Sometimes, what you don’t know CAN hurt you. Or at least, surprise you.
Phillips Food, a Baltimore, Maryland-based company operating seven high-volume seafood restaurants, recently tested some sales-analysis software at one of its restaurants. This software can analyze a restaurant’s checks and produce reports on what wines are ordered with what entrees.
The reports on the restaurant’s wine business “really shocked me,” says John Knorr, director of operations. “We used to be a big seller of chardonnays and merlots, but, at this restaurant, our top two wines were pinot grigios and they were the only two pinot grigios we had on the list. The number-three wine was a sauvignon blanc. Meanwhile, the list had 17 chardonnays on it.”
“We’re in the process of finalizing our wine list for next year, but we really need to change our way of thinking.”
It’s true that the only constant is change. Consumer preferences change. The ways a restaurant can analyze and fine-tune its business change. Even theories about how to pair wine with food and how to sell wine to the public change.
In fewer places is the changing American relationship to food and wine more evident than in the growing seafood restaurant sector. From the mass market to fine dining, seafood restaurants are improving their focus by creating wine lists and programs with broad selections, and not just bulking up with the most popular retail whites.
In developing its new approach, Phillips Food worked with Tim Hanni, a wine consultant and one of the first Americans to become a Master of Wine. He is, perhaps, best known for developing the idea of the “progressive wine list.” (On a progressive wine list, wines are arranged by flavor profile.)
Hanni, president of WineQuest, Napa, California, says his company uses “a new paradigm” when it comes to marketing wine to consumers.
“The wine industry disconnected from its consumers, not the ones who are wine aficionados, but the others the millions and millions of others who just want a nice wine to go with their dinner,” says Hanni. By emphasizing the rules of matching wines with foods, “we’re telling people that they’re not smart enough to know what they like,” he continues. “It’s like someone ordering coffee in your restaurant, they ask if they can have milk and sugar with it, and you say, ‘No.'”
Simply put, the idea behind a progressive wine list is that it helps diners find a wine they like. People can tell, from the way the list is arranged, what wines taste like the ones they have liked in the past.Many restaurant operators note that their customers feel freer to order the wines they like, regardless of food/wine “rules,” than they had in the past. “There are no holds barred,” says Terry Ryan, president of The Oceanaire Seafood Room, an operation of five high-end restaurants in five cities. “Customers in our restaurants, if they want, a big cabernet with their fish, they’ll order it.”
Phillips’ Knorr agrees. “The old theory ‘red with meat, white with fish’ has broken down. People drink what they want and the rules are out the window.”
And if red is what customers want, there are many lighter-style reds that can go well with seafood. Indeed, Madeline Triffon, wine director of Michigan’s Unique Restaurant Corporation, says, “Red wines with fish have taken off. Pinot noirs are particularly popular at all price points and there are plenty of others, such as Spanish Riojas and grenache blends from the south of France.”
Many seafood restaurant beverage managers note that people are more willing to try something new. “California chardonnay seems not to be the default choice anymore,” says Greg Harrington, a master sommelier and corporate wine director of B.R. Guest, a New York company with several restaurants including Atlantic Grill, Ocean Grill, Blue Water Grill and Blue Fin. “Rieslings are coming on strong, perhaps because the 2001 vintage was so publicized. Our top three wines by the glass are rieslings.”
“People are much more adventurous than they were, even five years ago,” agrees Michelle De Hayes, gm at Detroit’s Northern Lakes Seafood owned by Unique Restaurant Corporation.
AGAINST THE TIDE
Not everyone agrees that this is entirely a good thing. “While I can understand where it comes from, telling people there are no rules when it comes to ordering wine causes tremendous confusion and fear, frankly,” says Marnie Old, a Philadelphia wine consultant. “Before, when people were told there was a correct wine for the dish, that made them scared, too.”
Old was, for five years, the wine director for Striped Bass, a seafood restaurant in Philadelphia. “I learned the hard way that if people ordered a big enough red wine with their fish, they could leave the restaurant with a negative impression of the chef and the food. That wine stepped all over that food and then what we had were unhappy guests,” she says.
At Striped Bass, Old arranged the list so that the red wine section no longer started with cabernets. First came pinot noir, with 30 entries, followed by merlot and then cabernets, with the smallest selection. “I flipped it around,” she explains. “If you have 60 pinot noirs and only 10 or 12 cabernets and they come last, you’re sending a message to your guests. Now, someone who doesn’t want to ask for help in front of their date or boss or client can orient themselves.”
Harrington jokes that he’d like to arrange the wines on his lists in random order. “If you put them in order of price, no one is going to order the cheapest,” he says. “If you arrange them lightest to fullest, no one is ever going to order the lightest wines because they think fuller is better.” Almost all B.R. Guest restaurants arrange their wines lists by varietal.
Northern Lakes Seafood Company lists “interesting” white wines first, followed by sauvignon blancs and reislings, and then breaks down the chardonnays into “old world” and “new world.” The reds start with a highlighted section of pinot noirs, broken down into “old” and “new world,” followed by “fish friendly and interesting reds,” merlots, red Bordeaux and finally, “new world” cabernets and blends. A flavor and style code dry, sweet and medium and very light, light, full provides more flavor information about every wine listed.
A LITTLE HELP
At Blue Water Grill, servers offer to pair customers’ orders with wine. “A lot of people will take you up on it,” says Harrington.
At The Sardine Factory, Monterey, California, Marc Cutino (cellar master) and his staff relish the chance to suggest wines to diners. They see it as their chance to introduce people to something new. “Unless the people absolutely say they want a chardonnay, we’ll suggest anything but,” says Cutino. “There are a lot of great chardonnays, of course, but there are so many great wines out there.”
And something they’ve never had before is exactly what many restaurant-goers do want. “I’ve really noticed a change,” says Cutino. “People are more willing to get away from chardonnay and cabernets, which had been the traditional favorites. They are willing to explore.”
But even at the Sardine Factory, world famous for its 1,250-entry wine list, only about one-quarter of the people ordering wine ask the staff for assistance, according to Cutino.
Giving customers what they want sometimes means having at least a few “comfort labels,” wines customers will recognize, on the list. And in a world where red wines have been more popular than white, and big or full-bodied wines often get more attention in the press, it sometimes means having entrees that go with such wines.
John Szymanski, general manager and operating partner of the Oceanaire Seafood Room in Dallas, points to tuna served with a red-wine reduction and mushrooms, and sturgeon with cherry sauce and roasted shallots that recently appeared on his menu. Like others running seafood restaurants, Szymanski estimates that his wine sales are about 60% white and 40% red.
In fact, B.R. Guest’s Harrington says Blue Water Grill’s wine sales have only recently shifted away from red wines. “This is one of the first years in which we’ve sold more white than red,” he says. Currently, 55 to 60% of Blue Water Grill’s wines sales are of white wines.
Harrington is in the process of expanding Blue Water Grill’s wine selection. Now, the restaurant offers 250 wines. Eventually, Harrington would like between 300 and 350. “We’ll always have wines people know,” he explains, “but we also want to focus on smaller producers and on wines from all over the world.”
Like Old and Hanni, Harrington believes in focusing on the most important factors that affect the flavors of a wine. “You can spend countless hours going over the differences between specific producers and never get anywhere,” he says. “We focus on three categories: climate [a major determinant of acidity], whether the wine is made in the old-world style, very earthy, or the new-world style, which tends to be fruit-driven and whether the wine has oak or not.”
Harrington theorizes that Blue Water Grill’s increased sales in white wine are at least partially due to staff suggestions. “The wine staff drives the sales of new wines,” he says. “It is easy for them to sell us out of a wine in a night or two.”
GLASS BY GLASS
Seafood restaurant wine professionals are finding their by-the-glass programs are more important than ever.
“We’ve offered Spanish reds and a pinot blanc from Austria by the glass, with great success,” reports Michelle De Hayes, gm, Northern Lakes Seafood, Detroit.
Says John Knorr, dir. ops., Phillips Food, “People are willing to take the risk, by ordering a wine by the glass in a restaurant. Then, if they like it, they’ll buy it in a store.” At the Phillips restaurants, which are “just above casual but still family restaurants,” as Knorr describes them, wines are priced from $4.95 to $9.95 per glass.
In New York, B.R. Guest’s Greg Harrington finds that diners are willing to pay a little more for their wines by the glass than they used to. While Blue Water Grill’s offerings start at $8, “people have no problem spending $10 or even $12 per glass,” Harrington says.
John Szymanski, general manager and operating partner of the Oceanaire Seafood Room in Dallas, which offers eight white wines by the glass and four reds, finds that half-bottles are also popular with diners who want to try something new. “Unfortunately, there’re not enough of them,” he says.
At Northern Lakes Seafood Company, Detroit, wines by-the-glass are paried on the menu. A recent menu suggested Schug Pinot Noir, at $9 per glass, with Grilled Block Island Swordfish, prepared with a cider reduction and served with a butternut squash/potato hash, parsnips and apples, and Kesselstat Riesling Kabinett, at $6 per glass, with Grilled Hawaiian “Kala” Snapper, prepared with a cilantro mint marinade and served with tiger shrimp, macadamia basmati, bok choy, baby corn and a coconut curry sauce.
A MATTER OF TASTE
In her consumer seminars,Marnie Old, wine consultant, shakes perceptions up with salt. “That’s a real-time demonstration all you need is a salt shaker and people get it,” says Old. “First, taste a high-acid wine. Then, take a lick of salt and taste the same wine again. The taste of acid will go down by more than half. It’s a dramatic presentation and it really helps people to get it.”
The problem is, according to Old, that some diners don’t know about these basic principles. And sometimes, she says, “People order based on what they think they should order, what they’ve read about, and, since big wines are often emphasized in the wine media, these people end up ordering monster-truck wines to go with their meals.” In other words, they end up inadvertently ordering something they aren’t going to like, like a tannic red wine to go with a delicately prepared fish.
At Striped Bass in Philadelphia, Old used a reserve list for her biggest red wines. “On it was a message saying that it would take 20 to 30 minutes to bring these wines up to the proper serving temperature from the cellar,” she explains. “That allowed me to serve those wines when the customer was eating their more elaborate, rich entrees and not when they were eating an appetizer like sashimi.”
Old also changed her wine list to emphasize those that went well with the restaurant’s seafood. “I wanted to make it as easy as possible to do the right thing and slightly more difficult to do the wrong thing,” she says. If the customer wanted that “monster truck” wine, they could get it. But if someone didn’t know a lot about wine, the wine list helped steer them toward a choice they were more likely to enjoy with a meal of seafood.
Old and Winequest’s Tim Hanni (see sidebar) agree there are certain principles, based on chemistry, that affect how wine and food taste together. Most people, after all, can agree that orange juice after toothpaste isn’t a taste treat.
One of the major interactions between food and wine is the one between the salt in the food and the acid in the wine. “If you taste salt and then a wine, you’ll say, ‘Wow, that wine tastes smooth and mild,'” says Hanni. “It’s a sensory adaptation: salt suppresses bitterness.”
And it’s why many food-friendly wines taste sour when drunk without food.