Does the way a restaurant sells wine need a makeover? Wine Intelligence’s eminence grise of the on-premise, Brian Howard, believes so.
How does a restaurant grow its wine sales? Some grumbling diners might answer: “stop charging so much”. True, it is always a harder sell to persuade customers that a bottle of wine that is virtually identical to one in a wine shop next door should be marked up in price from £6 to over £20 in the same vein as food ingredients costing £2.50 should become a £15 main course.
To the accusation of overcharging, the restaurant solution since time immemorial has been to offer something more – an uplifting ambiance, interesting dishes, and a wine list that isn’t exactly like the offer in the local supermarket. In the past 10 years, clever chefs have tackled new styles of cooking, unusual ingredients, and the challenges of making flavourful and nutritious dishes using sustainable or vegan principles, among other things. They have also become more astute at presenting the dishes on menus, borrowing some clothes from the wine list (emphasis on provenance, some back-story of the producer) to make a diner feel more connected to the pork loin or burrata on their plate.
If food offers, and the way they are presented, have undergone a positive evolution, can the same be said of the wine list? From my work in the UK on-trade, I would propose the answer: no. The way wine is typically presented in many restaurants is not constructively encouraging wine spend, and, especially the much-sought-after goal of trading up.
To test my proposition, I’m sitting with the manager of a typical independently owned bar/informal restaurant. Their operation is busy, enduringly successful, and always looking to refresh and enhance the customer offer. We’re reviewing the restaurant’s offer as customers see it – food menu on one side of an A3 size (11 inches by 17) card, wine list on the other. The food offer evolves with the seasons and trends (more vegetarian and vegan these days); the wine offer is updated about twice yearly. The manager confirms that wine volume sales are stable, and value is increasing steadily, but that sales beyond the house wines and a few core favourites remain slow. Indeed, the list has been reduced over the last couple of years – now 11 reds and 11 whites, and now matched by an impressive gin offer … 11 different brands. And this restaurant is also experiencing the much-hyped trend towards other drinks categories – many customers who used to start their lunch or evening with wine while choosing what to eat, are now starting with other drinks, led by gin or craft beer, and then returning to wine only when the food arrives.
We observe the customers during service as they perform the time-honoured ritual of juggling social chat with perusal of the menu. The typical customer group browses the food page, discusses options among their party and with staff, enquires about different dishes or how they could be varied, and each choose their own preferences. Flip to the wine page and the customer behaviour changes visibly. Very little animated discussion; only occasional requests for advice or suggestions from staff; and in contrast to have food is chosen, usually one person is delegated to choose the wine. Some customers reluctantly admitted to me afterwards that this task is still often “the chap’s job”. Result: either one wine to share, or perhaps one bottle of red and a white, all with little participation from the group.
The manager tends only to intercede and offer unsolicited suggestions when there appears to be interest and/or he is available. Thus, only a few opportunities to fully parade his carefully-curated list. We’ve all overhead many times ”Oh, let’s just have the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc..” or “.. the Merlot…”. Both fine choices, but so many winemakers strive to create other delectable wines whilst supply chain and restaurants work so hard to place so many other great wines in front of the restaurant customer.
We then explored potential ideas to address the problem. We agreed wine needs quite different treatment to food in selling off the page. We brainstormed what it will take to “animate” the performance of the wine list and concluded with a cluster of interrelated ideas.
The output is still work-in-progress, but can be summarised in 5 points:
- Customers appear to operate most comfortably with just one or two key words for every wine – varietal, region, well-known wine maker, or a name which could be a brand. An example of the latter: Cloudy Bay sells steadily in the restaurant, alongside another NZ Sauvignon Blanc which is just over half the price
- Most restaurant customers bring to the wine choosing task just a few key pointers, often proxies for their likes and dislikes. If they recently enjoyed a Bordeaux or didn’t enjoy a Malbec, they’ll focus on these words in the wine list in front of them to narrow down choice and what to avoid. It could be compared with car talk: “We liked the last Audi we owned so we we’d buy another one”.
- Some of the traditional wine list navigational defaults are now less relevant, at least on these relatively shorter wine lists. Time-honoured navigation aids such as ordered by price, source country/region, or varietal are often not relevant to today’s customers.
- Food/wine pairing as a wine choosing strategy prompted much refection, and our conclusion is that it doesn’t really work, at least in this mid-market setting. Too many variables, too much personal taste, preference and prejudice. Restaurant manager: “Our Muscadet sur Lie would be an ideal accompaniment for the moules you’ve chosen”; customer: ”Oh, not Muscadet, that’s a cheap wine”.
- Our working hypothesis is that the list in this particular establishment might perform more effectively if organised by descriptors which are more analogous to food descriptors: “style” and “taste” for white wines, “weight” for reds.
There is of course another and vital element to wine choosing in restaurant settings – wine-passionate staff and sommeliers. The significant added-value for both the customer and the business that a dedicated sommelier undoubtedly brings to the table – literally – is not operationally viable in most mid-market restaurants. But one or two staff who are wine-enthusiastic and personally familiar with the full range on the list can be a game-changer. In recent years, your correspondent has moonlighted as wine list leader in a members’ club (outside London). Having “wine-passionate staff”, without any formal wine or sommelier qualifications, I can directly confirm delivers transformational benefits, being able to engage with members as they reluctantly address the wine-choosing chore. Since when should choosing a wine feel like a chore?