You don’t have to be a sommelier to write a fantastic wine list. But you do need to know your audience.
“Wine operates under a different context in the private-club setting,” says Sandy McGaughey, General Manager at Boca Woods Country Club (BWCC), Boca Raton, Fla. McGaughey’s Master Club Manager monograph, Creating the Private Club Wine List, explores best practices when selecting, pricing, and marketing wine.
“It’s critical to take members and their preferences into account as you evolve your list,” he advises. “Club wines should offer good value and an appropriate, well-chosen selection.”
Creating a solid, saleable list is challenging in any environment. It requires time, planning, patience, learning, and trial and error. But when you put in the legwork, you reap the rewards.
“A list doesn’t have to be big to be elegant,” says McGaughey, who is also a judge for the Club Managers Association of America’s International Wine Society annual awards. “I see over 100 club wine lists every year as part of the judging process, and the common theme is low price, high quality.”
McGaughey suggests using these five pillars as a strong base for any wine program:
- Variety—A list with 50 selections can be just as great as a list with 120, as long as both represent vintages from the major wine regions of the world.
“It’s important that you have a few different styles in each category,” says McGaughey, who reports that listing 12 to 18 varietals or regions is the norm. “Be sure that the wines you offer in each group are diametrically opposed in style.”
He also suggests paying attention to national brand recognition, regionality and member preferences.
- Pricing—Affordability and value are key in the club environment.
“Most clubs use a times-two markup, and then a sliding scale after $40,” says McGaughey. “If I buy a wine for $10, I’ll sell it for $23.”
Club wines should also represent a significant value over restaurants.
“Members pay dues, and therefore expect us to sell them an amazing glass of sauvignon blanc at $7.50 that they’d find at a restaurant for $12,” says McGaughey.
- Usability—A successful list is helpful, organized and user-friendly. It doesn’t make the assumption that your member or guest is wine-savvy, and should be easy to use for novices and experts alike. Similarly, your staff should have access to tasting notes, as well as regular training, so they can become increasingly knowledgeable about your selections.
- Application—Some wines are great for cocktails, while others are better paired with food. Understanding the differences, and ensuring that you have an adequate amount of each on your list, will further your chances for success.
- By the Glass—Successful by-the-glass programs can be a key revenue driver when they present a progressive and focused set of choices.
“By-the-glass programs pour six to seven ounces per portion, and the price is obtained by dividing the regular retail [wine list] price of the bottle by four,” says McGaughey. “Over the years, we’ve seen these lists grow substantially, with clubs offering as many as 24 by-the-glass choices.”
Harkening back to his earlier advice, McGaughey emphasizes variety and value as the keys to the success of any by-the-glass program.
“Generally speaking, the best lists are not written by committee,” he says. “It can be difficult to navigate the process when there are too many people offering opinions, especially if certain members join the wine committee just to have fun.”
At BWCC, McGaughey bounces wine ideas off two key members who each have vast wine knowledge. He also relies on the club’s Executive Chef, Kevin Smith, who plays a key role in creating pairings.
Ultimately, he advises, a wine list should provide practical opportunities for members to sip and explore. It should be useful, approachable and ever-changing.