Morton’s The Steakhouse Sommelier Makes These 4 Decisions Before Building a Wine Program

John Maraffa, beverage manager and certified sommelier at the prestigious nationwide chain, Morton’s The Steakhouse, believes that building a wine program or wine list from scratch – at any restaurant or bar – is a daunting task when you consider all the elements.

Morton's The Steakhouse, renowned for its timeless steakhouse experience, serves the finest USDA prime and dry-aged steaks along with a diverse menu of appetizers, seafood, and desserts that have made it a restaurant industry staple for the last 45 years. In addition, each Morton's location maintains a list of more than 300 wines and has received the Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence” or “Best of Award of Excellence.”

To help the industry be successful with its wine programs, Maraffa advises owners, operators, beverage directors, and sommeliers to make certain decisions before they even select that first wine placement.

Here are four things that must be decided during the early stages of building a wine list/program, according to Maraffa:

Morton's The Steakhouse John Maraffa Beverage Manager Sommelier
John Maraffa, beverage manager and certified sommelier, Morton’s The Steakhouse. (Photo: Courtesy of Morton’s The Steakhouse)

1. What Is the Focus of Your List/Program? 

Maraffa said every venue should first ask, “Do you want a specific focus or to be more broad reaching? Is there a particular wine style or wine region that pairs best with your restaurant’s cuisine? What percentage of the program do you want dedicated to white and sparkling wines vs. red wines? Are you focusing on old world or new world wines? Do you want to focus on by-the-glass selections, bottle selections, or both?”

2. How Big Is Your List/Program Going to Be? 

Maraffa pointed out that large wine programs can attract a broader guest base, and they can feature a wider variety of wine varietals and styles. Larger wine lists can also allow a venue to partner with more suppliers and distributors.

“However, the larger the program, the more difficult it is to manage,” Maraffa said, “and the more potential for loss and abuse, and the more knowledge and training you will need to provide to your staff.”

3. What Is Your Total Budget?

“A wine program of any size is a large investment,” Maraffa explained. “You will consistently have inventory – money – in place that won’t turnover as quickly as food inventory does. And, the larger your program, the larger amount of inventory – money – that must be maintained and the slower it will turnover.” 

4. What Is the Format of Your List?

Maraffa said venues should consider the format and presentation of their wine list early on, both by-the-glass and by-the-bottle. He believes this is critical to the success of the wine program.

“This determination will also affect the amount of print pieces you need to produce, how often they need to be updated/printed, and how the wine program will be presented by front-of-house staff and sommeliers.”

Morton's The Steakhouse John Maraffa Beverage Manager Sommelier
Each Morton's location has received the Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence” or “Best of Award of Excellence.” (Photo: Courtesy of Morton’s The Steakhouse)

Maraffa concluded: “Wine can be an incredible revenue center and a great profit driver, but that only comes after a lot of careful planning, difficult decisions, and tireless staff training.”

Aaron Kiel, based in Raleigh, N.C., has worked in the beverage, tea and coffee industries for nearly two decades, as well as hospitality and technology. He’s a journalist and writer/reporter at heart, but he also wears a PR hat through his consultancy, ak PR Group. He works as the editor of World Tea News with Questex’s Bar & Restaurant Group, as well as a contributing writer for Bar & Restaurant News. He also sits on the advisory board for the annual World Tea Expo in Las Vegas, which is co-located with Bar & Restaurant Expo.


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