Wine stewards are finding their greatest challenge today is to attract younger consumers while maintaining a strong wine list with balanced prices.
by Anthony Giglio
photography by Paul Hilldebrand
“Attention restaurateurs, listen up: The next generation is coming to dinner, and they’re the children of Ralph Nader,”says Joel Quigley, executive director of Wine Brats, a Sonoma County-based group of dedicated wine lovers out to recruit and educate what he refers to as “the media generation.”
“Nearly 80 million consumers were born between 1961 and 1979, the children of boomers, raised on consumerism, and they’re spending more discretionary income than any other demographic group in American history,” Quigley warns. “And the rule of this generation is diversity and experimentation–let’s call it the premiumization of the American palate.”
While those 80 million Gen-Xers aren’t necessarily destined to become Brats about wine, Quigley boasts that since 1993, his organization has ballooned to more than seven thousand members in 32 chapters across the country. And to demonstrate how serious he and his colleagues are about dressing down wine snobbery, Quigley touts their successful “wine raves,” parties that encompass music, food, fashion and wine into one big educational party; usually in ultra-hip locales.
All of this may well have the late, great wine educator Frank Schoonmaker spinning in his grave, but if what Quigley and wine stewards from around the country are saying is true, there’s definitely a sense of changing attitudes about wine consumption in American restaurants, and maintaining a profitable wine program is becoming a greater challenge.
“Who cares if a restaurant has 200 kinds of wine down in the cellar if we can’t taste them,” crows Quigley. “Today’s consumer understands appellations and flavors because of coffee and microbrews. We experiment, and we need to taste wine by the glass.”
Looking for Value
Tim Kilcullen, general manager and wine steward at Panorama at the Penn’s View Hotel in Philadelphia, knows how to pour wine. In fact, he poured nearly 800 bottles of wine through his 120-bottle cruvinet system last year. Yes, he maintains 120 wines by the glass at all times; the largest such system in the United States. And who drinks most of that wine? “Certainly not business people in their 40s,” says Kilcullen. “Our casual clientele are much more likely to experiment, especially young people, whose interests are much broader. They’re willing to try wines from Spain, Chile, Australia, and they’re looking for value.”
Panorama’s extensive by-the-glass program is certainly monumental in scope, but the concept is actually becoming quite familiar in restaurants across America, where getting diners to buy even one glass of wine is better than none at all.
At Gotham Bar & Grill in Manhattan, wine director Jonathan Gillman saw a need to bolster his by-the-glass program as soon as he took over the list a year ago. “No one was drinking Champagne at the bar–no one, and I thought: wouldn’t it be great to look down the bar and see people drinking tall glasses of Perrier-Jou