BY JERALD O' KENNARD
HOT: Who would have thought Americans prefer wine over beer? But a Gallup poll says it's so. Can you spell "opportunity?"
THE EXPERIENCE: At the Sardine Factory, wine is just a part of an overall exceptional dining experience.
SALT OF THE EARTH: Quinn's Lighthouse in Oakland, CA, offers a short wine list that is unpretentious and reflects the historic yet casual nautical theme of the restaurant.
| Bodo Eichler |
Before we present the winners of this year's wine list competition, let's set the stage with a discussion of the dramatic changes in the U.S. wine market over the last year and what they mean for all restaurateurs. An interesting thing happened last year that you should pay close attention to. For the first time, according to a Gallup poll, Americans said that they preferred wine to beer. Beer has always been the volume leader in alcohol sales and it still is. However, the critical point is that Americans' perceptions have changed.
Due to a combination of recent studies about the health benefits of wine, the movie Sideways, changing lifestyle attitudes, the "French Paradox" and a host of other cultural factors not clearly understood, Americans are switching to wine (and super-premium spirits) in record numbers. This has created explosive growth in premium wine categories. Pinot noir, Italian wines, Australian wines and South American wines have all benefited as people are looking beyond traditional choices and brands to find wines that suit their personal tastes, not anyone else's.
The market has responded to this demand by increasing supply. There are now more brands than ever, with many new ones being introduced every month. The information market has responded to this growth, too, and there is more wine information than ever before—in books and magazines and on TV and the Internet—for consumers to learn about wine and sort out all these choices. And as a result, consumers are becoming more wine savvy and looking for the best wine experiences at the best prices.
So what does this dynamic situation mean for restaurants? The challenge for you is to innovate, to ride the wave of new interest by giving patrons more creative choices in more creative ways at great prices. If perceptions are changing about wine, now is the time to increase sales by offering wines that appeal to these perceptions of quality and value. However, for many restaurants, the increase in preference for wine hasn't translated to an equivalent increase in wine sales, because there is still the perception in many consumers' minds that wine (particularly in bottles) at restaurants is too expensive or somehow inaccessible to them.
Remember that it is consumers' perceptions that have changed. Real demand, as reflected in consumption, has increased more modestly while supply has increased greater than the demand. In this situation—a very competitive wine market—economics tells us that prices must fall to maximize the quantity sold. If not, sales will remain flat or decrease.
But what if your costs don't allow you to drop prices? Consumers respond to prices not just in absolute terms, but also in terms of perception of value. Price is only one component of the perception of value; value is also created by salesmanship, presenting the product in a way that appeals to the desires and attitudes of the consumer.
Of the seven criteria that we use to judge wine lists (see sidebar) the last three—presentation, extras and overall impression—are critical to creating a perception of value. Ultimately, they define an identity, a voice for your wine list. It is this voice—your voice— that speaks to customers and guides them through their wine experience with you. Are you speaking to them clearly?
This year's winners of the 17th Annual RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY Wine List Competition speak loudly and clearly.
International Wine Calls. The international wine list category is traditionally where one finds massive wine lists with a plethora of famous Bordeaux, Burgundy and Napa wines. Obviously, this kind of huge list is impressive. The problem is that it can be cumbersome and intimidating for patrons, as well as a difficult asset to manage (particularly if the expensive stuff isn't moving).
Wine lists like these are often referred to as telephone books, which is not a compliment for these weighty lists. But, the interesting thing is that a real telephone book, to extend the analogy, is not an intimidating book to use. It's rather easy and practical. Simply put, it provides users with names and numbers of interest and some well-placed ads to help find them.
A telephone book wine list can be a great tool, too, if it not only provides interesting names (brands) and interesting numbers (prices) but also interesting ads—tasting notes, regional explanations, grape varietal explanations, winery information, personal anecdotes and anything that will help patrons find what they want, even if they don't know what they want. Looking at it this way, Charlie Trotter's wine list is a creative, practical, inspirational and fun telephone book to use with an amazing array of international, domestic and even local wine calls to make. This is a list that literally has something for everyone, with one of the broadest selections of wines from classic regions as well as upand-coming and virtually unknown ones.
The list breaks down the fantastically diverse and deep selection into regions and wine categories, like "California Cabernet Sauvignon" and "Red Bordeaux" as you might expect, but what is really nice are the brief educational introductions (ads to use the telephone analogy) to the regions, wine styles and flavor characteristics to be found in the category.
These introductions are written in a knowledgeable, but very friendly and inviting style that conveys a lot of complicated information in a concise and usable way. Using a unique and very personal voice in this way to tell the story of a region or category really takes away the formality of the wine-ordering process that can be an impediment to enjoying wine at a restaurant.
The introductions further loosen up the process by concluding with a famous or obscure quotation about wine that serves to complement the information with a little poetic inspiration and get both sides of the brain involved in a process that is ultimately not about knowledge, but pleasure. As the main introduction says, "Each wine has a story. Let's explore these stories together."
Other impressive aspects of Trotter's list are:
- The robust section of wines that are $75 or less (with many great choices at $50 or less). This is a list with a lot of rare, highly allocated and expensive wines, so it's admirable that the same careful attention is paid to providing a very diverse and interesting selection of more affordable wines. Doing this creates a real feeling of concern and respect for the customer and says to them that an enjoyable wine experience can be had at a range of prices.
- A remarkable selection of North American wines from most of the wine-producing states including such virtual unknowns as Kansas, Minnesota and Nevada.
What a great opportunity to explore!
- Interestingly and somewhat controversially, no specific food recommendations are given through the list, reinforcing Trot-ter's belief that there are no set rules for food and wine matching. Such choices are personal and best left to the customer with guidance from his well-trained staff, if necessary.
- A great selection of non-alcoholic drinks based on interesting and exotic fruit and vegetable juices and infusions. Again, this list is appealing to all patrons and offers everyone a memorable beverage experience.
Hunting for Treasures in Your Own Backyard.
The wine list from the Sardine Factory tops the U.S. wine list category in this year's competition by virtue of its exceptional range of exotic West Coast producers and bottlings, great prices, fun and informative extras and clearly focused presentation. The list begins with brief introduction focused on the restaurant's devotion to quality and service and sets up the experience with a couple of inspirational quotes from Shakespeare and Plato. Notice that the good lists introduce themselves— a great way to express your voice and set the stage. This is followed by a fun "Adventures in Wine" section where a dozen wines are selected as beacons along "Wine Routes" less traveled around the world.
Each wine is given a paragraph of explanation about the grapes, the wine's history, the flavors and a possible food pairing done in a very informative and conversational style. In this type of assembly of off-the-beaten-path world wines you would expect to find international wines that you might not have heard of, but what is re-ally remarkable are the number of esoteric and hard-to-find American wines here at very attractive prices. Adventures like this should be a part of every wine list.
The list goes on to pepper the patron with fun treats like a breakdown of the Sauvignon Blanc selection into subcategories of "No Oak," "Moderately Oaked" and "Barrel Fermented;" a nice focus and introduction of the local Monterey Chardonnay producers; and some purposefully aged "Treasures of the Cellar," again at very attractive prices. (The cellar, by the way, is a stately antique brick and redwood affair that is available for wine dinners and looks spectacular!) This is a straightforward, easy-to-read list that gives patrons a winning combination of tremendous selection, value and adventure.
Short and Sweet. The wine list from Quinn's Lighthouse is unpretentious and reflects the historic yet casual nautical theme of the restaurant and its world-seafaring cuisine. What we liked about this list are: the well-chosen, very food-friendly selections from known and lesser known, but very good quality, reliable producers; the simple, "dead on" wine descriptions for each selection; great prices (one-to-two times mark-up for most wines); and the fun extra of a specially featured group of wines, in this case a great selection of dry rosé wines from around the world that will open people's eyes up to the virtues of this underappreciated category that is frequently dismissed because of the hegemony of sweeter white zinfandel wines. Despite the dry leaning of the selections from a restaurant located on the waters of the Oakland shore, Quinn's owner Bodo Eichler has put together a sweet little list that is sure to satisfy.
So we recommend that you use the tools and techniques of these successful lists to create a perception of value for your patrons through thoughtful presentation and personalized extras that will establish the voice of your wine list. This will encourage experimentation and upselling naturally while it forges a personal relation-ship with your patrons that will keep them coming back for more "stories" and adventures.
As an exercise, try putting yourselves in the shoes of your customers— whether they are novices, connoisseurs or most likely somewhere in between— and really look at how your list appeals to them. Obviously, you selected the wines, but does it thrill you? Find ways to make it more exciting for you and your patrons. It will pay off.
Our work has shown that creativity is what separates a good list from a great one: creativity of selection, which should ultimately be a reflection and function of the creativity of the menu (wine for wine's sake is a meaningless exercise for a restaurant) and creativity of presentation. We congratulate the winners and of this year's competition and thank them and all of the participants for sharing their ideas and stories with all of us.
Gems For Your Wine List
Looking for a few good wines for your wine list? At Beverage Testing Institute we taste thousands of wines a year and are here to help. Here is a list of fresh ideas for glass pours and bottle sales selected from our recent wine tastings; the prices are the suggested retail prices, not wholesale. The ratings numbers are based on a 100-point scale. All of our wine reviews, as well thousands of beer and spirits reviews, are available for free on our website at www.tastings.com. Cheers!
GLASS POUR IDEAS:
89 Concannon (CA) 2004 Selected Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc, Central Coast. $9.99. Brilliant straw hue. Spearmint, fig and freshly cut grass aromas. Medium-full with bright, delicious varietal fruit, this has snappy acidity and a distinctive, yet subtle herbal note in the finish.
87 Jeanjean (France) 2003 Lodez, Coteaux du Languedoc. $9.99. Brilliant ruby red-violet hue. Plum, smoked meat and clove aromas. This medium-bodied wine has fresh, juicy cherry fruit, moderate tannins, lively acidity and a light smokiness in the finish.
85 Charles De Fere (France) NV Reserve Blanc De Blanc, France. $10.99. Best Buy. Brilliant straw hue with a lively mousse. Lemon candy, dried pear and earth aromas. Medium-bodied, this has good depth of citrus fruit and a dry, clean finish of moderate length and balanced acidity.
87 Tinto da Anfora (Portugal) 2002 Red, Alentejo. $11. Best Buy. Brilliant ruby red hue. Cherry, plum and violet aromas. Medium-bodied, this offers ripe cherry fruit, modest oak, moderate tannins and lively acidity. Easy-drinking and nicely balanced.
89 Ariano (Uruguay) 2002 Oak Barrel Reserve, Tannat, Canelones. $12. Best Buy. Brilliant ruby red-violet hue. Black cherry, black raspberry, smoke, earth and barnyard aromas. Medium-full with good concentration, this is ripe and forward with a distinct smokiness throughout. Nice wine with grilled foods and quite stylish on its own.
87 Bartenura (Italy) NV Asti, Italy. $12.99. Best Buy. Brilliant straw hue with light effervescence. Ginger and white peach aromas. Medium-bodied, this has fresh apricot and peach fruit and a delicate feel on the palate with moderate sweetness. A lovely, fresh summer sparkler.
89 Château Ste. Michelle (WA) 2004 Cold Creek Vineyard, Riesling, Columbia Valley $14. Best Buy. Brilliant straw hue. Peach, apricot, lime and dried flower aromas. Medium-bodied, this has good depth of beautifully defined varietal fruit and a lightly sweet finish with balancing acidity and a subtle touch of spice.
86 Pedroncelli (CA) 2002 Mother Clone Selection, Zinfandel, Dry Creek Valley. $14. Brilliant ruby red hue. Cedar, sage and dried currant aromas. Medium-bodied, this has spicy varietal fruit, refined tannins and a light earthy finish.
90 Grove Mill (New Zealand) 2003 Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough. $15.99.
Brilliant straw hue. Gooseberry, capsicum and bell pepper aromas. Medium-full with good concentration, this has classic Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc flavors and expressive acidity.
90 Foley (CA) 2003 Sauvignon Blanc, Santa Barbara County. $16. Brilliant straw-yellow hue. Grass, pear and coriander aromas. Medium-full with very good concentration, this has beautiful texture and a complex finish with lively acidity and subtle herbal notes.
BOTTLE SALES IDEAS:
88 Lavender Ridge (CA) 2003 Viognier, Sierra Foothills. $18. Brilliant straw-yellow hue. Honeysuckle, pineapple and peony aromas. Medium-bodied, this has good concentration and a nice finish with lovely spice, a touch of honey and lively acidity.
88 J Wine Co. (CA) 2004 Pinot Gris, Russian River Valley. $18. Brilliant straw-yellow hue. Apple peel, pear and jasmine aromas. Medium-full, this has good depth and nice finesse with a dry finish that has good fruit persistence and lively acidity.
86 Pazo de Señorans (Spain) 2004 Atio, Albarino, Rias Baixas. $18. Brilliant yellow hue. Pear, apple and acacia aromas. Medium-bodied, this is straightforward with fresh varietal fruit and a round finish with lively acidity. Pleasant, but lacks depth of fruit and complexity.
91 Chameleon (CA) 2003 Zinfandel, Napa Valley. $21. Brilliant ruby red-violet hue. Red raspberry, cinnamon and tobacco leaf aromas. Medium-full with good concentration, this is a seductive and sexy Zinfandel with ripe red fruit, tangy acidity, youthful tannins and zesty brown spice. This would be heavenly with spare ribs!
90 Miguel Torres (Chile) 2001 Manso De Velasco Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Curico Valley. $31.99. Brilliant ruby red-violet hue. Blackberry, coffee grounds, sage and oak aromas. Medium-full with good concentration, this is ripe and rich with big weight on the palate along with seriously toasty oak, firm tannins and balanced acidity. There is plenty to like here!
90 Sequoia Grove (CA) 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. $32. Brilliant ruby red hue. Black currant, black cherry, tar and violet aromas. Medium-full with very good depth of ripe, forward black cherry fruit, this has a generous mid-palate and a nicely structured finish with good persistence of fruit, youthful tannins and ample oak. Impressive now, time will bring out further complexities.
93 Alexander Valley Vineyards (CA) 2001 Cyrus, Alexander Valley. $50. Brilliant ruby red-violet hue. Black cherry, black currant, plum, licorice and iris aromas. Medium-full with excellent concentration and a beautifully proportioned mid-palate. Long, nicely structured finish with great fruit persistence, lively acidity, youthful tannins and well-integrated oak. Ripe and rich, but never over the top. Beautiful harmony.
91 Clos du Val (CA) 2001 Oak Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon. $62. Brilliant ruby red-violet hue. Black currant, cherry, vanilla and tar aromas. Medium-full with very good concentration, this is a typical graceful effort from this producer with attractive varietal fruit, polished tannins and nicely integrated oak. Approachable now, it will improve for many years in the cellar.
SHORT LIST CATEGORY
Many of the entries in this year's competition demonstrated how well a restaurant wine list can complement a menu. Here are several more the judges found to be exceptional.
International Wine List:
U.S. Wine List:
A Tip of the Hat: The Levy family of restaurants for a solid corporate wine program.
Improve Your Wine List
After judging this competition for several years, one issue repeat-edly surfaced: The all-too-obvious role of large wine suppliers in influencing or "co-writing" many restaurant wine lists. A number of lists did not make the cut for this reason. Many lists offered wine from only two or three major importers or companies. Limiting one's selection of wines to those from just a few sources deprives consumers of the myriad choices and experiences the highly diverse U.S. wine market provides.
To create a great wine list, a restaurant's wine buyer has to be in control of the process. While wine buyers and distributor sales representatives can and must work well together, a restaurant with a distributor-written list will never have an exciting and award-winning program. What's needed is a healthy give-and take between the restaurant and the distributors. But at the end of the day, the wine buyer has to direct the wine program and a wine list must be chosen based on the restaurant's food, guests, concept and the buyer's taste and experience.
Even if you write your own list, you could still be depending on your distributors a bit too much. If your wine sales representatives are your major source of knowledge and information on wine, your wine list will never stand out. Buy and read good wine books. Subscribe to a number of wine magazines. Visit wine-related websites. Take a few classes. Make time in your busy schedule for organized trade tastings. Make it your passion to learn as much about wine as you can and seek out the unique, interesting and great wines that you learn about.
Try to build a diverse wine list with selections chosen by taste. It seems remarkable that too many lists submitted had a large number of well-known wines that all taste similar. Perhaps the temptation is to increase sales by offering a large number of best-selling labels, instead of trying to bring in good examples of many different wines and styles. The result, however, is a list that will fail to excite customers and probably won't have the intended commercial payoff in the long run.
The persistent belief that customers only buy wines they know might have been true in the mid-1980s, when Americans were just starting to discover wines. But today, the wines that stand out are those that are well-made examples from smaller producers. It's quite possible to make a profit selling wines that have never been stocked in your local retail store. Look for small producers, alternative wine regions and wines from unheard-of grapes, and then give your staff the knowledge they need to talk about those wines. Your customers will thank you by returning again and again.
Creating an excellent wine list that stands out from the competition excites your guests, and selling a lot of wine takes knowledge, hard work and a willingness to offer wines that aren't in the mass market. It's a difficult task, but one that has its own pleasures and many obvious rewards. Those wine buyers who have made the extra effort to offer great selections deserve the recognition of everyone in the food and beverage industry.
Congratulations to all of the winners in each of the categories, and to each of the restaurants who entered and have made an effort to build an exciting wine program for their guests.
How We Judge Wine Lists
After sorting the entries by size and category, all were screened to remove the lists that did not meet a few basic entry standards. Wine lists removed at this stage of the judging were either very poorly written or had serious technical flaws. (Many of the entries eliminated at this stage didn't include vintages, for example.)
The remaining entries were then individually reviewed and points were awarded for seven criteria:
Based on these seven critera, both the Beverage Testing Institute staff and a select panel of restaurant and wine professionals reviewed the top quarter of entries. From these reviews we selected the winners in RESTAURANT HOSPITALITY'S BEST WINE LISTS IN AMERICA COMPETITION.