As adults in their 20s discover that “wine is fun,” restaurateurs continue to grow the business by breaking down barriers of intimidation.
When Debbie Zachareas designed the wine program for San Francisco’s Eos Restaurant and Wine Bar, she was trying to create a setting where customers would enjoy wine as much as she did. But she wasn’t aiming at any particular customer demographic.
Yet one look at the crowd of twenty-somethings happily quaffing at the wildly successful Eos reveals that her “wine is fun” approach was custom-made for attracting the elusive Gen-Xer.
“It’s funny, because I didn’t intend to open a wine bar that was specifically marketed to younger people,” said Zacahreas, wine manager at Eos. “But that’s what ended up happening.”
Zachareas is one of a growing number of savvy wine marketers who have tapped into the potential gold mine consumers under 30 represent. Working to de-mystify the restaurant wine experience by removing the intimidation factor and developing an informal approach crucial to attracting the Gen-Xer, Zachareas and others are at the core of a trend-shaping success story.
“Ordering wine in a restaurant is akin to public speaking,” says Joel Shalowitz, co-owner of Cork’s in Baltimore, MD, where wine is aggressively marketed. “To be sitting at a table, knowing that you want to try some wine, and then you have to show your ignorance to a sommelier in front of a lot of people you know, well, that can be very, very intimidating.”
“So we’ve worked hard at making a wine list that is user-friendly, and also provides enough variety so that people can learn things over time.”
At Eos, Cork’s and others, experimentation is the rule of the day. Operators have shaken up their lists, adding pronunciation guides, eliminating regional distinctions, or grouping wines by body or flavor.
Some restaurateurs entice neophytes by conspicuously marketing wine flights, tastings and half-glass programs, and by training their staff to know the wines they sell and to communicate their knowledge with an infectious enthusiasm conveying the pleasure, rather than the esoterica, of the category. They’ve focused on building repeat business through relaxed atmospheres far removed from the status
conscious tippling many young adults associate with yuppie wine drinking.
“There are huge barriers to getting young people to try wines” says Joel Quigley, executive director of Wine Brats, the San Francisco-based Gen-X organization founded by the children of wine industry families and boasting more than 7000 national members. “A lot of people in their mid- to late-20s may already have decided they like wine and want to get into it, but they have problems bringing their friends along. They don’t go to wine events because they think of them as the sort of things their parents do.”
Restaurateurs aware of the barriers keeping young drinkers away from wines are also gathering their offerings by menu item; at Shaw’s Crab House, in Chicago, for instance, potential vinophiles are greeted with a list citing wines as oyster-, salmon-, or crab-friendly. Shaw’s also groups wines by body type: “light,” “medium,” or “full.” It’s all part of parent company Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises’ drive to attract more young adult customers.
“We list little tidbits on the menu about what food goes with what wine, to help the consumer who’s a little intimidated but wants to order something. That gives them a trigger point,” says Michelle Pae, divisional wine buyer for 11 LEYE restaurants.
Others have taken the hint, like New York’s recently opened Moomba, and grouped their wines by body rather than region.
Even restaurants doing well with the Martini-and-microbrew crowd are rethinking their wines. “They’re definitely targeting the Gen-Xer, as is the rest of the world,” said Katie Gottlieb, a spokesperson for Red Star Tavern and Roast House, Portland, OR. After resetting the list for easy reading, and offering winemaker dinners, Red Star is trying out promotions and building mailing lists. But Gottlieb sees the wine industry as lagging in a crucial area.
“We have an extremely active wine community, but microbrews also started here, and people our age were raised on them. We’re starting to learn about wine, but the wineries need to start targeting us and teaching us about drinking wine.”
Some restaurateurs focusing on wines are finding, like Zachareas, a natural rapport with the younger drinker.
“Actually, it hasn’t been much of a problem, maybe because I’m a Gen-Xer myself,” said Naomi King, owner of Tabitha Jean’s Restaurant in Portland, ME. “So that if I’m selling wine, that in and of itself makes it less intimidating for my customers.”
Still, King works hard to make wine fun and low-risk “That’s why we’re doing well,” she says. “Our staff is trained to talk to people about wine; that’s what makes my wine list more accessible.”
With more than 150 wines, about 15 by the glass, it’s important that customers can send wines back, no questions asked, King says. “If you don’t like it, it comes back and we get you something that you do like. A lot of places won’t do that.”
The per-glass price at Tabitha Jean’s stays below $6, and King provides a popular self-designed flight option: pick any three two-ounce pours for $6. Her staff also has the option of offering wary customers tastes of wines on the by-the-glass list.
Making Wine Fun
To make sure Eos attracted a fun crowd, Zachareas focused on building a staff with style. “My feeling about the wine industry was that it was kind of stale; I wanted a younger group of people to sell wine, people with a lot of passion and fire in their eyes and enthusiasm. If they could create a good energy, then the wine bar would follow suit. It’s the theory of any good bartender.”
To loosen up sometimes stuffy winemaker events, Zachareas, who each week brings in California winemakers, offers tasting flights without the prerequisite sit-down vintner dinner. For between $15 and $30, guests can mingle and chat with the winemakers about the wines. No lecturing, just lots of interaction.
Building an interactive wine program was born of Zachareas’ dissatisfying personal experience as an under-35 wine lover. “My complaint was when I’d go into restaurants with wines by the glass, there would be an obligatory chardonnay, a cabernet, a merlot, maybe a zinfandel, a cotes du Rhone or a sauvignon blanc, and you’d really have to stretch to find one interesting wine on the list,” she says. “My idea was to create a by-the-glass selection that could appeal to everyone, from the person drinking a glass of wine for the first time to the most esoteric wine snob, and everybody in between.”
Eos now has a staggering list of 80 wines by the glass, priced from $2 for the least expensive two-ounce pour, up to $15 for the most expensive five-ounce glass.
At Tabitha Jean’s, King runs weekly tastings with her staff, comparing notes on each new wine she’s considering before she puts it on her list. “It puts them behind a particular wine, and I can weed out anything the staff isn’t interested in selling, too,” she says.
Perhaps the dominant characteristic of the Gen-X wine drinker is the search for value.
“This generation was raised on consumerism, and they make every purchasing decision based on price versus quality,” says Quigley. “If a young person goes into a restaurant and sees a bottle of wine that is 10 bucks in the grocery store selling for $32, they’ll realize they’re being charged for a bottle of wine that’s $6 wholesale. They’ve been conditioned all their life to say, ‘I’m an idiot if I buy that.'”
Accordingly, some operators have eschewed the 300% to 500% markup typical in some establishments.
At Cork’s, wines are priced at $11 above wholesale, and everyone knows it. “Generally people are willing to spend up to two times their entree cost,” says Shalowtiz. “By making our wines $11 above cost, we bring a lot of wines down into the price range that they will find affordable. They can then develop appreciation for the wine.” As well, one presumes, for the establishment.
Skeptics doubted Cork’s could make any money at those prices, Shalowitz says, but volume will be the ultimate driver of this pricing method. “If you look at the way people price wine in the industry, the average bottle sells for $25 to $30. At Cork’s, the price may be lower than what you pay in most restaurants, but it also allows us a nice enough average margin to operate on.”
Cork’s also pairs all menu items with recommended wines. “It’s the entree to experiment,” he says. And Shalowitz and partner Jerry Pellegrino each month bring in local Wine Brats for tastings, a growing marketing device.
Mistral has a tasting program perfect for uncertain drinkers: 10 different tasting flights of three two-ounce pours nightly, served with wine I.D. cards on a wooden palette. The restaurant also keeps about 40 wines in their by-the-glass program, costing between $1.75 and $4.50.
Shalowitz’s rough estimate–that a third of the under-35 demographic represent about 10% of wine consumption–reveals a tremendous opportunity for restaurants and the wine industry.
At Eos, Zachareas decided to work on dollar volume rather than margins. “If I could sell more wine and get people to drink wine because they could afford it, I’d be doing a much better job.”
Her first pricing structure–retail plus a few dollars–was too tight. “But customers were going crazy about our prices, and ordering second and third and higher priced bottles because it was so much more affordable,” she says. And why not. With wines which other restaurants might sell for $60 or $70 priced at $40 on Eos’ list, wines flew out of the cellar.
She’s since raised her prices to twice wholesale, on average, which still brings in neophytes looking to do some self-education.
Pairing for Profit
Food matchings are also a crucial contributor to calming the wine-worried. Shaw’s organizes casual receptions where foods and wines are matched, sometimes unsuccessfully and on purpose.
Take the recent oyster and wine evening. Tasting the bivalves with chardonnays, chenin blancs, cabernet sauvignons and sauvignon blancs, Shaw’s customers learned firsthand that some wines are treacherous with the briny shellfish. “Those dedicated cabernet drinkers quickly realized that maybe they should try something else, or they shouldn’t order oysters,” Pae says.
Shaw’s even employs a custom-made glass carrier for their wine flights. The carrier holds four glasses and can be easily whisked away by servers, leaving behind the glasses of wine and identification cards. Pae prices the flights from $6.95 to $8.95 for up to three-ounce servings including Carlys Zinfandel, Clos du Bois Cabernet Sauvignon and Meridian Sauvignon Blanc.
Shaw’s also runs twice-weekly, free wine tastes during lunch, and a wine club where $25 brings eight wines paired with eight finger foods for two hours after work.
Pae says wine consumption is on the rise at Wildfire, My-T-Nice Grill and Scoozi, three LEYE restaurants where younger customers especially are taking advantage of wine flights and other marketing moves.
The wine industry has been notoriously sluggish in its category advertising, with few campaigns breaking into the media consciousness. But that might be changing. It’s not a moment too soon, according to Quigley.
“This generation spends about 25% of their disposable income dining out, and the entry place for wine for most people is the restaurant. They’re spending billions of dollars each year dining out and there are still all these cultural, social and economic barriers to wine,” says Quigley.