Graileys Fine Wine Sommelier D’Lynn Proctor Decodes the Restaurant Wine List
Ever wondered how a sommelier creates a wine list for a Dallas restaurant? D’Lynn Proctor has a few ideas.
Pages and pages of obscure vintages are always overwhelming at dinner, as are those three-digit prices on the right side. We recently caught up with D’Lynn Proctor, former sommelier at Five Sixty and current sommelier and cellar master at Graileys Fine Wines and Wine Cellar, to explain just how you go about creating a 300-plus wine list at a fancy restaurant that appeals to the snobs, the newbies, and the masses.
What are the main factors you take into consideration when starting a wine list?
The main factor is always food. Does the wine—which always comes second to the food—match the weight of the food, method of preparation, style(s) of cuisine, and regions of specified cuisine? Second, the type of restaurant. Is it fine dining, semi fine, casual, or a lounge atmosphere? Then, where is the location and what are the demographics? You can’t write a killer wine list for a fancy place in the middle of Kaufman! Nor can you have a casual wine list for a three-Michelin joint in the heart of a metropolis.
Do you have a certain number in mind, price range, budget?
There is always a number I shoot for. My idea was to have a list with minimum 300 labels. The labels show our guests and consumers that we pay enough attention to detail to pretty much include all styles, regions, sub-regions, and producers. Guests want to feel like they have more than their eyeful of producers they are familiar with. Then you have to include the geeky producers and geeky regions and grapes. This takes the guests on a vacation they have never been on before or gives them something to try that they have only heard of or read about in articles.
Pricing always needs to be competitive for your area because you don’t want your neighboring restaurant stealing the business! And it is never comfortable when a guest tells you they saw John Doe Cabernet Sauvignon at the spot next door for $60 cheaper. But at the same time, ambience, service, and venue come into play with a wine list, so certain wines based on availability, allocation, and name can garner a higher price on the list.
Budget is not really a factor, because these days there are great wines in all categories of pricing, and vintners and winemakers are making such balanced and harmonious wines at all price ranges.
Where do you start? What was your budget at Five Sixty? How big was the wine list?
At Five Sixty, I started with Wolf, because he is Austrian. I picked every Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Sylvaner, Furmint, Kerner, Blaufrankisch, and Zweigelt I could find. Think cuisine! Then I went to Germany, Alsace, Loire, Burgundy, and then Oregon. Why? All of these wines are feminine, light, elegant, and compliment the food exceptionally well. Then I rounded off with the heavy hitters of Bordeaux, Napa, Italy, Washington, and Australia. The wine list was pretty big, with $160,000 in wine inventory only.
Did you have specific regions you focused on? How did you choose those?
Because the cuisine was mostly Asian, you have to think about spices, herbs, types of protein, weight of protein. So I focused on regions that are synonymous with the given style of food and went straight to Burgundy, Germany, and Austria. Pinot, Chard, Riesling, and Gruner have different tiers of crispness and acidity per given vineyard, so knowing their styles I paired based on the given menus style.
How do you price the wines? Is it an across-the-board markup or do you price them differently?
Most wines receive an across-the-board markup, but wines that are rare, highly sought after and highly allocated, or Puck Restaurant only, receive a different and slightly higher markup. The markup on the wines varied from bottle to bottle. [In reference to the Belle Glos Taylor Lane Pinot Noir, priced at $127] I did have Taylor Lane on the list at a 34% markup, which is very average and comparable to what other fine venues would offer. Normal markups were anywhere from 25% to 40%. You never want to price yourself out of the game, but you always have to take into consideration the service element, as well as ambience, staff, name, and knowledge of sommelier on staff. All of these roll into pricing. Single-vineyard stuff is always more expensive, and if you are the only place in a city or the state that got the allocation, you can charge what you want!
How did you tailor your wine list to Dallas’s clientele, specifically? Were there certain wines you felt you had to include?
Dallas diners love to spend big, so I surely gave them those hitters that they could depend on. But on the flip side, the masses need to be able to pick a $70 Cab and a $50 Pinot. Dallas diners want diversity. I was able to corner every style and profile for that level of comfort.
How do you educate a staff on a wine list that large?
Daily tastings and seminars for servers, bartenders, and the like. The staff needs to have every wine by the glass hit their palate, and even wines from the menu. Then there are weekly and sometimes daily tests to keep all information fresh as well as geography lessons on grape variety and type, because one needs to know there is a difference in Cabernet coming from four different regions based on climate, and that affects food greatly. There is nothing worse than an uneducated server not knowing how to pair and suggest different wines with different foods.
What do you think is the best way to organize a list? By varietal, country, flavor, etc?
Always organize country first, then region, then varietal (and vineyard where applicable). The wine list must have flow, and starting at the country then dwindling down is the only way that makes sense for me.
What were some of your favorites that went on the list?
Servin Chablis, Lopez de Heredia Rioja Tondonia, Matrot Meursault, Mikulski Volnay, Fontodi Flaccianello, Gobelsburg Riesling Gobelsburger, Chiquet Brut Rose Champagne—just to name a few!