Perfectly formed: the art of the short restaurant wine list

Many wine lists start out like ornate market gardens, with everything neatly laid out in sections and easy to manage. But over time it can grow into an endless jungle: a daunting place, impossible to navigate except for the most intrepid wine nerd. Some of them even start out that way. But grab your machete; it’s time to hack back.

Neil Bruce of Studio Alto is one of the judges for the Imbibe Wine List of the Year, and comes across the problem time and again: “Generally lists are too long, cluttered with too many wines… less is more, whatever the restaurant.” Shorter lists won’t just help you win awards; there are a number of compelling benefits to keeping it concise.

Less is more

The financial advantages are clear: a shorter list means less cash tied up in stock. Xavier Rousset MS, owner of London restaurants Texture and 28˚-50˚ confirms “it’s good for cost control: level of stock and cash flow”. Being a wine-focussed restaurant, 28˚-50˚ has a surprisingly succinct list of just 45 wines, but this is complemented by a separate, equally-sized fine wine list catering for dedicated wine lovers.

Since there is no full-time sommelier at 28˚-50˚, the smaller wine list is easier to understand for floor staff, some of whom may have limited wine knowledge. A shorter selection means less for them to remember, making it easier to sell across the range.

Stock control is more straightforward with fewer wines in the cellar, and less storage space is taken up by endless cardboard and wooden boxes. Slower moving bins are less likely to gather dust, lose freshness and slip into decline. Additionally, there are fewer picking and stock taking errors. Service staff mistakenly grabbing the 1996 Bordeaux instead of the 1997 can be an easy but expensive mistake. If you only have one vintage – or one Bordeaux – that won’t happen.

Short lists are also better for customer experience. Philip Burgess, owner of Bib Gourmand restaurant The Dartmoor Inn near Tavistock has recently refreshed their list and reduced it to 39 bins. He thinks that extensive wine lists make customers feel “a bit intimidated” and that shorter lists help them make decisions. Neil Bruce agrees: “It’s not easy to design a concise list, but better than being given a catalogue to read at the table. Who wants that?”

Bruce adds that a shorter wine list will sell “more effectively (profitably) and extensively (across the list) than an overly extensive one, every time” and also that sales will be greater because “consumers will (a) have greater visibility of what’s on offer and (b) be able to make better informed choices. Conversely, in a long list, most consumers will default to price-led decisions.”

Limited choice?

The principal criticism of the shorter-style wine list is that it restricts choice. Rousset admits that with smaller lists, there is a danger that “you may miss out on a sale”: if you had a customer who wanted to spend big on Barolo, for example, but you only stocked one Langhe Nebbiolo. Does having a shorter list mean that some customers can’t find anything they feel like drinking at 28˚-50˚? “It has never happened.”

Reduced choice of wines is something that affects those who run the restaurant as well. Philip Burgess says one drawback is that “you can’t have everything you want on there.” That is why it is important to keep shorter lists regularly updated, to keep the buyer, staff and regular customers interested and engaged.

Shorter lists, though increasingly common, are comparatively rare amongst very top-end restaurants. Less choice makes for fewer highly precise food matching possibilities. But a list of 50 or so wines all geared towards the restaurant’s food offering should generally be enough to find a good match, if there is a smart mix of wines designed to match seasonal foods.

Some white tablecloth establishments retain weighty tomes to present to their customers in the belief that this gives an impression of expertise. But rather than instilling confidence in the sommelier, it can have the opposite effect. Less confident customers might worry that sommeliers who manage such huge lists could pass off the slower moving or tired wines in their direction.

I would ascribe more proficiency to a sommelier that can create a good small list, presenting only exceptional examples of both quality and value in every style offered. And if the financial benefits of the shorter list are reflected in lower bottle prices, I’d be more likely to eat there too.

A valid reason for longer lists in fine dining restaurants is a larger range of prices to cover. Rousset is considering reducing the number of bins at Texture from 250 to closer to 100. But with bottle prices ranging from £25 up to £2000, it is understandably more difficult to achieve than at 28˚-50˚ which has a much lower price ceiling.

Get pruning

There are two foundations on which to make decisions regarding what wines to list. The wines need to work with the food that the kitchen creates. Equally, the wines need to be geared to your local market. Burgess at the Darmoor Inn carries a high proportion of classic names from Old World appellations, as this is what his “older customer base” demands. Luke Wilson, owner of restaurant 10 Greek Street in Soho, has more open-minded customers, which gives him freedom to experiment. Like Rousset, Wilson typically lists just 15 reds, 15 whites, a rosé and a handful of sparkling and sweet wines.

While producing a short wine list for The Table, a modern Italian restaurant near London Bridge, I settled on a similar number. We offer between 10 and 15 whites and reds depending on the season, and between two and three sparklings, rosés, fortified and sweet wines. Rather than starting by populating the list with so-called ‘must-have wines’ such as Chianti and Gavi, I list the styles of wine that are needed to best match the food and work from there, such as a light, fragrant red; a full-bodied white without overbearing fruit; a fresh, aromatic white, and so on. This creates room for more esoteric wines, which not only makes the list unique but lesser-known labels are often better value than the big names.

Wilson also works from a “general structure”; they will usually have two Pinot Noirs for example, one Old World and one New. He also keeps styles in mind above specific appellations; they will always have a dry and crisp white, but this could be a Sancerre, a Gavi, a Chablis or something more unusual.

A spread of styles should also be complemented by an even spread of prices, regions, and, where relevant, countries. Fewer wines on the list can also provide more room for tasting notes, food matching suggestions and other signposting to help customers find their way.

Shorter, not easier

Just because the list is shorter doesn’t mean it is simpler to produce; on the contrary. Rousset confirms it is “more time consuming and more challenging. Every single wine needs to fight to be on the list – the best they can possibly be for the price.”

But with so many benefits – improved cash flow, easier stock control, increased storage space, more confident staff, enhanced customer experience, retained customer and staff interest – it’s worth the effort. Grab the pruning shears. Be ruthless – but keep it fresh.


What to do – and what not to do – when producing a short wine list


  • “Start by assuming the customer has less than 60 seconds (probably half that in practice) to make their selection, so the list has to be intuitive to navigate.” Neil Bruce, Studio Alto
  • “Run it for six months; if a wine’s not selling, change it.” Philip Burgess, Dartmoor Inn
  • Consider a separate ‘fine and rare’ list (like at 28˚-50˚ and 10 Greek Street) or a simplified lunchtime list.
  • Taste regularly and build up a list of wines that you can refer to when revising the list.
  • Offer as many wines by the glass as possible without suffering unacceptable wastage: “Ten [of each colour] is the edge of where we can go.” Luke Wilson, 10 Greek Street


  • Don’t stick to one supplier. “Competition is good: over time you’ll get a better deal if you have more than one supplier… Quality varies: taste similar wines from different suppliers and pick the best one.” Christine Parkinson, Hakassan
  • Don’t start by writing a list of ‘must have’ classic appellations.
  • Don’t be rigid about numbers: consider more whites in spring/summer, more reds in autumn/winter.
  • Don’t list any wines that you wouldn’t consider buying for your own personal collection. “Think – would I drink it myself?” Xavier Rousset MS, 28˚-50˚
  • Don’t think you have to change the entire list with each refresh; best sellers or staff favourites can remain if they are still working well.


This is an longer version of an article first published in Imbibe magazine.