How To Build A Wine List

Michele Gargiulo

Sommelier Michele Gargiulo’s New Book Uncorks Advice For Wine Lovers

by Melissa Jacobs

This is a homecoming for Gargiulo; she was the restaurant’s sommelier before it temporarily closed to comply with Philadelphia’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Gargiulo spent the interim years as the wine and beverage manager for Fearless Restaurants, which owns the White Dog Cafés, Autograph Brasserie, Louie Louie, the Moshulu and other restaurants.

Michele Gargiulo
Want Gargiulo’s new book? Buy it here.

Main Line Tonight: It seems like you’ve written 52 books in 3 years. How are you so prolific while working a full-time job? Do you have a writing schedule? What’s your process?

Gargiulo: I do actually keep to a strict writing schedule. I normally write at night when I come home from work. When most people are watching TV for an hour, I am writing. Two thousand words is my goal for every day. It adds up pretty quickly.

MLT: This is really a self-help book for people in the restaurant business, right? Tell me the concept.

Gargiulo: This book is meant to educate and empower people in the hospitality business who want to learn about creating a wine list. One of the recurring themes I see is that a restaurants without sommeliers ask their favorite distributor to help write their wine lists. There is nothing overtly wrong with that, but then all the local wine lists look the same. And, instead of being geared towards the restaurant, they function as sell sheets of what that distributor needs to sell that month. 

Michele Gargiulo
Photo by Valeria Boltneva

MLT: What are three common mistakes people make when creating their restaurants’ wine lists?

Gargiulo: First, selling only what the buyer likes drinking. I’ve seen many lists that are clearly curated to one particular person’s tastes. I offer wines that I do not particularly love myself, as long as they are great expressions of what they are. People who buy them will love them. 

Second, overstocking wines that are similar. There is no reason to have pinot grigio bottles at $40,  $45 and $50. You are only confusing servers when guests ask them the difference between the three wines. 

Third, not having a matching theme. If your restaurant is Italian themed, make sure you have Italian wines to sell. I have seen restaurants that claim to be French, and only two of their 100 wines are from France.

There’s a common saying in the wine world: what grows together, goes together. It’s easy to remember and applies to pairing wines with food. Sell wines that complement your menu. If you sell mostly seafood, but only sell cabernet from Napa, you’ll have a hard time making your wines pair. 

Photo by Rachel Claire.

MLT: What are three things that make a restaurant’s wine service fantastic?

Gargiulo: First, server education (or sommelier assistance). It is really sad to see a beautiful wine list and no support for it in the restaurant. If you buy wines from a distributor, ask them to train your staff about those wines. 

Second, wine list structure. I love wine lists with descriptions that make ordering easier for guests. Listing them in order of style or texture makes it easy and fun for diners to explore a new wine.

Third, decanters are a must. I am a sucker for a beautiful decanter. They make huge differences in opening up wines and making them more drinkable.

wine decanter
Decanter by Kansona Design

MLT: When we’re in restaurants, what can diners do to enhance our wine experiences?

Gargiulo: First, ask questions. Don’t be afraid to sound like you don’t know something. I love teaching guests new things during their meal. 

Second,  taste wines by the glass if you are curious about them. These wines are already open behind the bar, so if you are curious, ask for a sample! This doesn’t annoy us. In fact, it helps us to steer you toward what you might like when you tell us why you don’t like something. 

Third, if you are ordering a powerful red wine, ask for it to be decanted.

Fourth, try to match textures of wine and food. Think of the texture of wine like milk. Fat free milk is a light wine, 2% milk is the same mouthfeel as medium bodied wines, and whole milk is a similar texture as full bodied wines. Try to make the heaviness (or lightness) of your food match the wine

Michele Gargiulo
Photo by Grape Things on Pexels.com

MLT: If you order wine and don’t enjoy it, what should you do? What’s proper etiquette?

Gargiulo: Great question! A lot of people are unaware of this. When a sommelier presents a taste it is mostly for you to approve that the wine is not flawed. It has not been spoiled. If you ordered the wine without any guidance, and you do not like it, it is technically bad manners to send it back. A good restaurant wouldn’t bat an eye if you did send it back, but if you chose a specific wine, it falls on you. Now, if you asked for help and someone suggested a wine and you did not like it, that’s a different story! Send that bad boy back. Don’t be polite if someone told you you’ll love this wine, and you hate it. 

MLT: Can people use this book to boost their at-home wine collections? What tips do you have for them?

Gargiulo: Wine lovers will be interested in this book, and the sequel that I am writing. It’s called How to Read a Wine List. The book will have a chapter dedicated to boosting your own personal cellar. Some excellent tips include: look at the actual packaging of the bottle to tell how long it can age. In general, darker and thicker glass is better for the wine to age. If the glass is clear and thin, the winemaker intended for you to drink that wine at a younger age.

The same general rule applies for screw caps or corks. Corks are made more for longer term storage, whereas screw caps keep wines fresh longer. There are, of course, exceptions to all rules, but this is a good rule of thumb for wine ageability. Winemakers normally list how long their wines are good for on their websites as well. 

Wine collections have a tendency to increase in value as the wines age. Make sure storage is in a darker, damp area (you want your corks to remain moist), away from light. Generally, 55 degrees temperature and 75% humidity is best. 

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