How to build a wine list

Have you ever wondered about the science behind building a wine list? We have. That’s why Malu Lambert corners restaurateur and sommelier, Neil Grant at one of his very well-stocked bars and steal his secrets.

Neil Grant is the co-founder and owner of Burrata, Bocca and Open Door.

What do you think about wine lists being bought?
Not in favour... It stifles creativity.

Each restaurant is unique in its own sense and a wine list needs to reflect this. As restaurant owners we don’t have our food supplier buying our menus and telling us what we need to serve—so, why then should this happen with wine lists?

To run a restaurant I need to have an understanding of each area of my own business, and a major part is the wine list.

How do you create an interesting wine list, that still sells wine?
The venue will dictate what type of wine list is needed. Where it is, what style of food, who’s the main target market, and so on.

Figure out what level you’re aiming at, then make sure to find a perfect balance between wines that people recognise, but also allow for guests to be surprised!

Why would I want to drink a wine that every restaurant on the block has on its list? Can you imagine if ALL restaurants served the same food? 

Price points are key, but this again depends on the clientele. If your restaurant is near a university, then lower price points [and yes students are drinking more wine these days], however a high-end restaurant would stock wines that are more exclusive and at higher price points.

Make sure the wine list flows.

Why is it important to create a good wine list?
Wines need to complement the food and the offering. Not every restaurant needs a world-class wine list. It’s about your target market. However, to have one or two great wines on your list is never going harm any one. I am often asked if high-end wines sell on my lists—we may not sell these wines every night, but then all of a sudden you sell two in the same evening.

Where do you think restaurants are going wrong?
Allowing others to do it for them! A wine list with a personal touch is better than a bought one. At the end of the day you’re inviting guests into your “home”. Yes, it could be more of a challenge for certain restaurants to strike the right balance, however, over time you will be thankful to have played that role. It's the same as the pride you have in your restaurant.

How close should the wine and food menu be linked?
Very! We live in a world with so many more choices, so it's up to a restaurant to make those choices as to what you want to serve, and to serve wines that complement what you do.

In San Francisco there is a famous Vietnamese restaurant called Slanted Door, this restaurant served about 85 per cent white wine and 15 per cent light reds to complement the food. I would love to see more restaurants in South Africa doing the same.

What's your advice to restaurateurs?
Stick to the plan for your restaurant and create a list that complements your food. Your style, your vision.

It’s always harder to create a small well-balanced wine list than it is to put together a large one. Having a small list goes a long way in showing your dedication to sourcing the perfect wines for your venue.

Is there still a place for sommeliers in the modern dining world?
Without a doubt, even with all these phone apps that we have today! These apps generally pull scores by individuals who can be anyone from a dentist to a soccer coach—the ratings of the wines my be very skewed. Even with ratings that are done by wine professionals, you still need the sommelier to understand the chef's style of food and pair accordingly. Find me a app that can pack the cellar, decant and serve the wine! Sommeliers are also there to enhance your dining experience, by relating to your personal requirements – it adds to the all-round experience.


Experience Neil's thoughtful, exciting wine lists for yourself at one of his famed restaurants. Plus, he offers an incredible selection by the glass too.