Wine drinkers are by nature adventurous rather than brand-loyal: They’re excited to try new things. At the same time, most wines consumed in this country originate from a handful of star grape varieties. Once we venture beyond chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio and riesling for white wines, and cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, shiraz, and pinot noir for red wines, the volume of overall sales is remarkably small.
That’s because many wine drinkers are not familiar with all of the other delicious flavors that are available. Yet what can distinguish you as a restaurant or bar—and cause guests to return—is the ability to introduce lesser-known but exciting wine varieties to clientele. In order to do this, staff needs to know how to describe them quickly and accurately.
Even though the majority of wines sold remain the well-known names, every list should have at least a few unusual varieties to intrigue the palate. Not all guests want something unfamiliar, though, so it’s generally a good idea to ask: “Would you like to try something a little bit different?” This approach helps set you apart: Instead of just pouring the same old, same old, you’re inviting the guest to have a potentially more memorable experience.
Assuming that the response is positive, how do you describe the new variety? The quickest and easiest way to introduce any unfamiliar beverage or food is to compare it to something better known.
Here’s how it works best: “Chenin blanc? It’s delicious; not quite as fruity as riesling and a little more medium bodied, with some of the same tart lively flavor as sauvignon blanc.” To say this convincingly, of course, you need a two- to three-word description of the best-known varieties, their taste profiles, and a bit about how light or full-bodied they are.
Another example: “This grenache is light in color and cherry-like, just like pinot noir, but it’s a little smoother and a bit more medium in body.” (If the wine’s name is unfamiliar to you, or in a language that you don’t know, find out how to pronounce it and practice.)
Everyone has a different starting point, so ask the right questions. “What do you usually like?” is a good ice breaker. If the guest says “white zinfandel,” you might recommend a fruity, off-dry Riesling. If he or she is a pinot grigio drinker, a mild pinot blanc or even an unoaked chardonnay might be appropriate.
Telling a short story about the wine you’re suggesting and putting it in context is often helpful. Guests like to hear where a wine comes from and that it’s popular, even if not totally mainstream yet.
Don’t hesitate to pour guests a half-ounce taste of what you’re recommending if they still seem hesitant after your description. One taste is often more convincing than the most flowery description. And write down the name of the wine so that the guests can tell their own story later about this wonderful new wine you introduced them to. ·
Step by step
1. Ask if the guest is interested in trying a wine that’s delicious but a bit less familiar.
2. Compare the wine that you’re recommending to a more familiar and well-known variety, or as a stylistic cross between two better-known varieties.
3. Ask questions about which type of wine the guest normally drinks.
4. Provide some details about where the grape originates and why it’s becoming popular.
5. Offer the guest who is hesitant a small taste of the wine.