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Casual Wines.

Pricey, upscale wines may attract most of the industry's attention, but approachable, food-friendly wines are a must for casual dining.

In the mid 1980s, a restaurateur in Washington, DC, adamantly stocked only those wines which echoed his mantra about most American wine drinkers: they're ignorant. Accordingly, his restaurant, a casual spot that featured quiches, soups, pastas, salads and desserts, sold mostly white French vin ordinaire poured from 1.5 liter jugs, and carried only a handful of very inexpensive American and European wines--southern French reds from La Vielle Ferme, Fetzer white zinfandel, Corvo Salapurato and the like.

Then his purveyor offered the restaurateur a great deal on some well-regarded Chateauneuf du Pape. To silence his serving staff, who argued that carrying a broader selection of wines in terms of price and quality could boost check averages, the owner listed his Rhone bargain below wholesale-about $16 at the time, inexpensive in the restaurant setting but priced well above any of the other wines he offered, none of which he priced higher than $8 a bottle. The result: nary a customer nibbled, the wines gathered dust and the staff stopped pushing for better wines.

Times, you say, have changed, and American palates improved. Perhaps, but most wines sold in this country are still by far the popular, lower-priced brands, whether consumers drink them at home or at restaurant tables. Balancing concerns of value, quality and changing tastes in the casual restaurant setting puts wine decisions in a different light than those confronting wine buyers and sommeliers at toney, upscale destinations.

"Every year the American understanding of wine increases," says Tom Myer, vice president, restaurant development for the Clyde's Restaurant Group, Washington, DC. "We forget how until very recently we were just pouring wines from jugs. But we still have to help guide customers through the wine experience."

"The older I get, the more I realize that simplest methods work best," says Madeline Triffon, wine director for four upscale casual and four fine dining units of the Unique Restaurant Corp, Bingham Farms, MI. "The customer is dying to have somebody tell them what to do, and we need to do a better job at it." Most restaurateurs seem to settle for extracting higher and higher prices for their offerings from the same small pool of wine drinkers; Triffon and others believe it makes more sense to expand the pool through gentle persuasion and smart marketing.

Making the selection process easier for customers is one way, she says. Pairing wines by the glass with menu items and offering a range of prices are just two more of the methods the exuberant Triffon recommends to make a customer's wine ordering experience more relaxed in any setting, but especially for casual dining locations.

Make It Easy

The Clyde's Group, which operates seven Clyde's and the Old Ebbitt Grill in the DC area was once best known as one of Washington's premier watering holes that also happened to offer high-quality pub fare. In recent years, though, operators have watched food and beverage numbers reverse and wine sales approach the same level as beer and spirits; today, about eight percent of total sales, almost 30% of beverage sales, come from wine. As a result, Clyde's execs are devoting more and more time to wine and are currently reworking their list, making the selection less reliant on wine trends and more connected with their menu. Quite a changeover for a place that thirty years ago would need three weeks to sell a case of wine.

Myer says keeping up with the evolving interest in wine among average casual dining customers is a challenge at many causal upscale operations, not just Clyde's. But it's especially true at the oldest Clyde's, which came of age as the ultimate saloon in the 1970s. Now, as Clyde's customers spend more on food than beverages, the company is taking a more active approach in selling, marketing and educating their customers about wines.

From a saloon serving massive hamburgers to wine focused operation may seem a stretch, but Myer says educating customers about wine is the restaurateur's responsibility, and it makes perfect business sense. The first step, says Myer, is to focus on building a list that matches well with the foods served, limiting the wines to those that do the job well, rather than the latest marquee wine. It's an approach Clyde's is expanding to all units.

"We're changing our lists to a more progressive style 1istings," Myer says. Currently, the list is already use. friendly; Wines are organized by body (Light, crisp whites; medium bodied whites; full bodied whites; light to medium reds with emphasis on fruit flavors; medium to full bodied reds with some oak and tannins) and suggested companion dishes directly adjacent to each grouping (fresh fruit, crab and artichoke dip and apple crisp are paired with sparklers; house-made gravlax, Maryland rockfish, grilled steak salad, spicy fried shrimp and seafood pastas with medium bodied whites.)

Further simplifications might include gathering groups in sections like "Oyster Wines" and "Oak-Aged Wines". "This has been very successful for us where we've already done it," says Myer. "This way, customers know our wines by their styles and flavors before they order and can have some knowledge about wines without being a wine expert." To establish the list, Myer and company have been aggressively tasting wines to select the most compact list possible--around 50 or 60 bottles--that match best with their upscale saloon fare--oysters, burgers, ribs, chicken, crab cakes, broiled fish and chili. "If you can order a great wine that matches perfectly with our oysters, then that elevates the customer's experience, which they will connect with us." Few Clyde's customers are especially wine savvy, so the more of the selection process Clyde's manages for them, the better.

"I don't have a 300 bottle list," says Myer. "But I do want to have a list of 50 wines that go really great with our food and offer good value, and sell the heck out of those wines."

Make It Fun

"I feel very strongly that we shouldn't put a gun to our customers heads and make them pay $7 for a glass of wine," says Triffon. "But I've found that if we give them a range of prices to choose from, say $5 and up, they will upgrade on their own." To make that happen, every Unique operation has at least 12 by the glass selections, with a couple of $5 pours and 2 to 4 upgrades in each section.

"But it's important whenever you sell them a wine at a much higher price that they can taste the value," says Triffon. "For most customers, wine isn't an intellectual experience; the value should be in the bottle, and you shouldn't have to explain the wine to the them."

Whenever humanly possible, Triffon tries to get the chef involved in the wine sales process, matching wines to dishes and tasting some wines with the servers at the roundup. And when she can include a limited list of menu-tied selections, as at Flying Fish, where eight dishes are paired with eight wines, the result is a mini-list that eases server and diner anxiety about wine.

"There are always some superstars, but most servers know a little about a few varietals and that s it; they're just as intimidated about making wine suggestions as the customer is about asking for them."

Many chain casual operators have adopted some way to inform customers of the basics about the wines they carry, serving dual purposes: customers get basic information and can relax when ordering, and the menu takes the first step for servers.

Cheescake Wines

At the California-based Cheesecake Factory chain, wines take a premium position up front in their multi-page menu, which lists five sparkling wines, 13 whites and roses and 15 reds, almost all American. Most are also sold by the glass, and all get brief descriptions that help wine novices feel a little more secure about ordering wine with the polyglot menu of sandwiches, pastas, omelets, salads, burgers, pizzas, stir-frys, burritos and ribs. Glass prices run from $4.75 to one at $7.95, while bottle prices start at $16 and except for sparklers, top out at $29.

While Bahama Breeze (see page 22) is known primarily for its Caribbean themed party atmosphere and juice-based beverages, its menu includes a dozen or so wines with short descriptive paragraphs. For example, the menu says about Chateau Ste. Michelle Johannisberg Riesling "Its wonderful fruit and honey flavors coupled with firm acidity allow it to be enjoyed with many of our lighter entrees and salads." While that thumbnail description won't win any wine geek awards, the simple, straightforward approach fits both the restaurant's style and the needs for most customers to he informed of a wine's suitability with their food. That type of description also answers the advice from those concerned with dwindling wine consumption among the young: wines need to be more accessible.

Prices are kept low--starting at $3.95 for a glass of 1996 Walnut Crest Merlot and or Lindemans Bin 45 Cabernet Sauvignon--but quality isn't sacrificed; customers can get some wines which routinely receive good marks in tastings, such as the Meridian Santa Barbara County Chardonnay and R.H. Phillips Barrel Cuvee Chardonnay.

But simply loading up on well-known brand names may not be enough, cautions wine consultant Doug Frost, who is both a Master of Wine and Master Sommelier. "There's a tension between having products that customers are familiar with and comfortable ordering and having the same list as the next guy on the block. If you have the same old corporate list with the big names only, you won't be offering your customers anything to differentiate their wine experience with you."

Frost recommends that casual restaurant operators mix well-known brands with underappreciated wines, which often offer value and quality at the same time. "German wines now offer unbelievable bargains now; the world doesn't seem to value them today, and they have lots of fruit and acid that go well with all types of food." He also thinks Spanish and New Zealand wines offer similar values that match well with foods.

Frost likes Riesling and other German wines because they match so well with the usual casual fare-roast chicken, grilled meats, creamy sauces and pastas. Rieslings, the favorite wine of many food/wine pairing advocates, routinely offer high acid/high fruit combinations-perfect foils for well-spiced and robust foods served in most casual settings. "High acid with lots of fruit balances the palate. I tell people, 'Try that lobster corn chowder with a Riesling Kabinett and you're in for an unbelievable treat," says Frost. And, like the undiscovered varieties from Spain, New Zealand, South Africa and other locations, Rieslings tend to be undervalued and can be offered at relatively low prices to customers. Building a varietal's reputation can pay off in many ways for restaurateurs, not the least being that customers begin to trust your judgment and leave happy.

Recently, Frost updated a wine list for a Kansas City tapas-oriented Spanish restaurant called La Bodega, and to break through to customers who were not known as wine enthusiasts and were uninformed about rioja and other Spanish wines, he made available by the glass 39 of the 42 listed wines. The opportunity to taste out so many unfamiliar wines gave both customers and servers a chance to learn about the wines at their own pace, glass by glass, and pushed wine from a special event item to an essential part of each meal.

The results? Wine sales tripled after the make-over, further evidence that wine sales can be just as successful in operations where the shirts worn are more likely to be pullovers than stuffed.

Fulton's Own

Many restaurants offer their own private label wines, but must of them are simply inexpensive bulk wines repackaged with the restaurant's name on the label. But Fulton's Crab House in the Walt Disney World Resort took a decidedly different tack, one that has paid off handsomely for them so far.

In a closely watched cooperative venture with Palmer Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island, Fulton's developed its own white meritage, introduced in January of this year. Sales, says Levy Restaurants beverage manager Scott Tarwater, have raced to nearly 30 cases weekly.

"For more than 10 years, we've wanted to do a private label wine. However, what we were finding were California vineyards which just wanted to put their low-end wines into bottles with other people's labels. The grade of the juice was pretty poor, and we didn't want to be associated with the quality of the wines we were offered," says Tarwater.

But he didn't give up. Despite the fears that Long Island wines may sometimes seem too foxy for today's chardonnay tastes, he found some "real underappreciated treasures" at Palmer Vineyards, and went about building a cooperative relationship focused on creating a wine for Fulton's.

"They were willing to develop the wine we wanted, especially since we were willing to commit to 1,000 cases the first year." The Palmer winmaker was especially enthusiastic, having champed at owner Bob Palmer's reluctance to construct a white Meritage.

A series of trips to Long Island for Tarwater and his wine stewards ensued, as Palmer developed a number of blends combining chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot blanc and gewurztraminer. Twenty tries and three visits later, the group had a meritage that suited Tarwater's vision of a house white with a profile suitable for Fulton's menu; firm acidity to match lobster bisque and the exotic fish severed there, with zesty citrus nuances from sauvignon blanc, tropical fruits from pinot blanc, the full buttery mouth-feel of chardonnay and the spiciness of gewurztraminer.

And since they weren't looking to create an average house plonk, neither is this a cheap wine; Fulton's charges $6.95 per glass and $34 per bottle for their house meritage. While the wine list runs in price from $21 to $289 per bottle, Tarwater says most wine sold at Fulton's is in the $38 range. "This is definitely not low-end, and because of that, it's something the staff enthusiastically supports."
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Author:Robertiello, Jack
Publication:Cheers
Date:May 1, 1999
Words:2358
Previous Article:Breezin.
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