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Restaurant Wine Tales

By Dan Berger

For decades I have heard restaurant owners say they would like to find some alternative wines for their wine lists.

Starting in the early 1990s restaurant owners began to tell me that they wanted to get away from the massive lists of Chardonnays they were carrying and wanted more interesting wines. It was a time when Italian Pinot Grigio was getting more attention and red Rhône blends from numerous California wineries also were growing in interest.

Many restaurants supplemented standard wines (Chardonnay, White Zinfandel, Cabernet, Merlot, etc.) with wines that were a bit more esoteric, like Pinot Noir, Chianti, and the new ticket of the time, Sangiovese.

Restaurant Wine TalesToday it’s not as uncommon as it once was to find Italian red wines, California and Australian Syrahs, and Austrian Gruner Veltliner. But other pressures are facing restaurateurs, among them:

—Pinot Noir demand is up based mainly on the impact of the film Sideways, but also on the fact that Burgundy lovers now realize there are alternatives at a fairer price. The category has exploded.

—Riesling is making a comeback from near oblivion.

—Wines like Australian Grenache and Garnacha from Spain command more attention from major writers. As does Barbera from Italy, and fine quality American Pinot Gris.

–Malbec, despite its sad uniformity, it is an easy restaurant stock item.

There are more upscale wine buyers today than ever and that is by far the most profitable segment of the industry. So there are now buyers for wines from once-esoteric regions, like Brunello, Germany, and the Rhône. Even South Africa is making a major push in this market.

And let’s not forget established stars such as high-end Cabs, “in” Zinfandels, and red Bordeaux. Only Sangiovese and Syrah are taking it on the chin today.

Obviously, upscale restaurants must keep an expanding stock of wine, more than they’ve ever had to carry, and they must monitor it. The demands of Millennial buyers is part of what’s at play.

If restaurants are to stay current with the latest trends (and fads), they must consider hiring a sommelier, or at least a wine specialist. Because of all these pressures, restaurateurs of specialty restaurants must choose carefully, eschew too many wines that don’t work well with their foods, and then price them so they move. (The old saying still applies: you take dollars to the bank, not percentages.)

And here we get to the heart of the issue: If pricing is by a profit-oriented formula, prices for the ever-expanding wine lists are getting too high for the average consumer.

Restaurant Wine TalesAlas, many restaurants have yet to understand this. We dine out a lot. Too often we find wine lists still top-heavy in Chardonnays, most of them of the exact same style (big, soft, oafish, etc.). And Cabernets that tend to be young and thus not very good with most main dishes.

But worse than anything is the overpriced nature of many lists.

Inquiring about these lists, we usually get an old refrain: “Our diners want these wines,” blah blah, blah. As well as, “We can’t reduce our Chardonnay list or sales would fall.” But rarely does a restaurant try to justify outrageous margins for their wines.

Occasionally a restaurant owner says he incurs a lot more costs to have a large inventory. (Implying that he wants the consumer to pay for his larger stock.)

We’ve recently experienced such curiosities as sensational food alongside bizarre if not terrible wine choices. How about Asian food with oak-aged Chardonnay? Where is the Gewurztraminer? The Riesling? And all of what is there seems to be at prices that are absurd, given the discounts that all restaurants receive.

You can put most of the blame on dumb consumers who seem unwilling to even ask what sort of wine goes best with Korean salad or chili-infused bisque. Or you could blame staffs for not routinely offering ideas of wines that would work with the sorts of foods a table has ordered. (Unless, as is often the case, they don’t know.)

But in today’s turn-and-burn dining atmosphere, do waiters even have the time to suggest a wine, let alone the expertise? The idea is to serve the food, clear the table, and usher in new diners.

Restaurant Wine TalesOr you could blame chefs for not telling the menu designer that a few cogent wine suggestions below each dish could help diners and the staff.

Or you could blame the wholesale company that assists in buying decisions by making marketing suggestions. (But in today’s mergerized wholesale business, most sales persons are no longer advisers as much as they are order-takers with no time to noodle out what works best for each restaurant’s menu.)

In reality, the fault lies heaviest at the feet of the investors and especially the lead owner, who certainly is not maximizing his or her profits by hewing to a regimen that is certain to turn away those who are most likely to patronize such places on a regular basis: wine lovers.

Why any restaurant owner would risk alienating wine lovers is beyond me. Is it simply ignorance?

And yet with consumers, savvy or not, the message is the same: why are restaurant wine prices so high?

Seven years ago, after dining out at a fancy Texas restaurant, I chatted with a local resident about the restaurant. He said he had dined there and loved it, but added, “I’m not going back anytime soon.”

I asked why not. He said he could find only one white wine on the wine list (Italian) that worked with some of the food; others were far too expensive, he said.

“When the bottle that looks like it’d go with the main dish is twice the price of the average entrée… ” he said, with a pained look on his face.

As for the red wines, he said there wasn’t much on the list he was willing to buy at their exalted prices. And since bringing your own wine into a restaurant in Dallas is essentially a no-no, that strategy was out even though he would have been happy to pay corkage to do so.

Creativity with wine lists is not an easy chore, I admit, but any such work usually pays huge dividends, not only in wine sales, but in customer loyalty.

And that last factor is one that any restaurateur should embrace.


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