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Playing The Wine Game.

FoRmeR awaRd--winning ResTauRaTeuR and CURRenT ResTauRanT consultant and wine wRiTeR John Foy says small and independenT opeRaTions can do well in The wine game, if They just follow some simple Rules.

Once, I got an offer I couldn't refuse.

In the early 1990s, a distributor wanted me to list some new Australian wines he had just added to his portfolio. I declined: the wines were too new to my market, had no following, and were pricey. The distributor, on the other hand, wanted badly to get placements for the products new to his portfolio. After my first firm refusal, he offered to sweeten the pot. As a result of losing the rights to sell the wines of a well-known California winery, be had 67 cases of cabernet and merlot in his warehouse of product he simply wanted to be rid of.

The new offer: if I agreed to list his new Australian wines, I could buy as many cases of the California wines as I wanted at $1.67 a bottle ($20 per case) instead of the regular price of $10.25 ($123 per case). At that point, I saw the wisdom of his offer and bought it all.

As I continually relearned when operating my restaurants, there's a lot more to building a wine list than simply giving an order to your distributor. For better or worse, it begins with the restaurant owner.

There is a Chinese proverb that says, "To know that you don't know is the first step to knowledge." The first step in building a wine list is deciding how much you want to know. You don't have to know the thousands of wines in the American marketplace. No one does. What you must know is your marketplace. And your marketplace is your menu, your clientele, other restaurant wine lists in your area, and your distributors.

Restaurant owners fall into three broad categories. Chefs who want their own kitchen; dining room managers who want to run their own room; and investors who think owning a restaurant is a fun idea that can also be profitable.

Chefs are infamous for being beer drinkers--sometimes while cooking, but almost always at the end of the shift. Dining room managers are busy focusing on keeping the bar business strong and turning tables. Investors (who run the gamut from doctors and lawyers to stock brokers and general business people-- accountants are noticeably absent from this group) are interested in the entertainment aspect of owning a restaurant and getting a return on their money. Rarely do these folks have wine knowledge.

As construction or renovations begin, liquor and wine sales people start descending upon the new owner. Critical decisions begin at this moment. Does the owner take on this buying task? Is it delegated to a manager? Does the owner let one or two distributors take control of the list? Or is a knowledgeable wine consultant hired to assist or direct this part of the business?


The wine list has to be related to the menu. Of course, that doesn't mean that if the cuisine is Italian the wines must be the same. Or, if the chef favors contemporary American cuisine that the wines have to be Californian. It does mean understanding that Italian dishes are just as enjoyable with well-structured red wines like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Santa Barbara pinot noir, and Australian shiraz as they are with Amarone, Barbaresco, and Chianti Classico. And contemporary American cooking blends as nicely with wines from Rioja and Alsace as it does with those from Sonoma and Willamette Valley. You can have both on your list.

What the list must do is relate to the thousands of customers who come through the restaurant's doors during the course of the year. Selection and price achieve that.

If your main course choices are priced from $15 to $30 then you should have a portion of your wines in the same price range. Certainly, higher priced wines should also be available. The dining public supports all price ranges but rebels against a list that requires them to spend more for a bottle of wine than for an entr[acute{e}]e.

Selection is accomplished by merging the wines with the menu and the restaurant's profile. Hot, trend-conscious urban restaurants need the latest must-have wine as pronounced by leading wine magazines and writers because customers here may want to be oh-so-hip. Upscale suburban and urban restaurants can sell a few bottles of those wines too, but need more established names like Grgich, Jordan, Caymus, Jadot, Drouhin, Margaux, Lynch-Bages, Antinori, Gaja, and Ruffino, among others. Customers at these establishments tend to be older, more conservative, and, often, are entertaining business associates who know only a bit about wine but recognize established brand names.

Selection can also be achieved by giving the list an accent. Let the list be multilingual, but emphasize a language: that is, make it speak to the customers with a broad selection from one country, such as French, Italian, Australian or American wines; and then round it out with wines from other nations.


Achieving the goal of building a wine list that incorporates all these aspects require a lot of time. But who will do it?

Investors have a day job; chefs have an all-consuming workload, and dining room mangers are centered on their guests and service staff. Many owners find it easier to hand off the wine list to a distributor or two. After all, they are promised that the sales person for the account will print the wine list, supply the bar with coasters, napkins, stirrers and ice buckets, among other items. They'll make sure the servers get corkscrews and wine training; have access to allocated wines, and promise extra business when the distributor must entertain visiting winemakers.

It's an enticing proposition. However, owners would be better served in the long run to turn it down. As many women might say in retrospect, it is far better to be pursued by many than to be captured by one.

At the outset, one distributor will lighten the load of establishing a list and training the staff. However, it will be that distributor's wines that dominate the list. This closes the door to developing relationships with other distributors and the benefits that flow from them. Offers of special prices and allocations that accrue from carrying wines from multiple distributors who compete to be on your list are lost.

For example, the nine principal wine producers in Napa Valley's Stags Leap District distribute through numerous companies and set state allocations. If a restaurant's wine list is locked into one or two distributors it has given up the opportunity to offer a range of wines from Stags Leak Vineyard, Pine Ridge, Clos du Val, Chimney Rock, Shafer, Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Silverado, Steltzner, and Sinskey wines. At best, only a few of these wineries will be available from a single distributor.

Distributors, like many other businesses, experience inventory problems and have contract obligations with wineries for placements. As owner of a captive wine list, the restaurant becomes a ready source for unloading inventory build-up and meeting a distributor's obligation to place wines for its suppliers.

The sales person bringing those free corkscrews has a few twists of his own. Major wineries in California run sales competitions, often rewarding the winner with a free trip to the winery. I recall one salesman pleading with me to buy five cases of a certain well-known wine because the first person in his company to sell 500 cases got a free trip to the winery and a week in Napa Valley. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that every wine list "captured" by that distributorship was being stuffed with that winery's offerings, whether they fit the list or not.

On the other hand, working with multiple distributors allows the restaurant to negotiate its own deals by giving distributors new placements in return for hard-to-get wines, favorable pricing, and return business. In this arrangement you are the active decision-maker rather than the passive recipient. And at the end of your fiscal year, perhaps you'll be the one enjoying a trip to Napa, and on your own dollar.

John Foy is a restaurant consultant, food and wine writer, and owned three restaurants from 1976-1999 in New Jersey.
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Date:Jun 1, 2000
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