A DIFFERENT WORLD
WINE SALES ARE UP, BUT VALUE AND SMART
SALES EFFORTS ARE NOW KINGS
So you feel you’ve got everything in place. You’ve assembled a killer wine list, with all the labels with the best buzz and just the right amount of eclectic bottles from both the New World and Old Europe. You feel your staff is chomping at the bit to go out there and make some friends on the floor (i.e., sell some vino).
But somehow things don’t go as smoothly as planned. Sales appear to be up a bit, but not quite as high as anticipated, and certainly not in concurrence with the forecasted P&L. Months pass, and your disappointment grows. Where did you go wrong?
Wine doesn’t usually sell itself. Oh, there are some bottles that can move out on their own with no particular selling skills employed. A spiffed-up gorilla can sell Mouton- Rothschild or Dalla Valle Maya, because the type of customer who purchases that level of wine usually have their minds made up prior to coming into the restaurant. Consequently, no salesmanship needed.
It’s the smaller wineries from the lesser-known regions that need your help, which should be gently ushered onto your tables. And in today’s economic climate it is this grouping of wines, generally priced on the list between $25 and $80, that will row your vinous boat.
That Was Then, This Is Now
In the years prior to 9/11/01, high-end bottles seemed to jump off the list. Cult cabernets ruled, along with first growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundy. I’ve always considered the $100 price point to be a ceiling of sorts, a place where many diners pause, then proceed no further. But in the late ’90s, $100 was starting point at many tables.
I recollect a merlot that we brought in to Bern’s Steak House during this period at about $20. It was priced on the list a bit above $50, and it sat. Weeks passed, and we couldn’t sell it. When we took a flyer and changed the price to $80, we sold the entire case in under a week. Wacky, huh? But this scenario mirrored the mood of those times.
The boom vanished in one day. I can’t stress enough how that single day changed just about everything in the restaurant business. Fully half the customers disappeared, and weeks later when they began to trickle back, they brought with them a different mindset. To their way of thinking, things had been shifted from rock-solid to tenuous.
That “bring out another one (at $200 per) and keep-’em-coming” attitude was now a ghost from the past. The price point of some of my better players dropped by as much as two-thirds. Consequently, the $200 wine buyers were cherry-picking my top $70 bottles, and the $70 drinkers were ordering at $35.
Although the general tenor on the floor has improved greatly by now, many of those $200 drinkers have never returned to their exalted stature. Beyond the attentions of a few true connoisseurs, I’ve found that upper-end Bordeaux and Burgundy sales are flat. Grand cru Burgundy, in particular, is slow to move, and I recommend rethinking the margins you’re taking on these wines, lest they grow hair on them.
Some Things Stay the Same
California cabs have proven to be the one area of relative consistency, especially in steakhouses. There are a certain group of wineries whose cabernets sell with vigor, year after year. In some cases, the wines produced by these houses are lesser in quality today than, let’s say, ten years ago.
But that hasn’t stopped the name-seeking customers from latching on to them, often ordering without even deigning to open the wine list. It is here, I believe, that you can increase your markups. If it’s only big-name houses they demand, so be it. But I try to make them pay for their transgressions.
So now that you’ve come to understand the dynamics in today’s active, but tempered market, how can you optimize sales? There are two distinct ways: Stay on top of what’s hot and what’s not, and make sure to purchase accordingly. (See sidebar.)
The other, and possibly most important, is the instillation of knowledge in your service staff. Every diner brings a different set of needs to your restaurant, and a truly sharp server will recognize their specific desires and react accordingly. Wine sales rise in accord with cognizant service.
I’ve always striven to bring what I call the “paint-me” theory to the table. I become a white canvas, waiting to be filled in with color by the customer. Sometimes I’m painted in bold strokes by jovial, boisterous characters. Other times, it’s all subdued, quiet and formal.
Impress upon your staff that it’s wise to never prejudge a table. I’ll give you a prime example why this is a bad idea.
You Never Know
I was once called to serve a couple, and upon approaching I noticed that the gentleman had huge, circular wooden earrings through his lobes. His dreadlocks were really long and he was dressed in a tattered jacket. But I treated this guy just like any other. In other words, everything was fine until proven otherwise. After a nice conversation, guess what the fellow ordered? La Tache 1969, at $900. And he became a regular customer of mine, always drinking top-flight Burgundy. On the flip side of this, I’ve served numerous Gucci Suits white zinandel or iced tea.
A few tried-and-true sales techniques that seem to still get results for me include:
1. Wine-pairing menus, where three wines are paired with three or four courses at a fixed price. A tremendous amount of wine can be moved here, with good profit margins. And they are fun, as your wine guy and chef can get a little wild and experimental.
2. Wine classes and dinners: Bring new faces into your restaurant through classes to the public and regularly scheduled winemaker dinners. If priced right, you’ll find these events sell out.
3. Know your market and your competition. Keep your costs trim and your markups reasonable. The reason you’re buying wine is for the express purpose of selling it, not to watch it grow old and dusty in your cellars.
4. And lastly, keep it simple. Remember that wine is beverage and not a Ming vase on a pedestal. It’s meant to aid digestion and give a pleasant buzz, and it tastes good, too.Ken Collura is the wine director at El Monte Sagrado, Taos, NM.
HOT WINES, GREAT VALUES
Some regions offer great bargains, especially if your staff knows how to engage customers and sell wine. Reds from the Southern Rhone Valley have remained solid throughout the tough times. Why? Price. There is more perceived value in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas at $50 or Cotes-du-Rhone Villages at $30 than from any other region in France. A fine string of vintages from 1998 through 2001 have helped this perception along. FYI: The 2001’s are the best of the four vintages (they drink well now, and will drink better still in five years) and if any remain in your marketplace, scoop them up.
The same varieties that produce the above wines (grenache, syrah, mourvedre) have been made in California for decades, to little fanfare. Happily, that’s been changing, and these “GSM” blends are out in force. Just why it took so long for us to realize how great these grape varietals from places like Paso Robles and Santa Ynez are is beyond me. When I think of how much bad American merlot and sangiovese I’ve tasted …
Argentina, Australia and Spain are a few other places to be right now. The old-vine malbecs (and blends) coming out of Argentina can be stunning, at comfortable prices. The quality here has moved forward in leaps and bounds. And by now, just about everybody is aware of Australia’s recent successes. I wish I could say I’m in agreement with all the glowing press being doled out. Often I find those 95-point shirazes from Oz are just too jammy and thick, but I’ll sell them all day. It’s not about me, it’s about my customer.
Spain is so diverse, with lots of different weights and textures to the wines. Try to get involved with some of the smaller regions, such as Toro (my favorite), Jumilla, Yecla, Costers de Segre and Navarra. The quality/price ratio can be amazing.
For whites, pinot gris/grigio from Oregon and Italy move briskly, as does just about any sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. Off-the-beaten track bottles, such as gruner veltliner from Austria, albari