When customers come in to your establishment to celebrate a special occasion, they’re likely to order a bottle of Champagne. But how many will ask for a bottle of California sparkling wine? And how many will order sparkling wine without a special occasion? Maybe your customers won’t think to order it, so it’s up to you to make sure sparkling wine is in the forefront of their minds when they come in to your establishment.
“With fewer people coming into restaurants in this economy, and checks getting smaller, the value of selling a glass of sparkling wine before dinner becomes more and more important,” observes Joy Sterling, marketing director for Iron Horse Vineyards. “If you can teach your staff the how of selling that glass of sparkling wine, combined with the enthusiasm and timing of the sell, you can increase your sales easily.”
Suggest it as an aperitif.
Often, patrons will sit in the bar, either waiting for a table or simply to have a pre-dinner drink. Take advantage of that moment and suggest an aperitif in the form of a sparkling wine.
“It’s all about timing,” Sterling says, “You want them to order that glass of wine on top of the wine they are going to order for dinner. So when the menus arrive, that’s when you make the suggestion. It’s the perfect time for an aperitif and allows the customer some leisure time to decide on their dinner.”
At the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, California, they have a board at the bar suggesting just that. “We always have our proprietary cuvée, the Lark Creek Inn Cuvée, produced for us by Iron Horse Vineyard on our board,” says Rudy Rahbar, general manager of the Lark Creek Inn. “The suggestion stimulates customers’ thinking beyond what beverage they would normally order, and having a proprietary sparkling wine is a real source of pride. People know they can only have it when they’re here, so for regular customers it can be a ritual; for new customers it’s an initiation and a treat.”
Educate your staff.
By far the most effective way to provide customers with an opportunity to enjoy sparkling wines is by starting with your staff.
“Staff education is really important if you want to see your sparkling wine sales increase,” says Rudy Rahbar. “We recently brought our staff up to Iron Horse Vineyard for an educational tasting and seminar. Your staff must understand what they are suggesting to your customers, you want them to come from a place of knowledge and experience when they are selling something.”
“Our staff is precious to us,” says Brian Duncan of Bin 36 in Chicago. We feel that our staff is the tour guides in the whole dining experience our customers have here. Night after night, customers are escorted to their tables, given menus, and then left to their own devices. To not share knowledge about what we offer is like keeping a secret from our customers. Don’t let the customer try to figure things out on their own.”
Pair it with food.
And while they are making decisions about they’re menu selections, it’s a perfect moment to suggest sparkling wine if it matches something they are considering ordering. “If a customer is considering ordering caviar or a raw fish item such as tuna carpaccio or smoked salmon, a sparkling wine is an excellent, and usually reasonably priced accompaniment,” says Christopher Myers, wine and beverage manager of Mistral in Boston. “And if they order a bottle of wine with dinner, we’ll suggest a glass of sparkling wine with the first course.”
Rudy Rahbar agrees. “Our servers really talk up our sparkling wines by the glass,” she says. “Our servers are well-educated and are very adept at suggesting a sparkling wine that will match what the customer orders. We also have a tasting menu and underneath the food selections we suggest optional wine pairings. It’s just another way for the customer to think beyond the norm.”
“Sparkling wine sales do well here, given our cuisine,” says Mike Garvey of the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City. “It just goes great with oysters.”
But that doesn’t mean that Garvey or his staff will assume that sparkling wine paired with oysters is enough to carry their sparkling wine sales. “When our wait staff talks to customers they make recommendations, and sparkling wine is always suggested if it is appropriate with the dish the customer orders,” he says. “Our staff is extremely well educated about the characteristics of the sparkling wines we carry and what sparkling wines go well with certain dishes. They won’t suggest a sparkling wine for seafood that it doesn’t pair well with, but we never miss an opportunity to suggest it when it pairs well with their selected dish. For example, one sparkling wine may go well with caviar, another with oysters.”
Because of the association of sparkling wine and Champagne as a celebratory beverage, Garvey believes that it is vital for the wait staff to suggest the pairing of sparkling wines with food.
“We will never impose on customers or tell them what to order, because you never want to put someone off,” he says. “But our wait staff always tries to steer them in the right direction.”
Bin 36 offers a chef’s tasting menu that changes every day, and the staff tastes each dish. “I’ll pair the wine with the food and then discuss it with the staff. It gives the staff a working knowledge of the wine.”
Additionally, on Wednesdays and Saturdays Duncan will blind taste the staff on four to six wines. “I always have them look at the color and the aroma and then taste the wine. I want them to be able to tell me what the grape variety is, what country it is from, what wine it is. Then we’ll talk about what food it might be paired with.”
He believes that an educated and enthusiastic staff can transfer that enthusiasm of the wine and food experience to their customers. “And sometimes,” he says, customers come here and they don’t want to make the decisions on their own, they want recommendations. They don’t want to do the work, they just want to sit back and enjoy.”
Bin 36 is known for their extensive wine list, and that includes sparkling wines. To make the most of that reputation, they offer flights of sparkling wine to provide customers with the opportunity to sample a variety of sparklers.
“Wine flights are the biggest part of our wine by the glass sales,” Duncan says. The flights aren’t exclusively California sparkling wines, but include French Champagne, Spanish Cava, and sparkling wines from New Mexico and California.
“By offering customers a variety of sparkling wine to sample, you take away the fear of trying something new,” he says. “It becomes fun for the customers.”
Offer it by glass
If customers aren’t yet familiar with the sparkling wines that are available and are hesitant to buy a bottle, there’s an easy way for them to get to know what California offers: offer the sparkling wines by the glass.
“We typically offer four or five California sparkling wines by the glass at any one time,” says Mike Garvey. “Which does a lot to promote the sales of sparkling wines. It also provides customers with a great opportunity to sample sparkling wines they haven’t tried before.”
And once they’ve had a chance to enjoy a new sparkling wine, they’re more likely to order a bottle of a beverage they’re familiar with the next time they come in.
Make every day a celebration
Garvey also believes that most customers hold on to a belief that sparkling wine and Champagne should be reserved for special occasions. “I’m a big advocate of encouraging customers to order sparkling wine,” he says. “It’s up to you to get the customer to think beyond that belief.”
And servers are instrumental in moving the customer to think out of the box. “Many times, if a server makes a suggestion to the customer, they’re receptive to it. Having a glass of bubbly can automatically put people in a more festive mood. Sometimes all it takes is steering people in the right direction.”
Team up with vineyards
The Bubble Lounge in San Francisco, has one of the largest California sparkling wine lists, and they know exactly how to promote it.
“We not only have a rotating lists of sparkling wine and Champagne by the glass,” says Jane Kim, the special events director. “We also make sure that our customers are aware of all that we offer.”
In the salon areas of the Bubble Lounge, intimate seating areas for their patrons, they showcase two sparkling wines at a time. Decorative posters, artwork, and table tents all grace the seating area. In addition, there is a champagne cocktail menu which includes all of the various ways that sparkling wines can be enjoyed beyond on its own.
“We also feature sparkling wines for our promotional events, says Kim, “and we make it part of our regular program. What’s the best way to start doing this yourself? “Start talking to people at the different vineyards,” Kim recommends. “That’s the best way top learn about the different sparkling wines they offer, and then in turn you can educate your staff.”
Celebrate your customers
There’s no reason not to let your customers know that they are appreciated. If you see customers having a celebration, help them celebrate and introduce them to a California sparkling wine.
“If someone is celebrating, we’ll send over two glasses of sparkling wine,” says Christopher Myers of Mistral. “But we don’t just send over a few glasses of sparkling wine. We make it a real presentation; the waiter will set the glasses down and then bring the bottle over to pour it at the table. That way the customers really feel like they are being appreciated and getting special treatment. And it’s a wonderful way to introduce people to California sparkling wines.”
“Although there has traditionally been a preference for French Champagne, consumers are beginning to recognize the quality and complexity of the California sparkling wines,” says Larry Stone, Beverage Director of Rubicon in San Francisco. And the sparkling wines can be more accessible to most people because of their price point. So it’s really up to the restaurants to let their customers know about the sparkling wines they should be trying.”
Sparkling wine sales represent an opportunity for every on-premise retailer. All you have to do is recognize it and take a few steps to ensure that you are providing every opportunity for your customers to enjoy a glass of California bubbly.
Peg Wallace writes from San Francisco.