For many customers, choosing wine in a restaurant is a bit like picking out an engagement ring.
“Ninety-nine point nine percent make their decision based on fear,” declares Marnie Olds, executive beverage director for four well-known Philadelphia restaurants, Striped Bass, Rouge, Bleu and Avenue B. Fear of looking cheap. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of looking stupid.
It’s an old joke in the restaurant industry that, if a wine isn’t selling, you should raise the price. Like all the best jokes, it has a degree of truth in it. Michael Vilim, one of the owners of Mirabelle and Castle Hill Café, award-winning restaurants in Austin, Texas, remembers when he had one wine a 1997 Collioure from Domaine du Mas Blanc at both locations. At Castle Hill, the wine was priced at $5 per glass and $19 per bottle. “But it was a much better wine than that,” Vilim says. At Mirabelle, it was priced at $7 per glass and $26 per bottle.
Mirabelle sold twice as much of it as Castle Hill did.
So why not just stock the most expensive and exclusive wines and price them as high as possible? First, that would keep a significant percentage of diners from ordering any wine at all. Second, even those who can afford to pay top prices do not take kindly to being ripped off. And, restaurateurs say, when you can introduce a diner to something new especially if that something isn’t especially expensive you’ve just won a customer for life.
The Hunt for Bargains
“Wine is an endeavor that uses 25 verbs and about 10 million nouns,” says Bob Moody, chairman of the Sommelier Society of America, based in New York City. “There is an endless amount of information constantly pouring in, about vintages, about the 30 some-odd countries importing wines into the US. It is easy to get mesmerized by trivia.”
So, how do you wade in and catch the bargains?
“If I could learn only one thing about wine, it would be geography,” says Marnie Olds. “If you know your geography and what conditions they are likely to produce, you can go after under-recognized regions.” She gives New Zealand as an example. “You’d know that it is a mountain island, that no vineyard is more than 20 miles from the ocean, which is a cooling influence, so you’d know to look for white and sparkling wines, and you’d know that these wines are likely to be racy, zingy, zesty.”
But Olds does not limit herself just to a knowledge of geography. “The second most important thing to know is about the culture and history of the region,” she says and then ticks off other factors to consider, everything from weather patterns to whether a country has a World Bank loan to pay off and needs to price its wines to sell.
“Geology, geography, botany, a little chemistry, art, linguistics,” she lists. “Wine is a daunting thing to know about, but it is also a heck of a lot of fun.”
And there are some rules of thumb that can be gleaned from the onslaught of information. One, which Olds alluded to, is to look for lesser-known regions. Michael Garvey, general manager and beverage director of the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York, lists some of his favorites: “The Loire in the form of chenin blanc and sauvignon blanc, Southwest France, South Africa, certainly, Chile though it is not as big a bargain as it was a few years ago, it is still a bargain as well as Australia and New Zealand.”
Garvey also looks beyond the big-three varietals: chardonnay, cabernet and merlot. “Sauvignon blanc is a good bargain varietal as is riesling, and chenin blanc is a decent value,” he says.
It’s No Secret
Larry Stone, wine director for several of Myriad Restaurant Group’s restaurants, including Rubicon in San Francisco and Earth & Ocean in Seattle, has other tips. “If you’re looking for values in Napa Valley cabernet sauvignons or first-growth Bordeaux, forget it,” he says, “but you can look at other varietals from those regions or wines from a newcomer or a new product from an established winery.”
And stay plugged into the wine-industry grapevine, Stone advises. “This isn’t a bunch of secret information you have to ferret out,” he says. “The wine industry is a community of friends; suppliers, wine people from other restaurants; we all gossip.” And don’t forget your customers. “They can be a great source of information,” Stone adds.
Many wine directors look constantly for new wines. “A lot of people in the industry will tell wine reps that they have one or two sit-down wine tastings a year,” says David Alphonse, director of beverage operations for Legal Seafoods, with 25 locations along the Eastern Seaboard. “Not me. I’m always having them come in. I’m going to be there and I want to taste. I’m not waiting.”
Speed, after all, can be of the essence. If you want to get a good price, “you need to be a little bit ahead of the pack,” says Larry Stone. “Once something has been written up in the wine magazines, it’s not going to be a bargain.” He remembers having found a Spanish wine, Numanthia from the Toro region. “But then Robert Parker gave it a 93 or 94 rating and its price went from $18 to $34 overnight,” says Stone.
And Olds points out that the wine industry itself is changing faster than ever before. “It’s moving exponentially,” she says. “Wineries are learning from each other, whether that’s a New World country doing research as it starts its wine business from scratch or a young French winemaker taking classes at UC Davis.”
In the fast-changing wine market, it pays to be organized, according to Michael Vilim of Mirabelle and Castle Hill Café. Although his restaurants have about 250 wines each on their lists, there is “an essential core of 60,” he says. Vilim thinks of these 60 in terms of categories or taste profiles. For each of his categories, Vilim aims to have the best wine he can find and also the best value. Of the best values, he tries to find five or six wines for each category so he doesn’t have a hole in his list if a wine’s price goes up or it becomes unavailable.
A Bargain at any Price?
“Bargain” means different things to different people. While the lowest priced wines on a list might be used to appeal to people who don’t have much experience with wine, other higher-priced wines can also be considered bargains. These would be well-regarded wines which a knowledgeable diner would recognize as a good value at the price.
“I am sometimes able to buy in bulk or to buy close-outs and pass the savings onto customers,” says the Oyster Bar’s Garvey. “Wine-savvy customers then can cherry-pick my list. But I also want to bring in people who wouldn’t ordinarily order wine.”
Olds also tries to strike a balance. “You want a wine list that is not intimidating to people new to wine, but at the same time, you want it to be challenging to people who do know wine,” she says.
When it comes to the lower end of his wine list’s price range — $4 to $6 a glass or $15 to $20 per bottle Vilim thinks in terms of “entry-level wines.” “These are wines that have no edges, that are easy to get into,” he explains. “These are wines that are easy to drink for people who don’t know or who don’t care, they just want to have wine with dinner.”
One example from Mirabelle’s list is Liberty School Cabernet, “a thick, jammy wine with no tannin, an almost merlot-like softness,” says Vilim. It is priced at $5 per glass and $19 per bottle.
When looking for bargains to put on their wine lists, many wine directors shy away from well-known names, even if these wines are priced right. The reason? “You have to pay attention to what’s in the grocery store,” says Vilim. “If people see how cheap something is there and then see that you are charging the same price for a glass that a store charges for a bottle, they’re going to get angry.”
But make no mistake: restaurants of all types and price levels feel the need to offer their customers bargains on the wine list. “Of course, everyone, particularly these days, is looking for bargains wherever they can find them,” says Danielle Nally, sommelier for Lespinasse, the highly acclaimed French restaurant at the St. Regis Hotel in New York.
Although most of the 1,600 entries on the Lespinasse list are classics, Nally says, “It is important to have bargains. Ours are mostly from more esoteric regions, Southwest France or Umbria in Italy.” She also looks for “garage wines,” those made by smaller houses, particularly for her by-the-glass selections.
“Only a very select few can go for the big cult wines from California or for first-growth Bordeaux,” she says. “Most people are looking for value.”
The hard part, according to Nally, is not finding the bargains, it is convincing diners to try them. “The whole key is to have the knowledge to help people who are in a high-end restaurant spending a lot of money, maybe for an important business meeting, maybe for a special evening overcome their fear and feel comfortable,” she says.
Some wine directors use their wine lists to do this. For example, at Rubicon, Larry Stone devotes one section of the restaurant’s 1,800-item wine list to “Forty Under $40.” “If you’re just looking for a nice wine and you don’t want to spend a lot, it can be hard and, frankly, frustrating, to have to read through a list of thousands of glamorous, high-end wines,” he explains.
Joe Bastianich, owner of Becco in New York City, has been taking this to heart for the past ten years. The main wine list at Becco accounting for 75% of the restaurant’s wine sales lists 100 Italian wines, every single one of them priced at $18. “We wanted to make wine more accessible, we wanted to encourage more bottle sales, we wanted to take price point out of wine,” he says. Two of his company’s seven other restaurants Lidia’s Kansas City and Lidia’s Pittsburgh now use the same list.
At Avenue B, which opened this summer, Olds also has established an all-Italian wine list. “Italy is unique in the world. You are able to cover every style base with Italian wine. It has over 2,000 native grape varieties. There is so much diversity in an area that is smaller than California and you can get great value,” she says.
Having all Italian wines helps force people to choose something they may not have heard of, Olds believes. “If we had anything familiar one California chardonnay, one French chardonnay then that’s what everyone would order out of fear,” she says.
Instead, “one out of every four tables just becomes energized,” Olds reports proudly. “They ask if they can take the list home.”
It’s understandable why they would want to. The list at Avenue B includes an “Instant Italian Wine Course,” what Olds calls her “Cliff Notes section,” in the back. It compares Italian wines to those from other countries with which customers might be more familiar. Popular Italian styles are described; the page on the list where each style can be found is noted. The list even includes a map of Italy.
Rather than give out the list, Olds has created a palm-sized booklet to give to interested customers. In it, the label information of the wine they liked can be recorded. The booklet includes other information about Italian wine, including how they can be ordered through Pennsylvania’s state-owned liquor stores. “The booklet is better than just giving people the label,” says Olds, “because most people don’t know which word is what. We even give them the importer’s phone number.”
Nally agrees that giving people information about these lesser-known wines is crucial but prefers face-to-face interaction. “I am only as good as my servers,” she says. “It is important that they feel comfortable talking about the wine. If they have a story to tell about it that it is made by a young winemaker who studied somewhere and they can describe it, that will make people comfortable enough to try it. It’s the staff’s enthusiasm that really sells it.” At Lespinasse, staff members taste new wines and Nally gives them fact sheets, highlighting a story or two, that they can use when they speak to customers.
Given people’s skittishness when it comes to price, some wine directors prefer not to list their cheaper wines separately. “I like to have a little gem maybe something around $15 in each category,” says Legal Seafoods’ Alphonse, “but I arrange our list by progression of style. That $15 wine might be listed after a $40 one, because it is more flavorful.”
One of the best reasons to offer bargains on the wine list, these wine directors say, is because it gives the customer a sense of trust in the restaurant. “Our restaurants have a reputation,” says Vilim. “Any wine on my list is going to be a great value. I pride myself on the fact that people are not suspicious of us.”
Lespinasse’s Nally says this kind of reputation is invaluable. “If you’ve been in this business for any time at all, you realize that just to upsell someone one time, to make more money on this one check, is not the way to succeed. We want people to come back.”
Offering values on your wine list becomes very valuable indeed.