Behind the Scenes: Managing a Huge Wine List

Thumbing through page after page of a well-curated wine list of several varietals, rare finds and a range of price points can be a thrill-seeking joy ride for both wine novices and connoisseurs alike. And for some serious wine lovers, more expansion means more impressive. So, when it comes to those lists creeping toward some 500 labels, what kind of management skill set does it take? 

“Curating a large list demands constant wine tasting and evaluating, introducing new wines, and rotating bottles,” says Kamal Kouiri, the wine director and general manager of Molyvos, a restaurant in Midtown Manhattan that specializes in Greek cuisine. Here, Kamal provides an informational road map through his vast selection—the list features 712 wines with over 600 of them coming from Greece, making it the largest Greek wine list in the country. There is no shortage of by-the-glass options either. Knowing that some guests may not be well-versed in the region, Kamal offers 60 to choose from. “It’s a fun way to be playful and adventurous with my wine offerings,” he adds. “And, it’s an easier commitment than ordering a full bottle when trying out a new style or varietal.”

Many restaurants throughout the five boroughs and beyond opt for something on the smaller scale. Kamal notes that managing something of this magnitude takes a serious level of commitment. “I am passionate about Greek wines, and in my case, I’m introducing new products,” he states. “A lot of our guests have never experienced these awesome wines before, so I have to showcase a good range that covers every palate profile.” And his colleagues are well-versed in the list. “Staff and consumer education is a must,” he adds. “It can be a huge influence on the success of your wine program.” 

Kamal travels to Greece at least twice a year, re-tasting old favorites as well as scouting for wines off the beaten path. “Santorini wines were getting a little too expensive to run by-the-glass,” Kamal states. “So this past March, I went with an objective to find an Assyrtiko on the mainland. I found a great one by Domaine Papagiannakos in Attica.” Customers’ approval spoke volumes—40 out of 50 cases were completely depleted almost immediately upon their arrival to Molyvos. At Sepia restaurant in Chicago, sommelier and beverage director Arthur Hom’s “seasonally food-driven” list of some 800 labels and 45 by-the-glass options is more of a personal memoir than an actual menu. (This season’s wine list is entitled, “Wines for a Capricious Weather.”) Flip through the first few pages and take note of The Wine Geeks’ Soap Box, where tales of travels and personal guilty pleasures are the inspiration for wines offered, like the Pinot Blanc Dry Ökonomierat Rebholz for a memorable home-cooked meal of regional veal/pork meatballs and dumpling soup at the estate. The remaining 77 pages are broken down by country, featuring many big players as well as a focus on boutique wineries and lesser-known grapes. 

All these bottles takes a lot of hands-on management, and lack of space has thrown a curve ball. “Due to our limited storage space, the wine team conducts a soft count on the bottles at the beginning of the week,” Hom says. “That will serve as the purchase and stock guide for the rest of the week. Whether this means to stock up or faze out certain items on the list or how much should or shouldn’t purchase based on volume of the restaurant.”

Just north of New York City at Moderne Barn in Armonk, wine director Edgar Balagot showcases 630 wines by-the-bottle and 42 by-the-glass options—with a heavy focus on natural wines. Simplicity is key when it comes to maintenance. “We have a split cellar,” he says. “We have wine caves upstairs and the wine room downstairs and generate a report to restock the wines to the caves. I also  recheck the list against sales to see if there are any opportunities to build out the list either by price point or varietal, or to remove producers or varietals to accommodate the guests. Much of this is based on conversations with our guests to find out if there are particular types or varietals that are up-and-coming.” 

Guest expectations are at the forefront for all three restaurants, and it works. The menu format never downsizes, and customers remain happy and excited. 

“I think that, after the expansion of the program for the past several years, Sepia has become known to carry a wide range of products, especially older vintage bottles at very affordable price points,” says Hom. “And this is definitely the major reason that I have continued to seek out these items and made them available. I discovered that we ended up selling quite a lot of Bordeaux reds with some maturity, and older new world Pinot Noir. So it’s hard to take this feature away—I think guests are always surprised that they can find more mature bottles without offering up top dollar. ”

“I created a destination for customers to find and indulge on Greek wine,” says Kamal. “Wine preferences are changing. I’m not simply following trends. I’m aware of what my consumer preferences are, and that’s why I offer a large by-the-glass format—I want to cover my guests’ palates and also act as a bridge for my bottle options. No one loses here.”  

Balagot notes that the market is exceptional right now. “The state of the American wine market is dynamic and more interest is being paid to older world styles and more modern styles coming from American producers,” he says. “Many of our guests are much more educated on wines than before.”

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**Hero image courtesy of Molyvos
Image of Arthur Hom above by David Turner

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