Whether you run a casual pizza joint or a high-end restaurant, wine should probably be on the menu. Wine is everywhere today, and that’s partly thanks to millennials, who now drink about a quarter of the wine inventory in the U.S. Some are now calling wine the “drink of the everyman.”

But the best restaurant wine lists don’t happen by accident. They’re carefully and strategically planned to complement the cuisine and the tastes of guests. Here’s how to create the ideal startup wine list.

how to list wine on a menu

Choose Wines that Complement Your Cuisine

When creating your wine list, it’s crucial to consider food pairing concepts. A steakhouse may offer a wide selection of bold reds with a few special whites. A seafood restaurant would probably have a different range.

Turn to your food menu when creating your restaurant wine list, and keep these general principles in mind:

  • Full-bodied reds pair well in dishes with savory mushrooms, red meat, or where black pepper is a dominant flavor.

  • Lighter reds pair well with poultry dishes.

  • Medium-bodied reds pair well with dishes containing roasted vegetables, tomato-based sauces, and strong spices, like chili peppers, rosemary, and cumin.

  • Full-bodied whites also pair well with poultry dishes as well as dishes containing lobster, crab, cheese and cream sauces.

  • Lighter whites pair well with fried food, salads, and seafood dishes.

  • Floral or fruity wines pair well with Thai and Indian cuisine. They also complement dishes with citrus, cheese, sauces and even some desserts, like ice cream.

  • Dessert wines serve well with pies, caramel, chocolate, cakes, and the strongest flavored cheeses.

  • Champagne and sparkling wines pair well with fried and salty foods.

Keep it Short and Sweet

Unless you’re running a high-end restaurant, there’s no need to have hundreds of wines from around the world on your menu.

Narrow it down to a list of carefully selected wines that pair well with the foods you serve.

Customers will feel less intimidated and overwhelmed if you keep it short and sweet. While it’s best to offer a smaller number of choices, it’s important not to forget true wine connoisseurs. The majority of your wines should be familiar to most people, but you can add a few unique, rare or expensive options for wine-loving diners.

wine menu design

Organize Properly – And Not by Price

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face when creating your list is deciding how to display your wines. Wine menu design is a fine art, and everyone seems to have a different opinion on what works best.

The only thing everyone can agree on is that you should never organize your list by price. Why? No matter which order you choose (most expensive to cheapest and vice versa), guests will generally head directly to the cheapest option.

Many restaurants find that a progressive wine list works best for their guests and their bottom line.

What is a Progressive Wine List?

Considered the tried-and-true philosophy, a progressive wine list groups wines according to taste categories.

For example, you may list your whites from light to heavy, and your reds from light to bold. The key most important thing is to tell your customers how the wines are grouped.

If you only offer a small selection of whites and reds, your categories may look something like this:

  • White Wine Menu, from light to heavy

  • Red Wine Menu, from light to bold

These two category titles let the customer know that the first choice is the lightest, while the last is the heaviest or boldest.

If you’re offering a wider range of whites and reds, you may have different sub-categories, such as:

  • Light and delicate

  • Slightly sweet

  • Full-bodied

You can also group by food pairings, such as:

  • Bold reds for steaks

  • Crisp whites for seafood

  • Medium-bodied reds for poultry

Categorizing is important, so don’t overlook this part. Be consistent with your categories, and don’t overwhelm your customers. The key is to organize your restaurant’s wine list in a way that makes it easy to find the right wine for the customer’s taste and dish.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Textual Explanations

Good wine lists do more than just list the name of the wine and the price; they also provide other information and textual explanations.

Along with food pairing suggestions, customers also want to know:

  • The country, region, subregion and appellation

  • Producer

  • Varietal for U.S. wines and countries where listing the grape is the norm

It’s also important to include tasting notes. Wine lists and descriptions should be rich and enticing to customers, but also explain what the customer can expect when choosing that wine.

Offering tasting notes and textual explanations saves wait staff time, as they don’t have to explain the wines to every table. It creates hospitality by providing guests with information. It also allows newbies to choose a wine without having to feel embarrassed or shy.

Don’t Neglect Your Wine-by-the-Glass Menu

Many would argue that your wine-by-the-glass menu is even more important than your bottle menu. Unless the table is a large party, there’s a good chance that wine will be ordered by the glass.

Consider providing unique options, such as by-the-glass offerings of wines your competitors only offer by-the-bottle.

restaurants wine list

Consider Your Pricing Strategy

The standard two to three times cost markup may not be right for your restaurant, particularly if you’re offering high-end, $200-per-bottle wines. It’s rare for guests to spend $600 on a bottle of wine at a restaurant unless you’re running a very high-end establishment.

Consider marking up higher-cost wines at a lower margin and substantially increasing the margins on your $10-$20 wines as well as by-the-glass prices. If you sell more wine by the glass and your margins are higher, it will offset the lower margin on higher cost bottles.

Variety is Key

A good wine list should be balanced, with white, red, rose and sparkling wines that are light, rich and every style in between. Keep in mind that variety and balance don’t necessarily equate to a big wine list.

Offering a little something for every taste is ideal, but your wine list doesn’t have to be the size of a book. The chances are good that most customers will lose interest after the first page or two. That’s why we recommend keeping it short and sweet.

Special Sections for Unique Offerings

If you’re offering seasonal selections, holiday offerings, or special reserves, you may want to create a special section for them. At the very least, you’ll want to highlight them on your menu with special icons. This special section will catch the guest’s attention, and hopefully, entice them to order a glass (or bottle).

Offering special sections or highlighting certain options on the wine menu will entice the guest to give it a try. These are usually higher-margin items that are only available for a limited time.

Creating a wine menu will take some time, and you may find that you have to reorganize a few times before you get it right. Just remember to focus on categorizing your wines in a user-friendly way and to choose wines that complement your menu. You don’t need a huge wine list to succeed, but you do need to be strategic and careful when selecting the wines for your restaurant.