Friday, February 24, 2012

Restaurant Wine 101

The world of restaurant wine offerings
In a recent Wall Street Journal column, wine columnist Lettie Teague chronicled instances of aggressive upselling in restaurants, including her own experiences. The story unleashed an email avalanche into her inbox from readers telling their own unhappy stories of feeling victimized when ordering wine. "Restaurants have the opportunity to do one of two things," advises Lettie. "They can use the wine list as a tool of intimidation and sell wine for temporary financial gain, or take advantage of an excellent opportunity to develop a relationship with guests on the basis of a single bottle. Do you want to rip them off or have them return?"

When we explain we have 50 wines by the glass, some gasp at how difficult that must be to create and preserve. But in reality, as a Sommelier, it is much harder to produce and design a small list that offers diversity in style, region, price and innovation. Wine preservation for a wine by the glass program is a key componant. There is nothing worse in my mind than when wines are not stored properly. How long should a wine be open? In my opinion, no more than 2 days. If I was home, 3 days because it is probably still fresh but if someone is paying "probably" can't enter into the equation. An important factor in keeping wine fresh is temperature control. At home, pop the wine in the fridge (red or white) - the chill slows down the aging. At Napa, our wine by the glass program is kept at 55 degrees for red and 60 for white. This helps us maintain  freshness. You can also use a vacuum pump which takes the oxygen out of the wine and therefore, keeps it from oxidizing. But I'm getting off the point...The point was wine by the glass offerings! In my opinion, there are three categories (maybe more) of wine drinkers that dine out.

The first, the customer that is simply looking for a beverage called "wine". Let's call them our entry level wine drinker. For that person, you really need to offer wines in the $6-8 range by the glass. They are not looking for a life changing experience nor to spend their paycheck just a glass of wine!

The next category is the person trying to learn about wines and willing to spend a bit. They know what style they like and they can be adventurous in a limited manner. For that customer, we try to make sure there's offerings in the $9-13 range. Just as important as price, is the offering. The server needs to interact and find out what they like...butter? tannin (dry)? earthy? fruity? crisp? heavy? light? With that information, they provide a few recommendations and tastes. This way the customer feels comfortable that they have been involved with the choice and have also been given a chance to learn. They realize there is a difference between the complexity of the $9 chard from Mendoza and the $13 chard from Burgundy. Wine is not much different from most things in get what you pay for.  My job is to ensure the wines we present are all of value both in their category of style and price.

The third category, is the mature drinker and often a wine collector. They probably have cellars at home. They might even subscribe to Wine Spectator. They find great meaning behind a glass of wine and can ponder its levels of aromas, flavors and complexity for 30 minutes. This person may not want a bottle of wine, they want to pair the "right" wine with each course. It is this drinker, to whom we offer the wines by the glass of $13 and above. Yes, by "above" we mean up to $40 a glass. They know what they're buying and they get excited to try something new and available in a glass format. They also trust us, which is very important. They understand that we make sure the wine is fresh and preserved or we will open a new bottle. We date all open wine bottles at the end of the night so we can be sure of it's integrity.

The Wall Street Journal article emphasizes the need to offer variety but also address the pressure factor. I never want to force that $7 drinker into a $30 glass and by the same token, I don't want that $30 drinker to not have an offering that satisfies their taste. This is how we get to 50 wines by the glass!

Last but not least, let's quickly define "glass" of wine. A big misconception by consumers is that all glasses are equal. There's an old restaurant formula you still hear - "there's 4 glasses in a bottle of wine." Do you see the missing detail? How big is the glass? Actually, how big is the pour? The same wine can be $8 at one restaurant and $10 at another because one pour is 5 ounces and the other is 7 ounces. Napa's wine by the glass program in a snapshot: a bottle of wine is 25 ounces, as I LOVE great glassware I chose a 23 oz. Stolzle logo'd German crystal all-purpose wine glass, so our pour at Napa is 7ounces. It is this pour that our pricing reflects. In other words, we get roughly 3.5 glasses to a bottle although, we always lose 2-3 ounces with tastings. This also means that the $30 glass of wine you're drinking is available for $90 a bottle.

I hope this was a fun and informative look behind creating a wine program!