Category Archives: Restaurant

Restaurant Service – The Importance of Upselling Beverage

Borrowed this graphic from a restaurant software site. Hope they don’t mind.

Non-chain restaurants are often family affairs and frequently – even with the best food – are the least profitable, poorest run category of business in the U.S. Why should you care? The strategic profitability of a restaurant can be a key indicator of the quality of the dining experience, not just the success of ownership. As a consumer, if you look for these ideas in action, you will find your favorite spots without much effort.

What to Look For (restaurant owners are you listening?)

Does the restaurant/bar have a beverage specialty: craft cocktails, fine whiskies, different styles of beer, quality/value wine list? If you don’t enjoy alcoholic beverages, you can stop reading now. If you do, stick with me here…

If beverage sales is not at least 1/3 of a sit-down restaurant’s sales, you can bet they won’t be in business long. In training for restaurant financial management, 50% of revenue is the recommendation. If there is one thing I am sure of, the best loyalty builder is a successful beverage program. Where I see the serious consumer passion coming from is – their preferred beverage category: whisky, wine, beer, and/or craft cocktails. Yes, the investment can be sizable, but can a restaurant afford not to?

A Successful Beverage Program

It is irrelevant which category(ies) are chosen, the clientele will eventually find the restaurant, with a minimum of invested marketing dollars.

Onwership/Management

Training, Training, Training… employees who find their passion in the category should be identified and have them lead staff. ALL servers should be trained to have some familiarity with the beverage specialty of the house. Encourage passionate clients with knowledge of the category and have staff funnel them back to the lead. Inventory choices have to be smart for this category of clientele. Find both brands/labels popularly known AND uncommon brands consumers can explore. Inventory should be strategic, with a good/better/best approach and there should be at least a few value items in each quality category. Local alcohol distribution laws should be investigated and multiple sources should be used, if possible: winery/brewery direct, distributor, auctions, overstock re-sellers and local producers. Each state usually has more than one type of alcohol resale license. Most – except the 100% liquor license (bar) – are more reasonable in cost. Licensing options may open purchasing to more channels, provide more buying power and selection. Unfortunately in my state for example, by law, restaurants & bars have very few choices.

Consumers

Take a minute to look for these services and specialty inventories. Ask about their availability. Notice the difference, when you find it. Praise the positive and provide constructive feedback on the negative. It is in your best interest. In some ways, your involvement can be a key to the success of your favorite spot. AND… most importantly, vote with your dollars. Try to limit your entertainment budget to the businesses that provide this kind of experience. My wife and I do.

Food Menu

Main course food is a very low-profit sales category for sit-down restaurants. Without volume, focusing on this is not a winning business model. As a consumer, who wants to join the herd? From the food category – starters, appetizers, sides and desserts can drive profits AND seriously enrich the customer food experience. Look for super yummy looking and creative menu items here. It is evidence of a well-run restaurant, a smart chef and the beginning of a great dining experience. A chef has much more lee-way to be really creative with these items, without breaking the bank on cost and can add experimental flavors that might not be acceptable to a portion of their clientele. On the staff side, owners need to find foodies for servers and have the chef train them to recommend flavors and pairings, not just dishes. Servers need to upsell the appetizers, sides and desserts. If you have ever had a server suggest specific menu items due to the flavors… it can really add to the dining experience, especially if you enjoy pairing food flavors with beverages.

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Returning Faulted Wine?

Refusing Faulted Wine at a Bar, or Restaurant?

Have you ordered a glass of wine while out and find it tastes a little strange? Did you send it back and request a glass from a new bottle? Or maybe, ordered a bottle, only to find it didn’t taste as it should? Now, you know why wine enthusiasts smell the cork upon opening a bottle… The first situation above is quite common, the latter is rare, but it does happen. I will mention the most common wine faults here, but the primary focus will be:

How to handle the decision to send the wine back.

The appropriate conversation to engage the server when sending wine back.

Quick Review of Common Wine Faults

These are the most common:

Oxidization

Overexposure of wine to air/oxygen. Oxidized wines lose brightness in both color and flavor. Red wine turns brownish-orange and can have a vinegar and/or caramelized (sometimes buttery) flavor. This is very common when you are served wine by the glass. Sometimes, a glass can be poured after days of storing an open bottle.

Heat Damage

This occurs when wines are exposed to temps over 80 F for prolonged periods, or over 90 F for shorter periods. Cooked wines develop a jammy, sweet character that can taste like stewed fruit. This can be very common in places like Arizona, where I live. Wine must be stored under 70 F and away from light to remain in good condition after a few months. In places like AZ, this means storage in coolers during the Summer months. Some on-premise businesses turn their wine inventory quickly enough that room temp storage can be acceptable, but keep an eye out to determine if you plan to return.

When bottles experience high heat, the corks often leak, so you get a double hit from Oxidization AND Heat. This problem can sometimes be identified by inspecting the cork for wine stain to the very top.

Cork Taint or TCA

This was more common in years past. Technology has made it less so, but it still happens. TCA can have a taste/aroma similar to wet dog/newspaper. There are some that say 1/10 bottles with real cork closures will experience this. In my experience, it has been closer to 1/20 bottles.

Sulfur Fault

This results from improperly handling the addition of sulfites to wine. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, but it is very common for winemakers to add sulfites as a preservative. When this is not handled correctly, it can cause burnt matchstick, rotten egg, or garlic flavors/odors. Biodynamic wines do not permit the addition of sulfites, if you are looking for sulfite-free wine.

Secondary Fermentation

This occurs when a small amount of residual sugar reactivates the yeast and adds carbonation to the wine. Some wine varieties are made purposely in this “frizzante” style, like Moscato d’Asti, but think of a Cabernet Sauvignon with bubbles…

Microbial Fault

This occurs when the winery and production areas are not kept clean. Certain of these faults can be part of the wine style, such as Brettanomyces. This adds that barnyard aroma to some wines and can become an acquired taste. There are additional “off” flavors and odors caused by other microbes too.

How to Handle the Decision

If you have identified any of these faults (or others), keep in mind, at most bars and restaurants they are serviced by distributors who will always take back winery faulted bottles. In the case of heat and oxidization, it is totally preventable and the management on-premise needs to know about the inventory storage problem. This issue is the primary reason mark-ups are so high for wine service. There are 4-5 6 oz. pours in a bottle. Some businesses try to recoup their entire profit in one glass purchased, others two. Either way, they are covered. Don’t accept odd tasting wine. If you can identify the fault, share it with the server. Let them know there is a solid reason for the return and they will have the information needed to deal with their supplier.

There is another discussion on the topic of returning wine, which I will address briefly. When the consumer doesn’t enjoy the wine selected… as the buyer, it is your job to engage the server and help them to understand what wine characteristics you enjoy. Although, sometimes the server does not have enough experience to assist, or they have not been trained to identify flavors/aromas in wine. This is the area where the decision has to be what you are comfortable with. Most restaurants and bars, will replace wines you don’t like, if you share your comments. At some establishments, this can turn into an argument and affect your service, so think twice about how you handle this scenario specifically.

How to Discuss the Return Request

Be confident in your identification of odd flavors/aromas and explain what you are experiencing. Share any clear evidence with the server, such as: the cork stained to the top for heat, or the horrible odor on the cork for TCA. I experience Oxidization Fault very frequently. I would say 1/5th to 1/3rd of all wine I order by the glass is oxidized and I almost always send it back. The restaurants/bars know when the bottle has been open too long. Any management worth their salt will mark their by-the-glass inventory with the date opened.

Where does the Responsibility Lie?

All small production wineries should be willing to replace bottles with faults caused by their production. The same applies to distributors and restaurants/bars for faults caused by their handling and storage. Be comfortable that there is always a mistake along the way that causes these issues and it is not your responsibility to suffer through dealing with it. Wine is a luxury item and producers, suppliers and servers should treat their service like it is a premium product.

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Scoring and Rating Restaurants

The Need for a Methodology

I have spent the last ten years scoring thousands of wines. I am also a serious Foodie, but as a trained Somm, I have looked at that experience through the lens of wine pairing. My wine training courses and evaluation took place at The Art Institute in conjunction with a chef training program, so I have always viewed the two pieces of food and beverage service as a whole. My perspective has broadened since visiting Italy and being exposed to the Slow Foods culinary movement. Recently, I decided to begin including fine dining in my evaluation, as I realized… it is rare for me to enjoy a bottle of wine apart from food. After starting the journey down this path I realized, if I am going to start evaluating food/food service, I needed to apply a methodology (like the 20 pt. UC Davis wine scoring system) to be fair and score with consistency. I went looking and found Department of Health score cards and forms for evaluating internal restaurant processes, but could not find consumer judging, or scoring sheets. If anyone reading this knows of a restaurant scoring template, please share…

Developing a Restaurant Scoring Method

I had to build a list of the factors that had the biggest impact on my dining experience and arrived at the following categories: location, ambiance, cleanliness, server disposition, timeliness of service, menu selection, flavors, balanced/complimentary composition, fresh/light/heavy food character, properly seasoned food and overall quality. I would hope this list is similar for you Foodies out there? Then, I had to select a scale and weight the individual categories. I used the wine scoring systems as a guideline and realized the UC Davis 20 pt. system was too compressed and I needed a 100 pt. system to properly judge the restaurant experience. This is my view of how to weight these categories: Location – 4/100, Ambiance – 8/100, Cleanliness – 8/100, Servers – 16/100, Service – 8/100, Menu – 12/100, Flavors – 16/100, Balance – 8/100, Fresh/Greasy – 4/100, Seasoning – 8/100, Overall Quality – 8/100. Cleanliness should probably be weighted more like 50/100, but that approach would favor mediocre establishments, so I made a compromise. I built common descriptors into each category and loaded this all into a spreadsheet template.

Dining Expense Categories

Then… I realized, not everyone wants to spend $50/pp on a meal, so I went about building a price scale. Scoring info was all over the web on this issue, but I did make a few personal decisions, to base the price categories on: a TWO course meal, include the cost of tax (5%), tip (15%) and exclude beverage and dessert. I concluded, not everyone is eating dessert today and it made sense to throw in an average tax/tip amount to provide a full price picture.

Scoring vs. Rating

It then occurred to me, it was important in fine dining evaluation to have both a scoring system AND a rating system. So, I developed a separate rating system incorporating the scoring system described above (see below). Here is my effort to complete comprehensive rating charts:

Wine

97 – 100Exceptional
92 – 96Excellent
89 – 91Enjoyable
85 – 88Passable
80 – 84Barely Acceptable
74 – 79Choke it Down
50 – 73Flawed

Restaurant / Food

97 – 100Exceptional3 Star Equivalent
92 – 96Excellent2 Star Equivalent
88 – 91Enjoyable1 Star Equivalent
82 – 87PassableDiner Quality
77 – 81Barely AcceptablePoor Diner Quality
72 – 76DumpDive
50 – 71Should CloseNuf Said
Does not include fast food, or take-out restaurants. Sit down only.
$$20 and under
$$$20 to $30
$$$$30 – $50
$$$$$50 and over
The dollar signs represent cost of a two-course dinner/pp, taxes and a 15% tip (no drinks or dessert).

I hope you found my process of some interest. I enjoyed putting this system together and will be using it religiously moving forward. Let me know if you have a different viewpoint on this topic, think I should be tweaking a few areas, or believe I am totally out of my mind (entirely possible).

BON APPETIT!

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Filed under Fine Dining, Restaurant, Restaurant Review

Wine Dinner Review

Restaurant Review

Tisha’s Fine Dining (BYO) – Cape May, NJ

Score: 94/100 – $$$$ (see rating guides below)

Meal: Arugula salad with Burrata cheese and red Beets, Pepper crusted Prime Filet medium rare with mash potatoes, green beans and fried onion strings. The shared desert was profiteroles layered with vanilla ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce.

Wine Pairing: Stags’ Leap 2017 Petit Sirah Napa Valley – Score: 94/100. Wine paired well with Dish: Yes.

Stag’s Leap 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – Score: 91/100. Wine paired well with Dish: Yes.

My wife grew up in Cape May on the Jersey Shore and her family has owned a beach house there for a couple of generations. She visits for a week, or two, in the Summer every year and I usually join her. We always make sure to arrange our reservation for Tisha’s and it is always the culinary highlight of the trip.

Restaurant Menu and Ambiance

The menu rotates every week with as much local in-season produce as possible. The choices are typically American style seafood and meats, with a few other items such as pasta dishes. My wife and I have been visiting Tisha’s for near 20 years now and have never had a mediocre dish. Although, I would suggest the seafood and meats, over the other dishes. The veggies are always in-season and fresh. There is good reason why Jersey is called the Garden State!

The ambiance includes indoor and patio dining with a small, upscale white tablecloth feel. Reservation availability is limited in the Summer. The servers are always friendly and attentive, but the premises can get very busy. Patience is needed for both the kitchen and servers in the Summer – to enjoy the experience. The restaurant staff requires your entire order upon arrival and paces the service for you. It seems a little odd for fine dining, but I have never had a bad experience.

The Food

The salad had great flavors and textures. The Arugula was peppery, the Burrata cheese was creamy and fresh and the beets were fresh and sweet… tasted almost like fruit. Nine times out of ten, the beef is out of this world and this was one of those nights. The Filet is on the menu with a bleu cheese flavored butter sauce, but my wife and I prefer the beef without it. The medium-rare steak was a touch towards the medium side, but the beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender and very tasty. The sides were fresh and accompanied the beef well. The desert was very tasty, not too sweet and the pastry was light and airy, but not quite fresh enough to be perfect.

The Wine

My wife and I enjoy Stags’ Leap wines. Please note, this is NOT Stag’s Leap. If you weren’t aware, the two wineries settled a law suit years ago by agreeing to move the apostrophe. Christophe Paubert (Stags’ Leap winemaker) is French trained and produces wonderfully balanced wines. In contrast, the other Stag’s Leap produces the more typical Napa fruit-tannin bombs.

The Petit Sirah is not a typical U.S. product for this variety. This had a typical fruit driven profile, but was much lighter, structured and balanced. Red and blue fruits were on the nose and palate. The wine was dry with medium tannin, medium+ acidity and a nice long finish. The texture was a bit silky with fine-grained tannin. As a comparison, this was nothing like the very common Michael David Petit Sirah. The wine actually paired well with the Burrata cheese and beets in the salad.

The Cab had a huge fruit-bomb nose, but the palate was not quite as concentrated. Still more fruity than I would prefer, with plum and blackberry on the attack. A rather simple taste profile, but with good balance and excellent structure. The wine was dry with medium tannins, medium+ acidity and a long fruity finish. This cab had the signature Stags’ Leap fine grained tannin. It paired very well with the Filet we had for the main course.

Rating Charts Used in this Review

(Common industry comparative data used with detailed scoring templates)

Wine

97 – 100Exceptional
92 – 96Excellent
89 – 91Enjoyable
85 – 88Passable
80 – 84Barely Acceptable
74 – 79Choke it Down
50 – 73Flawed

Restaurant / Food

97 – 100Exceptional3 Star Equivalent
92 – 96Excellent2 Star Equivalent
88 – 91Enjoyable1 Star Equivalent
82 – 87PassableDiner Quality
77 – 81Barely AcceptablePoor Diner Quality
72 – 76DumpDive
50 – 71Should CloseNuf Said
Does not include fast food, or take-out restaurants. Sit down only.
$$20 and under
$$$20 to $30
$$$$30 – $50
$$$$$50 and over
The dollar signs represent cost of a two-course dinner/pp, taxes and a 15% tip (no drinks or dessert).

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Filed under Cabernet Sauvignon, Food Pairing, Napa Valley, Petit(e) Sirah, Restaurant, Restaurant Review, Stags Leap District, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

Wine Certifications MW, CWE, WSET and MS? Differences AND Why You Want To Know

Why Should a Wine Consumer Care?

You are attending a wine tasting, wine class, an attendant is recommending a wine at a restaurant, buying a wine at a shop, or deciding which vintage to pop from your cellar… If you are an average consumer and “Two Buck Chuck” (okay, probably $4 now) is your thing, please move on to the next article of interest. If wine selection is a bit more important to you read on…

Most wine enthusiasts are faced with these situations frequently and try to make sense of the value proposition. Do you trust recommendations? How could wine professionals understand what you enjoy? Should I pay $20 for a bottle, or maybe splurge and spend $30? What IS a quality wine and how does it taste different? Which food tastes better with which type of wine?

If you spend any time asking yourself these questions, you need to know the difference between these certifications. Well, why should you trust my explanation? If a certification helps to define my content here… I have trained formally, tested and passed the first two levels of Sommelier certifications. Strictly speaking, I am a certified Professional Sommelier. The next level is Advanced and then Master Sommellier. There are a little over 200 MS certified individuals in the world and just the Master test requires a 3 day commitment for the Theory, Service and Tasting sections. Even with a fair amount of experience, it would take me a year (or more) off work to study for that one! All of these certifications require much preparation and are quite an accomplishment. The failure rate for all of these tests is high.

What is a Master of Wine (MW)?

The certification body is the Institute of Masters of Wine and requires a research project and paper. This should give you an idea of the direction here. The path here is Stages 1,2 and 3, prior to the Master designation. An MW will KNOW virtually everything about all wines around the world: all varietals, how they are farmed, all individual world Terroir, vineyard strategies, winemaking techniques, wine taste variation, etc. Where do these people play in the industry? Usually, they work as technical consultants to media, wineries, publications, distributors and importers, etc. There is much to learn about wine from one of these individuals, IF they know how to teach it.

What is a Certified Wine Educator (CWE), or a WSET L4 certified Consultant?

The certification bodies here are the Society of Wine Educators and Wine & Spirits Education Trust. The path to CWE can be to study and test for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), or not. The path to WSET L4 typically goes through L1-L3. These are the most prestigious wine education organizations in the world and they certify as you might guess… the teachers of wine. Why is this distinction important? Think of these people as the educators. If you were to take a wine class, it would be good to have a teacher with one of these certs. It validates their level of knowledge and that they have been introduced to a methodology for teaching wine.

What is a Master Sommelier (MS)?

The most prestigious certifying body here is the Court of Master Sommeliers. I was certified by the International Sommeliers Guild (ISG). They are connected to the Food & Wine education programs at the Art Institutes in major cities in the U.S. In my case, the Phoenix Art Institute and we had the opportunity to work with the chef education program there for food pairing training. The path to MS is already described earlier in this article.

I have a real bias towards these people. The difference here is, you are trained on Theory, Tasting and SERVICE. Why is this different than the other certs? Yes, I was trained to understand how different varietals and styles TASTE and I was tasked to learn about wine production and growing, but the big difference here is the focus on FOOD and matching an individual palate. I was mentored to believe that there can be a difference in wine quality, but wine flavors only apply to an individual palate. There is no “bad tasting wine”, only wine flavors appreciated by different clients. I was trained to learn HOW to pair different flavors (both FOOD & WINE) with different clients and their perception of an enjoyable EXPERIENCE. In essence, this certification focuses on recognizing HOW & WHY people enjoy different foods and wines and how to build an experience that is tailored to an individual. Look for these certified attendants at RESTAURANTS. They will know their stuff and if you can get some one-on-one time, they will enhance your dining experience.

The Difference Based on Your Need

I think you will find this quick guide helpful and easily understandable. If you are taking a wine class, look for WSET and CWE certified individuals. If you have decided to start some sort of business in the wine industry, an MW as a consultant would be a good choice. If you are at a restaurant, a Sommelier on staff would be a good indication of the quality of their wine program. All of these individuals have a level of wine knowledge that can offer much to your personal wine experience, but there are differences as noted above. If you are participating in a wine tasting, any of these people could lead a group successfully with very interesting and rich content for you to enjoy.

So, keep an eye out and ask about certifications. There are a million so-called wine experts. In fact, some can be amazing. I have spent time with wine collectors that would blow you away. Although, if you want to be sure that your money is being spent wisely for classes, education, or dining… Look for the folks with formal training and certification testing. You will have a better chance of getting the most for your money and a much improved experience!

 

 

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Filed under Food Pairing, Restaurant, Sommelier, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting

Guide to Buying Wine at a Restaurant

Restaurant Wine Lists are intimidating, sometimes even for professionals. I know I feel pressure as the wine expert at the table to immediately grasp the entire wine library and recommend the best value and best paired selection with our meal(s). Here are a few suggestions:

Don’t Recognize Any Wines on the List?

If you don’t recognize a single wine on the list, the wine buyer is deliberately trying to:

  • Sell unknown garbage wines, because they do food… and beverage doesn’t matter (yes, I have met restaurateurs with this attitude)
  • Sell unknown wines you cannot price check with a wine app
  • Only listening to a distributor pushing unknown wineries producing cheap unknown wines that are priced to deliver ridiculous profits
  • Are true wine experts attempting to offer a broad selection from small boutique wineries from around the world that add interest to your wine discovery experience

How can you tell which situation you are dealing with? Ask to speak to the sommelier / wine steward / owner and ask him / her to give you a short explanation of their wine list and the wines they would recommend. You will be able to read the response… are they disinterested, don’t know their wines, can’t offer much background on the wines, or do they get excited about the opportunity to share their wine selection, have stories about the winemakers / wineries because they have visited them, ASK YOU ABOUT YOUR TASTE IN WINE, etc. It is likely you will know which kind of wine list you are dealing with pretty quickly. The bottom line is: if the list is not floating your boat… DRINK BEER, or HARD CIDER. This is especially true when eating spicy foods that do not pair well with wine.

Are the Wines Cheap Brands You Recognize?

This is the sign of a lazy beverage manager. Life is too short to drink bad wine. Again, I would drink beer, or hard cider.

Find a Wine Label You Know

Find a wine you know and buy at the store / shop at least occasionally and check the restaurant’s sell price. If it is twice the price per bottle (or less), you have found a manager / owner that is pricing wines fairly for the restaurant trade. For many of you, 100% mark-up may seem excessive, but there are justifications. If the wine is being served by the glass too, often a single glass is purchased and the balance of the wine is undrinkable after a day two. This makes it difficult to recover cost on the bottle. In addition, when wine is offered correctly, there is more investment in inventory than any other beverage type AND wine service when done correctly is labor intensive and requires higher cost employees. For the regular wine drinkers having familiarity with a few different brands, do what I do… pick a low, medium and high priced wine you know and check their sell price vs. the store bought price. I LIKE the restaurants that lower their profit percentage on higher priced wines as an incentive to up-sell and turn their wine inventory dollars.

Watch Out for Trendy Spots

I put extra scrutiny into my patronage at these restaurants. Are you getting interesting, imaginative wines and recommendations, or are the suggestions crazy, stupid, predictable and/or eye-poppingly expensive? Pay attention before you have had a few and it will be simple to assess. Of course, there are those establishments that are worth a visit just for the ambiance, or the people watching. I don’t expect much from these bars / restaurants, but do enjoy hanging out at these locations occasionally. Before you decide on a restaurant, you might want to include an assessment of your mood and add that into the selection process. It really does inform your approach to beverages: none, cocktails, beer, wine, etc.

Should You Stick With What You Know?

This a tough question. Is there a compelling reason not to pick a wine you have enjoyed previously? If you are anything like me, I often enjoy the adventure of selecting new wines, but only from restaurants that have a good wine list and with recommendations from knowledgeable attendants. This is why restaurants that do wine well are a strong draw for me… LISTENING RESTAURANT OWNERS?

Canvass Your Guests

If you are dining with friends / family chat about the beverages they enjoy. If you have wine in common, ask them about favorite brands, or what type of wines they enjoy. It is awkward when the wine hits the table and your choice is criticized.

The Choice

For all of us who are stuck with making the wine decision for the table, because either we are paying the check, or your guests are familiar with your wine knowledge… the bottom line is, you have to pick a bottle eventually. So, take a little advice from above, cross your fingers… and jump! With a little educated evaluation, it is likely to be a pretty good decision!

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Filed under Restaurant, Wine Education, Wine Industry, Wine Tasting

The Legacy of Fine Wine Culture

Is there a “Right” Atmosphere to Enjoy Wine?

I received my Somm training from a mentor that still firmly believed a profession in wine was a “calling”. I have worked hard to train my palate and learn the wine regions of the world to pass that crazy test. After all the work though, I still can’t agree with the formal atmosphere surrounding much of the fine dining wine service industry. Is the defining U.S. wine experience a stuffy, formal affair? Why is there social stigma, or a nervousness regarding wine selection in restaurants? Wine knowledge in the trade should be a tool that facilitates the comfort and enjoyment of clients… instead of a blunt instrument that adds to the discomfort.

julia-louis-dreyfus-wine

Seen the Mollydooker Shake?

I was having dinner with business associates at an Italian restaurant last month and I was asked to order a bottle for the table with a budget of around $60. Unfortunately, the restaurant had a poor Italian wine selection, so I chose the 2014 Beringer Knight’s Valley Cabernet, usually a pretty solid selection (quality vineyard and a track record for value). This vintage was not as easy drinking as past releases, so I asked everyone to bear with me and I put my thumb over the top of the bottle and proceeded to give it a vigorous shake! Everyone got a kick out of it and we proceeded to drink a moderately softer wine. WARNING I am about to suggest a completely inappropriate wine faux pas… (if this will torture your sensibilities, please skip to the next paragraph) …say you run up against a tightly wound Chianti, or young red Bordeaux, or maybe a 100% Petit Verdot… picture pouring the bottle into a blender. I suggested this approach at the restaurant and everyone immediately started laughing and vowed to do this the next time they had guests over. (Disclaimer here: this is NOT meant for fine wine. It would be better to age these wines for another few years, rather than throw them in the blender). Check out this link: Mollydooker Shake. Young Mollydooker wines can be very high in tannin. A nice stiff shake can do wonders to soften any highly structured wine.

Is Wine Fun?

Several years ago, my wife and I were invited to a wine enthusiast’s home for a wine dinner with four other couples. Very expensive, quality aged wines were being served. Out of the blue, one guest suggests we go around the table and have each person share an impromptu personal tasting note for each wine being served. Really? Afterwards, I overhear comments about a previous wine party my wife and I hosted and the numerous wine-ignorant guests in attendance. That day I made myself a promise, I would always try to help others relax around wine and make the experience comfortable and unpretentious. I have become a reverse wine snob.

I am thoroughly embarrassed by trained professionals in the industry who feel it is necessary to overwhelm a client with their wine knowledge and lecture on the importance of selecting… just the right wine. When an attendant at a winery tasting room, or a Somm at a fine dining restaurant approaches me, I am usually faced with one of two types:

  • An under-trained wine steward who has not tasted their own wine inventory
  • A pretentious jerk, who wants to tell me which wines I should prefer

I am not sure which is worse? I hate to tell people I am formally trained… then, they either get defensive, or are intimidated and clam-up. When I am dining out at an establishment with a large cellar, I always search the lesser known “nooks-and-crannies” for the best value. Most of the time, I get annoyed looks, but all with me have a great time. I was at Cowboy Ciao (Scottsdale, AZ) dining with an associate last year (GREAT wine cellar, by the way). From previous discussions, I knew he preferred big, highly structured Napa Cabs. I asked him if he had ever tried Aglianico? I suggested to him, I could find a really enjoyable bottle of Aglianico there for under $40/btl. I got a serious look of disbelief. We proceeded to run the waitress ragged… I selected three different bottles that had spent time in their cellar – one was a 2006, I believe. It took our server 20 minutes working with the wine steward to track down one of these bottles (she was a good sport)! I had them decant the wine… AND he thoroughly enjoyed it! Fine wine doesn’t have to cost $125/btl and be called Caymus, or Silver Oak. Servers should encourage more discovery. Their clients would enjoy the broader wine experience.

Who decided that wine was not supposed to be fun?

Next Wine Vacation

I hope at least some of you have tried a wine vacation. If you haven’t, you should. Very few experiences provide better food and drink, more inviting scenery, or more romantic atmosphere… but they can be fun too! Napa is always the ultimate U.S. wine experience, but it is expensive and can be a bit stuffy. For something on the more fun side, try the Central California Coast, Oregon, or East Washington state. Ask around once you arrive and seek out the less pretentious, relaxed tasting venues. If you want an interesting experience, try Tobin James Cellars in Paso Robles, CA. Hit them during one of their events in particular and be prepared to have a rockin’ good time!

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Changing U.S. Wine Landscape: Will producers, distributors & retailers pivot?

Big-Data_-cartoon

2015 wine consumer data is revealing new pressures on the U.S. wine industry. These trends will create business opportunities and confuse brand strategy for years to come. We are already seeing several of these changes beginning and I believe the others are inevitable:

The strong dollar is affecting currency exchange and making it easier for European producers to compete in the U.S.

Climate change is altering micro-climates in many regions around the U.S.

Demand is slowly migrating from table towards premium wines.

Major growth in the sale of sparkling wines for every day consumption.

Changing state wine distribution laws are making it easier for Direct-to-Consumer (DtC) business models to reach the consumer… and consumers are showing a DtC preference.

The Millenial Generation (born 1977-1995) has become the largest wine consuming age group, just surpassing Baby Boomers and bringing with it changes in demand and buying behavior.

U.S. off-site wine purchases are continuing to grow, driving greater sophistication in the wine buying community and increasing demand for wine education.

On-site beverage revenue growth is likely to follow and bring a more demanding clientele with it.

The expected growth in on-site beverage revenue (as a percentage) will increase the need for improved business skill-sets at smaller venues and individual outlets.

Sources:

Ship Compliant ™ & Wines & Vines ™ – 2016 Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report

USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Global Agricultural Information Report – EU27 Wine Annual Report and Statistics 2015, February 24, 2015, GAIN Report Number: IT1512

Rampant Misconceptions

Premium wine sellers are focusing on the Baby Boomer age group, mistakenly thinking it is still the largest wine consuming demographic. This oversight will generate a window for new business opportunities with producers, distributors, off-site and on-site marketers who understand the changing demographic within the wine drinking community. In the next decade, the dominance of Millenials in the wine consuming public will grow (demographic data has shown – as we age, per capita wine consumption rises). In order to understand these changes. it is important to understand how Millenials buying habits differ from Baby Boomers.

Millenials tend to:

Be more adventurous in trying: unfamiliar grape varieties, labels and experiment with imports.

Drink sparkling wines daily, rather than just on special occasions.

Be less single varietal focused and prefer blends.

Be willing to spend more per bottle of wine when they drink, but prefer craft beer and cider.

More per bottle spending, means likely more discerning palates.

Sources:

  1. U.S. Wine Marketing Council – October 19, 2015, “MEDIA ADVISORY –
    Wine Market Council Releases Latest Research on the Online Wine Shopping
    Behaviors of Wine Consumers”
  2. U.S. Wine Market Council – March 24, 2016, “U.S. Wine Marketing Council stands by their 2016 Consumer Research on Millennial Wine Consumption Habits”

Crystal Ball?

So what to make of all this data? I believe:

  1. Distributors will have to make choices: add more value than simple logistics (education, more direct marketing, etc.), spend more money on lobbying to influence state beverage laws, or downsize.
  2. Producers will be able to dramatically improve profitability through establishing and growing the DtC channel. Producers will need to change focus to blended wines (similar to Europe). This should enhance AVA focused labeling and marketing.
  3. Current small volume markets will grow. Over 50% of DtC wine shipments are to 5 states. Huge opportunity for producers to develop new markets.
  4. Off-site re-sellers like grocery stores and on-site re-sellers like restaurants will become EVEN MORE focused on beverage as a percentage of their revenue.
  5. Demand for wine educators and trained wait staff will continue to grow.
  6. Growth in the premium segment will increase economic pressure on the largest wine producers… bringing EVEN MORE consolidation.
  7. Increasingly educated buyers will be more willing to shop at warehouse stores with larger selections and less personalized service.
  8. Changing climates will drive big swings from vintage to vintage in production. Examples:
  • 2015 Sonoma County: 36% drop in pinot noir crop.
  • 2015 Washington State: 8% drop in cool-climate Riesling crop, with 12% increase in warm-climate Cab Sauv… causing a net 2% growth in Washington State wine fruit production.

These vintage to vintage changes in available fruit will add volatility to pricing and may make it difficult to capture year-to-year fluctuations in fruit costs. Source: Wines and Vines, 02.10.2016 – “California Wine Grape Tonnage Falls” at: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=164654

May You Live in Interesting Times!

The ancient Chinese curse may be very apropos here. Growth in both successes and failures are on the horizon for the wine business. No, it will not be overnight, but the next 5-10 years could drastically change the landscape.  I am quite curious to see where all this change will take us…

Many of these ideas represent my personal conclusions drawn from a wealth of new marketing data released this year. I hope you enjoy my crystal ball!

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Italian Wine Tasting

venice pic

Wine Tasting

Alessia’s Italian Ristorante with Vinifera Imports

Mesa, AZ

I enjoy Alessia’s and it had been several months since I had visited last. So, with my wife busy and a free evening on the horizon, I decided to grab a bite and enjoy a wine tasting event. John Carr (Owner) has a good palate and a pretty fair depth of Italian wine knowledge and his wife Shari is a killer chef. If you’re in the East Valley of the Phoenix Metro, definitely make it a point to stop by. The experience won’t disappoint.

Vinifera is not my favorite Italian Wine Importer, but they have several labels I enjoy. I didn’t know the wines being tasted that night in advance, so I was hoping to be surprised.

Wine Tasting Notes

Barberani Ovieto Castagnolo 2014 (white blend)

Most enjoyable wine of the evening. Nose of lemon curd and herbs. Palate was of rich lemon meringue and a touch of spice. Tremendous coating mouth-feel – this wine had spent a substantial amount of time on the lees. High acidity, but balanced enough not to make it over-bearing without food. Well done white wine, that could be drunk on its own, or paired well with fish and pasta in white cream sauce. At $16/btl retail, a good value.

Cascina Chicco Barbera d’Alba Granera Alta 2013

Most disappointing wine of the evening. It was very much a rustic Old World style Barbera and not my favorite approach with this varietal. This was a food wine only. Barbera is capable of so much more, when in deft hands such as Vajra. Black cherry and alcohol on the nose. Completely over-oaked. Palate is not fruit-forward. In front, you get brown butter and smoke transitioning to sour black cherry. Poor, watery mouth-feel and medium-high tannins. Long finish of brown butter, if you like that sort of thing. At $22/btl retail, I wouldn’t rush out and grab this wine.

Fontodi Chianti Classico 2010

Fontodi is an old Italian producer with a long history… and that traditional approach shows. 2010 was a great year in Tuscany for wine and I was hoping for something exceptional. Instead, it was very average. A quality Chianti, but traditional and unexceptional. Nose of red cherry, mushrooms, bramble and rubbing alcohol. Slightly sour red cherry and menthol on the palate. Very high tannins. Medium mouth-feel and high acidity. Short to medium finish. Would be a great pairing with red meat and pasta with red sauce. At $40/btl retail a decent value.

Fontodi Chianti Classico Vigna del Sorbo Riserva 2008

Best red wine of the evening. Very weak nose and definitely needed a little time to open. The palate was more complex than the other wines that evening. Fruit forward with black cherry and a touch of black currant, mushroom, leather and bramble on the mid-palate, with a weak bitter chocolate finish. Medium high tannins and high acidity. Well-balanced and the best mouth-feel of the reds that night. I enjoyed this wine and it is just entering its drinking window, 2016-2021. At $70/btl retail, I would pick a well-priced quality Brunello first.

Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino 2010

Unless you have a nice cellar and ten more years to wait, stay away from this wine. Black fruit and menthol on the nose. Very high acidity and very, very high rustic tannins. Maybe a touch fruit forward, but the acidity and tannins overwhelm everything. Impossible to assess much else. This is an Old World Chianti-style Brunello. All the things I love about Brunello are missing: good mouth-feel, balance, elegance… This wine should not have been bottled as Brunello. The grapes may have originated in a vineyard there, but the style has Chianti written all over it and at $135/btl retail, forget it.

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Predicting the Future of Wine Programs and the Restaurant Trade?

outdated

Why is a cartoon commenting on the impact of changing technology showing up on a wine blog… I selected it, because a changing landscape is all too familiar where technology is concerned. Wine consumption is changing in the U.S.. Can the industry adapt?

Predicting the Future of Wine Service

I have been meaning to write this post for a couple of weeks now, since Shanken News Daily published some interesting data. It appears a changing U.S. consumer profile is transforming the wine industry. Shanken recently published information from the U.S. Wine Market Council. It holds some fascinating insights into the challenges coming for wine marketing in the very near future…

  • Frequent drinkers (>1/week) are now 13% of all U.S. wine drinkers and 35% of all wine sales.
  • Millennials now comprise 36% of all U.S. wine drinkers nationwide compared with Baby Boomers at 34%.
  • High-end wine buyers (defined as those regularly purchasing bottles above $20 retail) now account for 36% of frequent drinkers, compared with just 21% five years ago.
  • Frequent drinkers are consuming 18% more wine now than they were two years ago, while occasional drinkers are consuming 8% less.

These are trends to note and they carry a clear message ( I believe):

  • Millennial consumer data shows them to be more adventurous and willing to explore wine more thoroughly (previous Shanken News data).
  • Frequent drinkers now comprise more than 1/3 of the market.
  • Frequent drinkers are spending more per per bottle.

Looks like a recipe for major change…

Can On-Premise Food & Beverage Adapt?

Mark Norman (industry consultant)  recently wrote a nice piece (link: Sales at Restaurants Plummeting?) regarding this and it had me thinking. Restaurants will definitely be hurt. Per site beverage revenue must increase to support lower margins and increased inventory. There will be no other choice, if they wish to maintain a successful beverage service. This changing consumer demographic is a clear indication: wine distribution’s typical approach to restaurant sales will need to change AND restaurateurs will need more training and knowledge to cater to this new group of consumers. The pressure will be on and it won’t just be about improving wine knowledge and acquiring a broader cellar with a more diverse price offering. The more important differentiator is likely to be business skills. Better marketing, inventory management, ROI and cash flow analysis will be key indicators of quality restaurant wine programs. Interesting times are coming!

Future of the Certified Sommelier

I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t think it is too far-fetched to think we will be seeing CS, MBA on biz cards in the coming decade. Somm exams should start including more business related content. As this new group of consumers starts driving larger restaurant wine inventories, more sales volume and lower profit margins, it will justify the need for improving business operations and accounting skill-sets. I like where this is going…

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