All that time in the cellar tasting and selecting new wines for the list, and on the floor making inspired suggestions and pairings for guests, means that sommeliers and chain beverage directors are always trying to have their fingers on the pulse of what wines are hot. Wine professionals and chain operators across the country share regions, varietals and blends that are currently top sellers in restaurants and bars, how they are promoted and paired, and whether they are easy sells for patrons—or require a bit of coaxing and encouragement.
Tim Clune, Wine consultant for Vermilion and Evening Star Café and general manager for Planet Wine
Tim Clune assists with the wine program at the 60-seat Evening Star Café and 80-seat Vermilion, both in Alexandria, Virginia. Evening Star Café is also adjacent to Planet Wine, where guests can purchase wine at retail cost and pay an additional $8 corkage fee at the restaurant to enjoy the bottle with a meal. Dinner-pairing bottles there typically sell in the $40 to $50 range; on Vermilion’s wine list, best selling bottles range from $60 to $80.
Pinot noir—especially from Oregon—remains immensely popular with guests, and Clune believes its medium-bodied, rather versatile style makes it perfect for pairing with a variety of foods. Servers have also been introducing guests to Spanish varietals like grenache blends, verdejo and tempranillo, as well as interesting, unusual and light Italian varietals like lagrein, barbera and lacrima. “They have great complexity and herbal and mineral note that pair naturally with lots of different types of foods.” Clune has seen the average consumer move away from heavier styles of wine that were all the rage a decade ago, noting that guests today are more likely to eschew oaky and big, tannic styles than seek them out, and is delighted when guests inquire about less mainstream offerings like dry rosés. While some education is needed to nudge guests into ordering some of these less familiar wines, establishing trust leads to an eagerness to experiment.
“Once you create a good relationship with your guests, they are very often willing to put their meal in your hands.” For harder sells, having an open bottle available for sampling helps servers determine taste preferences. Farm-to-table events at both restaurants partner wines
and dishes made with seasonal ingredients—allowing management to
hand sell some of the more unusual offerings and educate guests on exactly why they were chosen. Staff members taste new wines as they are introduced to the menu, and are asked to verbalize aromas, flavors and potential menu pairings.
Clune’s Perfect Pairings
“There are some standards that you can always count on in a pitch. Pinot noir with duck is a classic. Grüner veltliner from Austria used to be the sommelier’s best-kept secret for vegetable dishes that would normally make you cringe to think of pairing: artichoke and asparagus dishes go very well with the minerality and high-acid structure of grüner. Try a big Spanish red with your steak next time instead of a standard California Cabernet Sauvignon. You’ll be amazed at how well they pair.”
Maeve Pesquera, Director of Wine, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
As the director of wine for the 64 locations of Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, owned by the Tampa, Florida-based OSI Restaurant Partners, LLC, Maeve Pesquera witnesses guests ordering wine on both ends of the spectrum, from light-bodied and approachable, to big, bold and tannic—and everything in-between. Surprisingly for a steakhouse, she says, Fleming’s sells a lot of light and aromatic riesling and pinot grigio to sip alongside appetizers and small plates. Easy drinking, fragrant and fruity pinot noir—including those from New Zealand—continue to sell well and are a go-to style for just about everything on Fleming’s entrée menu, especially roast chicken and grilled salmon. She also points to exotic red blends as a growing category, like those made with grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, as well as Bordeaux-style blends with merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
The sweet spot for pricing depends on the glass: lighter whites sell well at $9 to $12; pinot noir at $11 to $14; syrah blends at $8 to $14; and cabernet sauvignon (both single varietal or in blends) has the biggest range at $10 to $20 per glass. Pesquera has noticed a greater willingness on many guests’ part to taste something new: either from an unfamiliar region, unheard of varietal or unusual blend. Guests increasingly want their wine to be flavorful (like their food) and are opting for wines like albariño, petite sirah, Rioja and malbec. They are also increasingly savvy about the details of food and wine pairing and appreciate Fleming’s new iPad wine menus, which allow diners to really drill deep into descriptions and tasting notes. Management promotes food and wine pairings at every opportunity with national programs like “Small Plates, Big Pours,” and local tastings and winery-specific dinners. The annual “September Month of Discovery” showcases the Fleming’s 100—one hundred wines available by the glass. However, promoting and selling some wines require more education than others. Pesquera points out that it took more than a little prodding to get guests ordering German Riesling; now it’s Fleming’s top selling white varietal. While she believes chains and restaurant groups have access to a wider availability of wines and a larger staff, one-unit restaurants can be trendsetters, too, “If a venue is willing to partner with a great and adventurous sommelier.”
Pesquera’s Perfect Pairings:
“Wine enthusiasts will tell you that riesling is the most food-friendly wine in the world and I’d have to agree—it goes with just about anything. Also, a light California Pinot Noir complements filet mignon, Ahi Tuna, pork chops, lamb chips or even a steak salad. Whites such as sauvignon blanc or lightly oaked chardonnay pair well with most fish, chicken, salads and appetizers such as Baked Brie. Since we’re a steakhouse, there is nothing better than the classic Napa Cabernet with a grilled steak!”
Carla Rzeszewski, Wine Director, The Breslin Bar & Dining Room/The John Dory Oyster Bar
The wine director for the 150-seat Breslin Bar and Dining Room and the 120-seat John Dory Oyster Bar, located in New York’s Ace Hotel, believes prevailing wine styles at the two venues vary, depending on whether staff is selling their personal favorites or the table is selecting on their own bottle. Current staff favorite regions include Liguria, Alsace and the Loire; varietally, they adore riesling, syrah and nero d’avola.
Guests seeking wallet-friendly options are steered towards bottles from the Languedoc and Spain; average bottles purchased at both venues range from $75 to $90. Rzeszewski definitely sees the wine playing field changing, trending towards offerings that are minimally tampered with—wine growing, rather than winemaking, so to speak. “For me, it is a clear line between whether the wine has been torn, cleaned, processed, polished, effectively brainwashed and whether it has its heart still intact.” She admits those are harsh terms to describe some wines, but notes that tasting each style side by side can be a staggering, eye-opening lesson. “With chef April [Bloomfield]’s food, there is a purity of ingredients combined with an intense burst of flavor, that demands the same honest qualities in the wine.” This fundamental philosophy begins with the staff, who attend classes and brainstorm dishes to partner with new wines, and are invited to eat at the restaurant as often as possible to personally witness the synergy between fork and cork. For her part, Rzeszewski is constantly reading, tasting, asking questions and connecting the dots with team members.
“As long as you have the staff behind you, they will help you take it to the guests.” If there is a dedicated sommelier on the floor, he or she can work closely with tables. If not, then she relies on ongoing, thorough staff training to be assured of that crucial personal guest connection.
Rzeszewski’s Perfect Pairings:
“At the John Dory Oyster Bar, Ligurian reds, whites and sparklings are a fun option. Rich meats pair well with Alsatian whites, pig’s foot with rosé Champagne, crudo with riesling, chenin blanc with everything and roasted meats with richer Sherries. Don’t even get me started on Sherry; you can run the gamut with those wines, from bone dry and salty to rich, nutty, complex and haunting.”
George Miliotes, Master Sommelier, The Capital Grille
George Miliotes believes the current wine landscape is much more open today than at any other time in the past two thousand years. “There are so many styles and our guests are interested in what is cool and new,” says the master sommelier for the forty-six locations of the Orlando, Florida-headquartered upscale steakhouse chain. While he hasn’t noticed wine styles dramatically changing, he points to the increased availability of a more diverse range of regions and varietals being respected and enjoyed. At The Capital Grille location, wines from every major and most minor growing region are represented on a list where bottles start at $28. Not surprisingly, big reds factor prominently to partner with the wide range of steak cuts: cabernet, merlot or tempranillo with Delmonico Steak , syrah or malbec with strip sirloin, and pinot noir or sangiovese with filet mignon. Miliotes also likes pairing monastrell or garnacha with lamb and zinfandel with veal. Crisp, unoaked white likes sauvignon blanc, torrontés, chenin blanc and verdejo work well with lighter seafood dishes like snapper, halibut or grouper. Miliotes notes that the last ten years has seen an explosion of wine knowledge among guests. Increasingly savvy customers mean that staff needs to step up their game with constant training, including tasting wine and food together to illustrate pairings firsthand.
“We encourage them to use their own palates to find what works and to recommend wines that they are passionate about. It is exciting for our team to sell something new or to have a guest enjoy a comfortable old favorite.” He views the process for restaurant groups and one-venue operations to be identical: Educating managers and servers about wines offered—and getting them comfortable to offer pairing ideas both classic and eclectic—makes for happy customers.
Miliotes’ Perfect Pairings:
“I am still infatuated with the way a good pinot noir can pair with just about anything. It is my go-to varietal when a table needs one bottle for a wide range of entrée dishes, like white seafood, dark seafood and red meat. Another go-to is a really good riesling with appetizers. There tends to be a greater variety of spices and flavors in appetizer courses and the fruitiness of a Kabinett style of riesling handles this very well. Finally, a wide range of meat spicing pushes me towards malbec. Argentina eats so much beef with so many diverse sauce flavors, and malbec can handle this.”