and relying on unsold stock for the first months after reopening, the new, shorter, post-Covid wine lists are yet to show any identifiable trends in terms of styles or regions that are being favoured (although exceptions should be made for easy-selling blockbuster wines such as entry level Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc or Argentinian Malbec). Sparkling wine, however, seems to have taken the hardest hit from the pandemic.

Wine Intelligence’s latest Sparkling Wine in the UK report blames the lack of celebratory occasions and big gatherings for Champagne’s drop in appeal, a decrease in off -trade demand that’s being mirrored in the on-trade. Miles MacInnes of Jascots Wine Merchants claims that ‘sales of the sparkling and Champagne category are down as a proportion of our sales mix by over 50% [because of] the lack of large, celebratory events’.

Sergio Dos Santos, who runs the wine programme at Hampshire country hotel The Montagu Arms, confirms the claims, saying that he had delisted Champagne and sparkling wine just before reopening (and put them back on the list at a later stage).

The wider trend of buying local has benefitted the growing English wine subcategory

Although sparkling wine has suffered as a whole, the report also highlighted that the wider Covid-era trend of buying more local has benefited the growing English sparkling wine subcategory, perhaps the only clear winner over these months of uncertainties.

Sam’s Riverside’s Harrison cut his 10-strong sparkling offer down to only two bubbles, one of which he says had to be English: ‘I love the Gusbourne and I’m really keen to push and promote it. Our guests love it and it suits our British menu and new outside terrace.’

Cutting ties

As lists get shorter, venues have taken the opportunity to consolidate their supply chain. Many of the restaurants interviewed while researching this article said they reduced it by half, while some slashed it by as much as 75%.

Group head of beverage at D&D London, Diana Rollan went from 50 down to 25, ‘including a mix of large and small suppliers with different philosophies and range in their selection, so they could help us to maintain a versatile selection across our menus’.

Dos Santos, meanwhile, is just waiting to minimise his stock holding before consolidating his supply chain to six merchants, down 50% from his pre-pandemic purchasing portfolio. ‘I am beginning to contact the six main suppliers to source the wines I need and will increase their order while I reduce our order from other suppliers.’ He hopes the solution will be a temporary one ‘to ensure good quality, a large variety of styles and to retain good prices’, but doesn’t rule out it becoming long-term.

Meanwhile, both Harrison and Blackburn opted for the bare minimum of a single supplier. The decision, says Harrison, is helping the restaurant in terms of stock management and ease of operation, while for Blackburn it was ‘primarily to cut down on the number of deliveries we receive [and] increase the size of the orders we place with an individual supplier... receiving better support and increased levels of customer service as a result.’

Bouncing back

Michael Driscoll, head sommelier at Careys Manor Hotel & SenSpa and its Cambium restaurant, has consolidated his supply chain too, but decided to keep the scope of the wine list unvaried. ‘We had five suppliers beforehand and now have two... I’ve already delisted over 100 wines since last October [but] I’m trying to keep the essence of what it’s about and make sure guest expectations are met, as the wine list in the Cambium restaurant has a good reputation in the local area.’

The unchanged scope of Driscoll’s list is far from being the exception to the rule, however: home-working white collars left city centre venues deserted, forcing them to minimise food and drinks on offer, but some ‘destination’ restaurants in more rural areas of the country – like Driscoll’s Cambium in the beautiful New Forest – have been able to maintain lists that resemble their pre-Covid wine offering.

Appetite for choice

‘Through insights from [our] customers,’ explains Berkmann’s on-trade sales director Fraser McGuire, ‘geographical location plays an important partner in the association between wine lists changing and Covid-19. For instance, those customers who are doing well are notable “staycation areas” which are keeping their long lists, [while] paradoxically, in urban areas we have noticed a dilution of bin numbers.’

The Montagu Arms has been benefiting from staycationers throughout the summer, too. Dos Santos had cautiously scaled down its Terrace Restaurant wine list from more than 40 to just eight pages ahead of the July reopening, but was then able to bring the selection back up to 16 pages in early September ‘due to high demand’.

As footfall slowly increases, even some ‘urban’ wine lists are managing to bounce back to near pre-pandemic levels. Charlie Young of Vinoteca, who had originally dropped his bin numbers from 200 to 50 at all but one of his sites, is now beefing up the list again.

‘We’re releasing a new long list for all the sites. It’ll be around 180 strong, with 80 of them new… As successful as the shorter list has been, and as satisfied as the guests have been over that period, we need the larger list to provide the range to cover our retail/online offering, wine club selection, and of course our customers’ (and staff ’s) appetite for choice!’

All encouraging signs, showing that the days of geek-friendly, sizable wine programmes aren’t long gone. Yet the pandemic has clearly forced sommeliers and buyers to take a closer look at their offering and experiment with slimmer, more agile and easier to navigate solutions that scream personality and motivate people to venture outside their homes.

And as the wine universe keeps expanding at an accelerating rate, those characterful, thought-through wine lists are one of this crisis’ most welcomed silver linings.

This article was first published in the 2020 autumn issue of Imbibe.

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