When Maggiano’s Little Italy launched a new private-label Italian wine last year, it gave consumers the opportunity to taste the new wine for only a quarter.
The Italian-American restaurant chain, with 45 U.S. locations, used a week-long promotion, where permitted, of two-ounce samples of Ruffino Salute Amico, a cabernet sauvignon-sangiovese blend bottled exclusively for Maggiano’s by Italian winery Ruffino.
That wasn’t all. “The e-mail we sent to our Maggiano’s E-Club members was great at getting the word out to our guests,” says Angie Eckelkamp, Maggiano’s Little Italy marketing manager. “And we also created a video about Salute Amico that we’ve linked from our website and e-blasts, which we also showed to our servers.”
All of which, Eckelkamp says, might explain why Salute Amico has become the most popular Italian wine served by the glass at Maggiano’s. “Our guests are really embracing this easy-to-drink, food friendly wine,” Eckelkamp says, while declining to say how many glasses are sold or how Salute Amico sales compare to other Italian wines.
Owned by Dallas-based Brinker International, Maggiano’s offers 14 Italian wines by the glass, priced from $7 to $12.50 for six-ounce pours. Salute Amico averages $8 per glass ($32 for a bottle), and Maggiano’s offer 23 other wines by the glass from $6 to $13.
“Italian wines are ordered equally as much in comparison to the other wines on our wine list,” Eckelkamp says. “We’ve created a list that we feel appeals to the majority of our guests—while some may want to drink an Italian wine while dining with us, others may prefer to stick with their favorite domestic wines and select by varietal, brand or price.”
Growth in By-the-Glass Selections Fuel Italian Sales
The increasingly popularity of ordering wine by the glass in order to keep total bill cost down, try more wines or pair them with foods is also adding to Italian wines’ by the glass success. They offer such a range of prices and styles, as well as competitive pricing, making them a logical choice for operators to menu.
And their popularity is not just limited to Italian restaurants.” Italian wines are great value wines, work well with food, are interesting, thought provoking and offer that classic rusticity people look for when they drink old world wine,” says Kyle Showen, wine director and buyer at Red Velvet Wine Bar, a 20-plus-seat wine bar in San Diego, California.
Of the 39 wines offered by the glass ($9 to $28), five are Italian, priced from $10 to $12 for six-ounce pours. Showen hopes to increase the Italian selections.
That seems to be a trend for all wines. According to Cheers’ On-Premise BARometer 2010, published by the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company, the national average number of wines by the glass offered in restaurants, hotels and clubs and bars and taverns rose to 14.3 in 2010 over 13.1 the previous year. Specifics on Italian wines were not available.
To get Italian wines on the menu at a solid price point, Showen says, “I dig through my distributors’ books, do my homework and try to pick up on wines that are often obscure and difficult to move without hand selling.”
Helping that cause might be the current value of the Euro. “I definitely think that prices of all European wines are leaning towards more value now that the Euro and the dollar are looking more equal,” Showen says.
However, Drew Hendricks, who as director of wine manages nine concept’s wine lists for Houston, Texas-based Pappas Restaurants, says that price trend will take a few months before most restaurants feel it.
“I don’t know if we’ve seen it right now, but I think we’ll see it happening in the next six to eight months with presells and pricing,” he says. “The way importers have us buy, it takes us four to six months to see any change in pricing.”
Pappas restaurants range from casual Louisiana-style Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen to two fine-dining Pappas Bros. Steakhouses in Houston and Dallas. Another trend boosting Italian wine-by-the-glass sales, Hendricks says, is the growing sophistication of the American consumer.
“I think overall the American consumer is more interested in wines around the world,” Hendricks says. “We’ve seen a big jump in all categories in our restaurants. I think more people are looking to explore different areas and regions of other countries that they were in the past.”
And for the two high-end steakhouses, Hendricks says, “Barolo and Brunello [the Piedmontese heavy-hitting reds] work really well with the richer cuts of meat. Super Tuscans are quite fleshy and pair well with filet. I think Italian wines work really well with steakhouse cuisine. We’ve seen a big uptake in the interest in Italian wines on the floors, not only by the glass but also in the bottle.”
The steakhouses offer four Italian wines by the glass, priced from $9 to $25 for six-ounce pours. Hendricks’ best-selling varietal is pinot grigio. A Rocca will cost $9 at the steakhouses, while Pappadeaux offers Mezzacorona ($7 to $10) and Santa Margherita ($12 to $15) in five- and eight-ounce pours.
“Pinot grigio is a go-to classic style of wine,” Hendricks says. “Everybody understands the style of pinot grigio much the way they understand the style of chardonnay. And our servers recommend it quite a bit. We see a lot of people going for that eight-ounce pour and a lot of people willing to move up in price point.”
Yet Italian wines require a little more of a hand-sell in a wine bar like Red Velvet. “Italian wines usually aren’t favorites with the new world wine drinking crowd, i.e, California, Australia, Argentine Malbec drinkers,” Showen says. “They are generally higher in acid and a bit more austere, which makes them phenomenal with food but not quite as appealing as a ‘cocktail wine.’ In this establishment we have the opportunity to hand sell every wine on the list so I would say the Italian wines move just as well as any other and are often the recommended pairings with chef’s food, which helps them get in the rotation.”
Showen’s having success with the 2008 Torre Quarto, Uva di Troia, from Puglia in Southern Italy, priced at $5.50 and $10 for three- and six-ounce pours, respectively.
“It’s a really delicious wine with nice ripe fruit but also classic dry tannin and grip that one would expect out of southern Italy,” he says. “It’s a great crossover wine for new-world wine drinkers trying to get into old world wine, because of the fruit component.”
The half-glass size (a three-ounce pour priced at a little more than half of the full glass price) works well, Showen says, to introduce customers to Italian wines. “I think it’s important to educate customers about Italian wines, especially the more obscure ones,” Showen says. “Pinot grigio is generally going to taste like pinot grigio, Chianti like Chianti, etc. but Italian wines are so diverse and offer so many textures and flavors that doing tasting size pours, flights, three-ounce half glasses, etc. is a really good way to get Italian wines in front of the public.”
Not every restaurant can afford 25-cent samplers or a marketing campaign, but there are other ways to promote wines.
Offering servers incentives such as gift certificates has proved effective at Pappas, Hendricks says. The two steakhouses also do Friday night tastings once a month. “Generally speaking, at least one or two are Italian-based,” Hendricks says.
“I talk them up,” Showen says, “give customers a taste, and encourage them to try something new. I feel the average American diner and wine consumer has a certain appreciation for Italian food and wine—or at least the idea of it—so it isn’t too difficult to turn people on to Italian wine.” Merchandising is even simpler, Showen says. “Pour them at price points that I think are appropriate and serve an honest, quality product.”
Italian wines continue to evolve, Hendricks notes. “You’ve seen a lot of movement in Italian wines from natural winemaking, obviously, to the more modern approach.”
What does the future hold? “I think [Italian wineries will] stick with what they do very well, and that’s produce great wines in very diverse regions. So I think we’ll continue to have as many Italian wines by the glass as we want at different price points, and I think the wines will exist just as they do now.”
Adds Showen: “More varietals, more price points, different regions. Italian wines are gaining a new appeal that will only benefit the consumer.”