Hillside Kitchen is a 28 seat restaurant (this goes down even further when we take away a couple of seats at night to give tables space and to account for odd numbered parties). So a 'conventional' wine list was never going to work.
Reading other wine lists, both kiwi and international, what sticks out about the kiwi ones (in all corners of the market) is their sheer size when it comes to by the glass options. Almost every list I read (and bear in mind we are talking restaurant lists, not wine bar lists) have multiple options for all of the favourites: sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot noir, merlot and usually riesling and syrah/shiraz as well now. This leaves very little room for anything else. We've been brought up to worship the illusion of 'choice' - that is, having lots of options - over real choice, a diverse selection of wines that each bring something different to the table at different prices. I don't think anyone can argue that three Pinot Gris at $10, $12 and $14 respectively are likely to do this.
Many diners are often surprised and challenged when they find we don't have a single sauvignon blanc by the glass. And that in fact our dry, high acid, zingy white happens to be a musky rather than floral Hawkes Bay Gewurtztraminer. Some people think we are trying to be some sort of uber wine hipsters (we're not, we don't have to try) but the opposite is true. We are trying to offer a truly diverse selection of wines that do genuinely different things in the glass and that match to our food, within the constraints we have as a 28 seater restaurant. Yes, we could have 2 sauvignon blanc, 2 pinot gris, 2 chardonnay by the glass... but we wouldn't have much else. When so much stress is put on these varieties (simply because they are easy to sell) it draws the drinkers attention away from everything else. Thus you get wine reps, restaurant managers and somms talk about how particular wines are difficult to sell, that they are "hand sells". Our solution to this doesn't work for all restaurants but works for us: make every wine a "hand sell".
Having only a handful of unique wines also has other benefits. One of the most striking of these is, with a bit of thought and the use of a Coravin (which has become an indispensable tool that allows for us to pour higher profile wines), significantly lowering wastage. This means we can offer you a better glass of wine at each price point. To illustrate, on a list of 14 wines by the glass (1 bubbles, 7 whites, 1 rose or amber wine depending on the season and 6 reds) we have a grand total of 5 wines under $12 per glass (2 whites, 2 reds and the rose). Some people see this as snobbish, that we prioritise those who want to spend $14 - $15 or even heaven forbid $20 - $30 on a glass of wine. Again, the opposite is true. By having only a couple of options at these price points I can offer what I think are the absolute best value wines I can to our customers, wines that at $10 - $12 blow people out of the water and have real wow factor.
This is also the reason we don't have a champagne by the glass... we have an awesome Central Otago rose fizz because, quite frankly we need one sparkling wine at an approachable price point. We could list a champagne too, and at a good price... but with the volume we do due to our size we are never going to do enough business to justify having two bottles of bubbles open. This means wastage. Which means putting the price of some wines up (usually something other than the champagne because otherwise you are going to sell even less - supply and demand baby - and thus waste more). I detest picking up a list and seeing some wines/beers subsidise others - especially when its most often the least expensive subsidising the most expensive. To me, that is the worst disservice one can do to budget conscious drinkers.
Looking at international lists now, many (and some with the heftiest tombs of bottle lists) make our 14 glass list look positively generous (especially considering the size of the restaurnant). Alder, a similar restaurant in philosophy to us, albeit twice the size and in NYC has only 10 wines by the glass, the roomy (with seats for just under 100) Cutler and Co with a 23 page list has only 15 options (including 3 sparkling wines) that range from $11 to $26 AUD.
So, I ask, why do New Zealand restaurants have to offer so many wines by the glass but so little choice?
Don't even get me started on the value proposition question...