Lists of the top wines served at restaurants are published every year to great fanfare. But there’s more to the story than just brand names and rankings.
Beneath the surface are the trends driving sales and popularity, changes in consumption and in styles of dining. New technologies and techniques of marketing wines, such as sensory approaches to food and wine pairing, are also expanding our understanding far beyond the traditional “red wine with beef, white wine with fish.”
For one thing, the more casual style of dining of the past few years is affecting wine consumption and sales. And it dovetails with what some of the wineries are doing: promoting the idea that wine is for easy enjoyment with food everyday, not just on special occasions or in fine-dining establishments.
Even a luxury brand like The Four Seasons is feeling the casual dining trend, and this affects how wines and wine pairings armarketed. “As our restaurants become less formal and [more] fun, we have wine lists by style instead of region or price,” says Guy Rigby, director of food and beverage, Americas for the Four Seasons. “I’m also encouraging our people to go with smaller wine lists and to put wines lists on the back of the food menu so everyone can see them.”
Pairing with wines from smaller producers is another trend. At its lower-volume locations, where the wines of smaller producers don’t move as quickly, BLT Steak puts the pairing recommendations on the menu as a suggestion, says sommelier Jason Galang.
Focusing on smaller producers allows BLT Steak to find greater value, quality and to stay unique in the crowded steakhouse category. Galang says the concept’s top wines now include two Behrens & Hitchcock cabernet sauvignons, price at $130 and $205; a 2010 Turley “Dogtown” zinfandel for $115, and a 2008 pinot noir from Domaine Sere, Evenstad Reserve for $150.
Options in wine abound and there are numerous opportunities for unique and delicious pairings. Still, sommeliers have their favorite wines for pairing.
When it comes to white wines, Emily Wines, wine director at Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, likes the quality of wines she sees coming out of Greece. “There’s more focus on quality, though the indigenous varietals are hard to pronounce, like moscofilero.” And albariño is still booming, she adds.
Sommelier Christopher Bates, general manager and executive chef at Hotel Fauchere in Milford, PA, points to the versatility of chenin blanc. With so much texture, “it can go with red meats and entrees,” he notes.
Riesling remains a favorite with sommeliers: “Riesling goes with everything!” says Bates. “It can be seen as anything but a light wine. It has minerality and texture, even in kabinett [styles], so you can push that through with almost anything. It doesn’t offend.” One favorite is the Hexamer, Spätlese 2005 for $70.
Rajat Parr, wine director at San Francisco restaurant Michael Mina, leans towards chablis—especially Louis Michel—for its good acidity. He has four Louis Michel chablis on the wine list at Michael Mina, ranging from $59 to $169.
As for favorite reds, Kimpton’s Wines likes several from Portugal, especially the still wines from the Douro, and the varietal Touriga Nacional. Fifth Floor, Kimpton’s fine dining restaurant concept, currently carries three red wines from the Douro ranging in price from $60 to $120.
Another up-and-coming region mentioned repeatedly by sommeliers is Southern Italy and Sicily. Wines mentions Nerello Mascalese in particular, an aromatic, acidic, and floral varietal.
While there is still huge demand for cabernet with red meat, “people are willing to experiment, like going with Italian varietals like Barolo,” as well malbec from Argentina, says The Four Seasons’ Rigby. As such, “we are putting more variety on the list,” he says. “There are even some wines from places in Greece, like Naoussa and Nemea.”
Not all consumers or sommeliers like orange wines, but some do appreciate their wine pairing potential. “Orange wines— oxidized wines in particular—work with umami flavors,” says Michael Mina Group’s Parr. “Soy is hard to pair and vinegar and orange wines work well with both.”
Hotel Fauchere’s Bates also sees the orange wine trend, noting that chenin blanc was the original orange wine. “It always has a slight hint of texture, just like riesling, it has at least a slight amount of sugar,” he says.
ON THE WINE HORIZON
The more casual style of dining isn’t the only trend influencing wine pairing: As vegetable-centric dishes become more common, thinking about wine pairing must evolve. While it may be easy
to pair beef or fish with wine, what about artichokes, or basil,
or sweet potatoes?
Kendall Jackson, which has had a garden at its culinary center
since 1997, in 1999 developed theories around color and flavor
affinities—especially linking color with varietals. The winery is
working on a new garden-centric cafe.
“It became clear that the flavors, even for red wines, work
with vegetables with caramelization, and you don’t have to serve
cabernet sauvignon with beef—you can pair it with black lentils,
beets, caramelized chard,” says Gilian Handelman, director of
education and communications at Kendall Jackson.
The last and biggest challenge may be engaging a new younger
generation of wine drinkers. Like many other wineries, Kendall
Jackson is producing videos and apps and also paying particular
attention to colors and shape when describing wine and wine
Wine tasting is a sensory experience, Handleman says. “We
have to think about how to engage the next generation. Wine
geeks are very serious. But wine consumers, especially the next
generation of wine consumers, are not.”
Amy Sherman is a San Francisco-based writer, recipe developer,
and restaurant reviewer. She is the editor of the award-winning
food blog Cooking with Amy and is author of WinePassport:
Portugal and William-Sonoma New Flavors for Appetizers.
Tips for Marketing Wine Pairings
1) Put wine pairing suggestions on the menu. This is a low-effort way to encourage customers to choose wine with food.
2) Create pairings with dessert and cheese plates or even appetizers. Cheese and dessert pairings are fun, and also less risky ways to get customers to try something different.
3) Mix it up! Consider sparkling wine, sherry, even beer and sake on your tasting menu.
4) Taste food and wine together with staff. If the staff has an “aha moment” with food and wine they will be more inclined to market it to the customers.
5) Encourage wine by the glass. Customers will rarely send back a glass of wine. So be willing to open a bottle if a customer agrees to commit to two glasses.
6) Give guests a taste. If given a taste of two different wines, they will likely choose one. Offer a mix of familiar and less common wines to satisfy a range of guests. Some customers will want “the usual,” but others will be open to new experiences.—AS
Wine Pairings: From Vineyard to Table
If wine is made in the vineyard, as winemakers like to say, the philosophy of food and wine belonging together begins at the winery. Two wineries whose wines consistently rank at the top of restaurant lists are Cakebread Cellars and Jordan Winery.
Jordan Winery’s cabernet sauvignon wines appear on 9,000 restaurants menus and its chardonnay wines on 4,000 menus. Jordan stays to true to the vision of the founders, creating European-style, balanced wines that have depth and won’t overpower at the table, says its director of wine Greg Miller.
“The main thing is consistent quality, competitive price point and the unique style of our wine,” Miller says. “We’re not chasing the numbers (ratings), we’re doing what we think is right.” The company has a chef on staff who crafts dishes to complement the wines. The winery also shares recipes and videos online, along with its philosophy of hospitality.
Cakebread Cellars has 10,000 restaurant accounts. Dennis Cakebread, senior vice president, sales and marketing attributes this to “wine quality number one—our wines are elegant and balanced with slightly higher acidity, keeping our prices reasonable, and the value proposition.”
Beyond a robust collection of videos and recipes, the winery holds an annual American Harvest Celebration. Cakebread invites five chefs each year to experience the harvest, cook, visit the farmers market as well as cheesemakers and oyster farms, says culinary director Brian Streeter. The event helps build strong relationships with chefs and restaurants, fostering a greater understanding of wine and food for everyone involved, he says.—AS