Tag Archives: restaurant management

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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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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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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A Wine-O Walks into a Bar, and…

Wine Bar in Italy

One day last year, my wife and I walked into a wine bar in Castello di Bolgheri, Italy (OMG, this sounds like the beginning of a joke!). They had 20 wines in a commercial dispensing system… Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Le Macchiole, Sapaio, Grattamacco, Ca’ Marcanda and more (pardon mixing my wines/producers) and I blew a boatload of cash sampling higher priced, older vintage, hard to get wines in 2 oz. pours. Never saw such an impressive selection of wines BTG in my life! I will remember the fun we had that night for many years!

Wine Bars and the U.S.

Could this wine bar concept be successful in the U.S.? Let me throw this out there… could providing wine education and then exposure to these kind of exquisite wines from all over the world be successful? Obviously, the demographics of the area would be a huge factor, but assuming you were located in a high-income area… could it make business sense, or would it be a disaster? Definitely – paired tapas and the right atmosphere would be a must.

A Passion for Wine and Curiosity

In my case, I am always curious about ultra-premium wines. Frankly, it is fun trying to determine if the value makes sense, or the price point is bogus. In the process, you always run across an amazing gem, like we did that night. Although generally, I am not up for spending big money on a full night of it. In this case, my wife and I were on vacation and we decided it would be fun to treat ourselves to the experience. Are we the only couple with disposable income that feels that way? Would the location have to be a tourist wine destination like downtown Napa, CA? Will the new Coravin wine preservation system provide the method for making this concept work?

Which Wine Experience Are You Looking For?

Being of entrepeneurial spirit, I try to guess at the different kinds of consumers that make up the marketplace. When you choose to drink wine at a bar, or restaurant, what most influences your selection?

1) pair with food 2) price 3) value 4) broad appeal for the entire party 5) explore new wines 6) the old dependable 7) hunt for exceptional quality 8) try multiple wines and a diverse experience

Is seeking out an exceptional wine value on your radar, or like many believe… are you just looking for a passable wine at the right price? Many in the industry have the view that people are just happy to be out enjoying a good time with friends…

$700 USD/btl for Harlan Estate Cab? Really?

Here are a few lines from a recent wine auction. Sorry, vintage dates are missing, but you get the point. $75+ for a 2 oz. taste of wine? I don’t think many would be curious enough, although I have watched people pay that for a shot of utra-premium tequila…

Harlan Estate, Napa Valley, USA – $709
Schrader Cellars Old Sparky Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA – $624
Caymus Vineyards Grace Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA – $617

How about $25+ for a taste of these wines?

Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer Las Piedras Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena, USA – $182
Dominus Estate Christian Moueix, Napa Valley, USA – $180
Bevan Cellars ‘Oscar’ Sugarloaf Mountain Proprietary Red, Napa Valley, USA – $180

Or these?

Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe, France – $192
Chateau Haut-Brion Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, Pessac-Leognan, France – $192
Chateau Lynch-Bages, Pauillac, France – $188

At some point, you become saturated with high-priced offerings beyond your budget. Occasionally, I stop and think about all the buyers out there spending this kind of money on wine. Sometimes… I just can’t get my head around the wealth that must be out there.

Wine Bars in My Area

Don’t know about you, but I look for decent food and ambiance with great value wines in the low, mid and higher priced categories. Sometimes, you are out on a special occasion and want to splurge. Having craft beer on tap too is a plus, for the times when a beer just sounds right. Unfortunately, this ideal place does not exist within 20 miles of my home and has me wishing… and hoping, the next new entrepeneur will take the risk and get it right.

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Coravin Product Review

The Wifey purchased a Coravin as a gift for Christmas. Wow… gadget and wine, all in one. For those of you who are not sure of what this is, here is a photo:

coravin

Here is the link to the manufacturer’s website: http://www.coravin.com/.

Why Use a Coravin?

Well frankly, I was initially struggling with this idea and did not open the box right away. After a few days, I popped the box open to assemble it and make sure it worked properly. All good… assembles easily, few moving parts. Reminded me a little of those argon gas pumps they came out with several years ago to preserve open wine.

Gave it a try initially on an inexpensive bottle. Didn’t require instructions and very simple to use. The cork self-seals tight, right behind removing the needle. So, the question became: what situation would be right to break-out the device? You hard-core wine-o’s will appreciate my first official use…

New Year’s Eve party at our house. One of my wife’s friends was going on and on about how she hated merlot. Finally, I couldn’t handle it any longer and told her: she just hadn’t tried good merlot yet. Now, you have to understand, here in the USA, 75% of the merlot we produce is some of the worst plonk on the planet. It kills me to think of all the U.S. consumers that think this is what merlot should be (personal campaign of mine)… so, I pulled a 2001 Pride Mountain Merlot out of my cellar and dragged out my Coravin. I challenged her to try it. I served her up a 2 oz. pour of the Pride and rocked her world! Pow! Another merlot hater converted again! AND, I didn’t have to trash an entire $75 bottle of wine in the process!

Science Behind Coravin

Once you pierce the cork (can only be used on cork closures), the lever introduces argon gas under pressure. Then via a two-way valve of some sort, the pressure is maintained, while the wine is forced out of the hollow needle into the glass. Works pretty slick… So, only two potential drawbacks I can envision:

1. If the cork is too dry on an older bottle, either the seal may be lost due to loss of integrity of the cork, or the cork may not show enough resilience to self-seal upon removal. IMO, this possibility does not seem to be very worrisome.

2. My other concern is not serious, but rather more interesting. Once the device replaces the air in the capsule with argon gas, the wine is served and then the bottle is returned to the cellar. Without further oxygen to draw from, the typical wine aging process would have to be significantly slowed, if not stopped. Since argon is heavier than air, the wine may be sealed off from air for the balance of the life of the wine. How does wine age in such an environment? I don’t think there is any research on this??

Coravin Conclusion

A very cool device! If you would like to pour a glass while alone, knowing you will be unable to polish off a bottle… PERFECT! The balance of the bottle will be perfectly stored, for the next time you decide to draw a glass, or pop the bottle. I may start drinking more expensive wine, when alone – with no concern for wasting the bottle. If you have a $100 bottle of 20 year old Bordeaux and intend to pour a glass and put it back in the cellar, you may want to think twice. I have no idea how an argon environment will effect the continued natural aging process of high-quality wines in storage.

Science again solves a challenging problem facing our world, preventing the waste of good wine! Next up: reliable hangover relief!

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Can Wine Education be Fun and Interesting?

I hold consumer wine education programs, typically at wine bars and restaurants. The classes are intended to draw additional traffic to the venues to build a clientele and drive paired food revenue… but ultimately, consumers are drawn by the desire for wine knowledge.

What Consumers Want to Know

Through a few years of experience I have found what works and what doesn’t.  You can put people to sleep with the information that interested me in my formal training… history of wine production and regions, impact of terroir on flavors, impact of wine making techniques on the wine, etc.  What do people enjoy learning about?

Wine – Food Flavor Pairings

Learning how different food flavors impact the perception of the white, red, sweet wines, etc.  Setting up paired tastings to reinforce the concept.  Most are very surprised how food impacts wine.  It is rare to find casual wine drinkers that have explored this.

What are Those Flavors I am Tasting in Cabernet, or Merlot?

People want help learning standard varietal profiles.  Take them through the blind tasting process and how to create wine tasting notes.  They want to know how to talk about wine with others.  Blind taste a few for the wow factor.

How Do I Describe What I Enjoy to Wine Attendants?

Teach them how to describe their wine preferences to assist in wine selection at restaurants and wine bars.

How Do I Select Wines to Purchase Based on My Preferences?

Walk through a wine selection process based on that description, without tasting the wine.

Would I Enjoy Exploring the Diversity in Wine?

Introduce people to the diversity of flavors in wine and provide specific examples.

Would I Enjoy Wine Travel?

Discuss wine travel and destinations – relate stories of individual wineries, their beauty and ambiance.

ULTIMATELY, MOST PEOPLE WANT WINE TO BE FUN!

When I first began presenting these programs, I was disappointed people were not interested in the academic side.  Took a few to understand, they don’t want to talk about bottle aging, cellaring strategies, AOC & DOC labeling laws…  People just want to learn how to facilitate buying wine they enjoy and how to enhance their shared wine experience with friends.

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California Clear Lake AVA – Up and Coming Cool-Climate Region

Tasting the Wines

I have recently tasted a few wines from this region: Ceago Merlot and Chacewater Malbec. While not yet having reached the status of other cool-climate growing regions such as Mendocino Ridge,  or Santa Barbara AVA’s, I was quite impressed with the improvement in the wines since my last taste through this area. Better structure and balance than in the past and the wines seem to be finding the cool-climate complexity that I have come to really appreciate.

The Future of Clear Lake AVA Wines

For a continental climate, the area has an extreme moderating factor – the largest freshwater lake in California in its midst. The climate is much cooler than the nearby North Napa Valley area, due to its elevation. The growing season seems to drop just cool enough to add character and acidity, but stays warm enough during the day to allow ripening of red varieties such as: cab sauv, merlot, syrah, petit sirah and malbec. It is time for me to visit the wine trail in this area again and talk with the winemakers. At prices in the $15-$30 range, the QPR (quality to price ratio) of these wines is good… but my hope is, the quality will continue to improve and I will have another area seriously contending for my wine dollars.

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Restaurant Wine Service and Profitability

Formula for a Successful Restaurant

So many restaurant owners ignore the potential of their beverage service. Yes, it requires an investment, but I have run the numbers many times… and it is just too difficult to hit the necessary gross profit margin without at least a 30% revenue and 40% profit contribution from beverage. Business plans become tortured, when based on food alone. I don’t care how good the product is. U.S. business statistics show, only one out of seven new restaurant start-ups last past the first five years.

Attitude and Passion

To run a beverage program at a fine dining restaurant requires an infectious passion and an ability to be a wine ambassador to draw your clientele into wine culture to succeed. The fine dining experience is all about superior service, telling stories and relating to the customer, all with an eye on education – not only regarding wine/beer/spirits, but also appropriate food pairings too. This seems to overwhelm many owners, but the result is worth the effort and may even be the key to long-term survival.

Business Planning in the Restaurant Trade

So often businesses lose sight of the financial viability of their annual budget and business plan (if they have one). I think, especially so in the restaurant trade. As a business owner, the tendency is to focus on a comfort zone and day-to-day operations, while overlooking whether the right plan is in place to achieve success. Having owned businesses and managed organizations in the past, even those with highly motivated employees, it is easy to lose track of the need for financial planning, marketing and experimenting with ways to enhance customer loyalty. Beverage is one of those keys to success.

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