Wine List Consequential

The Practicalities, Pitfalls and Peacock Dance of On-Premise Wine Sales

From the Umami.Life archives

Originally published April 23, 2018

Would you hand your dining guests a menu in a foreign language?

Wine lists can read like a foreign language to all but the most well-traveled guests. “Rambling and enthusiastic” are words Janis Robinson has written in describing some wine lists. Those could be generous synonyms for “complicated, intimidating and overwhelming” to the dining guest. Why should restaurant ownership and management worry about their wine list? Any experienced owner or top manager knows that on-premise wine sales account for 30 to 40 percent of profits.

How much thought should be expended on the architecture of a wine list?

There are as many ways to organize a wine list as there are restaurants with wine lists. Should one organize by varietal? Region? Varietal by region? Varietal by region of origin or production? Old World vs. New World? Power? Price? Or just go haywire and have no logical structure at all?

While courses of study for wine specialists may cover the economics of selecting wines for a wine list, the architecture of presenting those wines is often left up to individual preferences, which are as varied as the personas behind them. Is the wine specialist warm and open to customers? That specialist’s wine list might be arranged in a low church, very user friendly fashion. Is the specialist heady from his palate prowess and advanced certifications? That specialist’s list might be arranged with a lengthy liturgy that only he can recite in guiding guests through its intricacies, while complaining to management that the wait staff is unmotivated and lazy regarding wine sales.

A wine list and its web presence are critical to a restaurant’s success and profitability. Today, many Gen-X and Millennial dining guests will preview a menu and wine list online long before ever entering the door. For wine savvy diners, a well thought out wine list is a quick validation that the food offerings will be equal to the wine experience. They’re mentally checking off those boxes. For the wine newbie, an online wine list is an opportunity to explore and research before being placed in an uncomfortable hot seat.

Fabien Jacob, CSW, San Antonio, says, “A wine list should be approachable both by experienced and inexperienced wine buyers. It should have an easy flow of standard and unique varieties, regions, pricing and power flow for dining guests who know what they are looking for and want to begin a special dining experience as soon as possible.”

Industry research shows there are over 120 million wine drinkers in America today. That’s about 40 percent of the adult American population, but only an infinitesimally small number of those are knowledgeable enough about wine to comfortably begin a conversation with a somm, wine specialist or server. Many Gen-X and Millennials find wine lists too intimidating and will quickly retreat to a cocktail or specialty beer selection that offers an experience with less friction.

Rarely is a wine specialist also a communications specialist. I certainly struggled in this area until my word nerd co-founder Catherine Sansing happened upon the scene. When a wine list is written in the specialized language of the industry, the wine specialist is signaling that he only wants to reach an audience who already understands that specialized language. While this specialized language helps people communicate more efficiently within the inner circle of wine, it is merely babble to the masses outside the high church. A full-color, interactive Pro Wine Guide digital wine list breaks through all the wine geek speak and communicates in a universal language: flavor profiles. Enjoying a glass of wine shouldn’t require a Ph.D in ancient Koine Greek.

Are wine distributorship reps consultants or quota chasers?

Recently, Catherine relayed a nice compliment from a sommelier upon whom I called during my many years working as a rep for a wine distributor. He told her that he always appreciated the fact that I asked what he needed to fill gaps in his wine list and brought him interesting new wines that fit the list. He said there were reps who too often came to him with a line that sounded like this, “Can you please help me with this label so I can make my quota this month?”

Many large distributorship brand managers put major heat on sales managers and reps at the end of the month to gain another 3 to 5 percent over last year’s sales. These quotas can lead to desperate, as well as very creative, measures to hit quota. The sign on the sales room wall could very well state: The beatings will continue until morale and sales quotas improve. A wine rep should always be a valued, trusted resource in those times when a restaurant needs to fill a wine selection quickly. The rep should be someone who will throw you a life preserver and not drown you with 10 cases of quota-maker commodity wine. A restaurant’s wine storage room should not be an extension of the distributor’s warehouse.

Is the restaurant wait staff up to the wine list challenge?

Typically, only fine dining establishments can support a knowledgeable wait staff. Nearly 28 percent of people employed in the US restaurant industry are students, according to research from the National Restaurant Association. These students are balancing more than food and drinks on a serving tray. Often, they are carrying a full class load while working to pay bills. It’s difficult enough to wrap one’s brain around the intricacies of wine, let alone add the demands of school. Students also contribute to the high turnover rate among employees in the restaurants-and-accommodations sector at 72.9 percent in 2016, representing the sixth consecutive annual increase, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover (JOLTS) program.

The difficulties of communicating ethereal qualities of wine gave rise in the 1970’s to wine ratings on a 100-point scale. While it’s not quite settled as to who was the first to use such ratings, we do know that it was Robert Parker writing in the Wine Advocate who popularized their use. Ratings give the consumer something they can easily compare and contrast. However, within the industry, professionals hold their noses when they speak of ratings as ratings are only relevant to one person — the one giving the rating. Everyone’s palate maturity is different.

With the advent of customer facing apps that allow crowdsourcing of ratings and reviews, wine enthusiasts are offering an endless stream of misinformation. (Who as a wine pro would pair thin mint cookies with Brunello?) For lack of better options, many restaurant guests are using these non-professional retail-focused apps to help them make wine list selections. Unfortunately, this has resulted in many uncomfortable discussions between guests and wait staff regarding the difference in retail pricing versus restaurant pricing. A Pro Wine Guide digital wine list shows winemaker tasting notes, videos when available, and a restaurant’s own pricing.

The Sommelier’s Peacock Dance

A digital wine list will never take the place of a sommelier or wine specialist when it comes to performing the peacock dance of seduction of the big whale customers. Higher priced wines will continue to need the personal touch of hand-selling. However, a wine specialist cannot interact with every guest at every table every hour of every day of operation. A Pro Wine Guide digital wine list works 24/7/365 through a link on a restaurant’s own website. A Pro Wine Guide digital wine list is a simply uncomplicated, un-intimidating way to begin the wine conversation between guests and wait staff.