• Wine lists in a COVID-19 World

    Wine lists become an extension of the personality of the venue. (Photo: Pexels)

    Wine lists have always fascinated me. This makes sense considering my career, but it’s been longer and goes deeper than a job choice.

    There’s something about the work that goes into them, the planning and detail to make a good one that fascinates me. They become an extension of the personality of the venue, be it a short one-page number of eclectic drops or a multi-paged leather-bound tome housing the great wines of the world.I love technology and all the things it can do, but I must admit that when it comes to a wine list I struggle with the idea of having it on an iPad.

    I recall being in restaurants, well before I could drink wine, but noticing the ceremony of the wine list, its presentation and the interest with which it held the wine selector on the evening.

    This was generally well before we had sommeliers on the restaurant floor but there was still a sense of occasion when the wine was chosen. I have always loved a good read and this idea of a list that traversed both the world time stuck in my mind for years to come.

    I have hundreds of lists saved on my computer, quite a few physical copies that I have worked with over the years too. It’s great to stop and ponder them in their moment of time, a snapshot of the day.

    Every couple of months I save the current Fix Wine Bar + Restaurant wine list, so now I have 14 years of history to look back on. It shines a light on how far the Australian wine drinking public has come over the past decade and more.

    To pull together a great list there are so many factors to be addressed, but I do believe it takes time for a list to truly show its personality.

    A list of the great wines and vintages of the world is an exercise in budget, impressive yes but somewhat one dimensional. As time goes on there begins a thread of life and it moves into a living thing, morphing with the simple commercial vagaries of stock control, customer buying habits and the influence of those selling the wine on the floor.

    I love looking at a list and getting a feel for the venue, the people and food they provide. Not every list has to be huge, nor serious. If you get a chance to look at something like the list at Terroir|Tribeca (NYC) then you’ll see not just a list of wines but a piece of entertainment and joy.

    However, right now we have a dilemma, in these times of COVID-19 those great expressions of personality can’t just be handed around, to be shared amongst multiple tables. They have to be reduced down to a single-use sheet of paper or laminated to be repeatedly sanitised.

    Can we keep that personality in these formats? Do we look to technology to provide the connection between the list and the user? It’s a question that I’m still working on and the sommeliers I’ve spoken with are still coming to terms with.

    For me, I’ve decided this is the opportunity and frankly the better business decision to reduce the stock I hold and bring the wine list down in size.

    Before shutting down we were holding about 250 wines on the list, right now it’s about 50 bins. Over the next week though we will jump up to about 100. This only possible by finally being able to secure an A3 printer. Yes, the working from home directives has done wonders of printer sales and the like!

    I’m excited by this change, it has invigorated me in how I’m pulling the list together to keep it balanced but also fit it into one page.

    Our by the glass offer will also once again grow, heading back to at least 50% of the list, probably more because I’m obsessed with the Coravin system and how wines develop under it. I do have one card up my sleeve though when it comes to size, I can always print double-sided.

    With this new paradigm in mind, I reached out to Amanda Yallop, wine director for the Fink group to see how they were managing this challenge at Quay and other venues, where those encyclopaedic lists have purpose and add gravitas to such world-class dining experiences.

    Much like me, Amanda is very conscious of the business side of the list right now, large stock holdings are not the way to play it in the current climate, if there’s wine that’s been cellared then it can be liquidated, both literally and metaphorically.

    Wine service at Quay has always been a highlight in the country and they’ve transitioned to a single-use page with the by the glass offer along with cocktails, beers and so forth. This list remains with the table during the meal but also has a QR code which will take the diner to the entire list on their own device.

    This is a compromise I see playing out across the country and handles the tension between tradition and technology as best possible in the current circumstances. As a venue, they also have the ability to update the list in real-time to avoid those pesky out of stock moments we all dread.

    I love technology and all the things it can do, but I must admit that when it comes to a wine list I struggle with the idea of having it on an iPad or similar, the personality and sense of the venue I fear will be lost in an overload of information that an electronic list can deliver.

    Maybe I’m just getting old, and when the next generation gets involved and starts their own restaurants and bars I’ll be the grumpy old bloke telling everyone within earshot about how much better it was back in the good old days.

    First publish on The Real Review 28/7/2020

  • Opportunity for change in hospitality.

    Right now, restaurateurs across the country are looking out across their venues with that wonderful thing we call ‘bums on seats’.

    My last piece for The Real Review was a story of survival, the fight or flight reaction to a challenge that no one could truly be prepared for.

    Now Fix Wine Bar + Restaurant is open in Sydney. Still with restrictions, but able to have meaningful patronage so I’m calling this the other side. Where do we go from here? There is an opportunity here to make the resets required to fix the industry.

    Right now, restaurateurs across the country are looking out across their venues with that wonderful thing we call ‘bums on seats’. There’s truly no greater music to my ears than the sound of a humming venue with the clatter of cutlery on china, the clink of glassware and the popping of bottles.

    As an industry we’ve been through hell, but, for all that heartache and stress, the joy of having the doors back open again washes all that tension away.

    I have been astounded and humbled by the sea of familiar faces who have made their way back to Fix, along with a raft of new visitors. There is a palpable joy to the place, a feeling of community that has been accentuated by its absence for so long.

    Humans are social animals and I can see by the enthusiasm in which people are returning to Fix that socialising has been missed. I don’t doubt for a moment this same experience is happening at venues all around Australia. There are many places like mine, not flash or fancy but have a sense of place in the community that surrounds them. We’ve been at it for 14 years and I truly believe that longevity has been our saviour in this climate.

    It’s this newfound enthusiasm that I feel will help the industry bounce back as people realise the things they missed during lockdown. Everything from a quick coffee with a colleague to a fine bottle of wine shared with good friends will be magnified with the knowledge that it’s not always guaranteed.

    To keep that euphoria, we need to maintain a sense of hospitality and joy, this will be a challenge for some, but it is a cornerstone for the future of my industry.

    There’s nothing new in me saying the restaurant game was broken well before COVID. Wage scandals shone a light on historic practices that hadn’t moved with the times. Continual price increases of raw product for many years with an industry not comfortable to pass those increases on. There is an opportunity here to make the resets required to fix the industry.

    The best way to ensure that everyone gets paid for the hours they work is to ensure the selling price is correct. If we look at the simple takeaway latte, in Sydney it has been between AUD $3-$4 for as long as I can remember, no one is willing to raise the price even though all the inputs have gone up. Even the world’s most successful food and beverage chain, McDonald’s, sells their latte for AUD $4.60 or more.Considering the climate of Sydney, it seems crazy that we have yet to really find a way to have that vibrant evening buzz that so many other great cities do.

    Even without price rises though there is an opportunity for my industry to thrive and grow in this new world. We have seen a huge shift to remote work. The Sydney CBD would be at 20% capacity right now, most people still working from home partially or completely. I’m still unnerved by getting a peak hour train and having several seats to choose from.

    With this newfound flexibility, there’s an opportunity to improve the industry bottom line along with reducing pressure on public transport peaks and all that goes with it. With some encouragement perhaps a change in expectation of working hours away from just 9am-5pm. I’m sure many would enjoy starting earlier or later.

    This would give a place like Fix a chance to serve two lunches and two dinners instead of the 12.30pm and 6.30pm bottleneck. Not to mention the advantage it would be to the oft-touted night-time economy, particularly with those same changes applied to retail. Considering the climate of Sydney, it seems crazy that we have yet to really find a way to have that vibrant evening buzz that so many other great cities do.

    Whilst price adjustments and flexible hours are things I hope for and would be positive for the industry I don’t know if they’ll happen. But there is one area that really must change. The scourge of no shows.

    During the period when NSW venues could have a maximum of ten patrons, I lost count of the stories of no shows. Even an institution like Beppi’s had a group of six not arrive. In normal times this is unacceptable, but to have 60% of your guests just not show up is outrageous. To counter this, you will see many more venues ask for credit card details when you book.

    Please don’t be offended by this, we build our menu, do our ordering and rostering based on what we have booked. We have implemented it at Fix and since our return there’s not been a single no-show. Of course, we understand things can happen and we will be far more flexible than the airlines I guarantee!

    This is what it may look like. I’m certainly not one to set things in stone, if there’s nothing else we’ve learnt from the past few months is that things can change fundamentally with no way of controlling the effects. I don’t doubt there are interesting times ahead for all of us and whilst there are changes, difficulties and challenges still to come I do believe that the key to it all will still be the rekindled joy of dining out.

    I can’t wait to see you all out and about, sharing love, life and laughter with family and friends. I can assure you those looking after you are incredibly happy you are there too.

    First published 30/6/2020 on The Real Review

  • Coravin, my not-so-new favourite wine tool.

    The Coravin is one of the greatest game changers I’ve seen in my life of serving wine. And let me tell you, that’s a few years.

    In short, this nifty tool gives access to wines that can be poured by the glass and yet never opened!

    Think Grange, Barolo and Grand Cru Burgundy to start.

    I’ve played around with it for a while now and am confident that the wines remain perfect once ‘Coravined’.

    Thanks to the coravin, we’ve added about 20 premium wines to our by the glass list. Available as a “taste” or glass. And we can do it, because the wines stay super fresh under their own cork indefinitely.

    If you don’t believe me ask Jancis Robinson http://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/coravin-the-pros-and-cons