I was just reading this on Facebook from an industry magazine and was disappointed in how basic the ideas were. Check it out here: Sommelier Business Article.
Importance of a Diverse Beverage Inventory
There is much more than price-point management and basic food pairing needed for a Somm to successfully manage a dining restaurant’s inventory. Here are a few other ideas to consider:
There should be a low, medium and premium price option for each major category. Train staff to upsell wines.
Inventory a few recognizable labels in each major category, but the majority of the wine should not be found at local stores – train staff to upsell these wines.
Know the local alcoholic beverage procurement laws. If possible, work with distributors, brokers/importers and winery direct to build a diverse selection at the right price-points.
If the menu is even minimally diverse, there is so much more than a wine’s geographic origin to consider:
Weight – lighter wines can be more versatile with food.
Fruity wines should be included as an aperitif and to pair with sweeter dishes.
Complex/Savory wines for specific flavor pairings.
Tannic wines to pair with red meats and red sauces.
Acidic wines to pair with dishes having cream sauces.
Can the chef build a dessert menu to pair with Ports and Sauternes?
Train staff to sell digestifs.
Experiment with variable margin strategies. Perhaps:
Reduce margin on bottles over $75 USD to improve cash-flow.
Lower prices on a few accessible mid-price labels to help your staff upsell.
A diverse cellar is useless, if the staff is not trained with a sales strategy. Remember gross profit is a mix of pricing AND total beverage revenue. Have a goal – if beverage (beer, wine, cocktails) is not contributing to at least a third of a restaurant’s revenue and half the profits, the business is not likely to succeed.
Whether you are a wine steward, sommelier, or the restaurant manager/owner… managing beverage is complex. Without training of staff and an overall beverage strategy, a successful and profitable restaurant will be difficult to achieve.
In many European countries, wine is thought of as a companion to food, not typically to be drunk as a cocktail on its own. This common viewpoint in many countries places wine on the dinner table to act as a flavor enhancer, much the same way as seasonings, or sauces would be viewed. It is a cultural concept. I did not grow up thinking of wine this way. It was a learned behavior for me, after I was introduced to fine wines and cuisine TOGETHER. The question is: how could you change cultural norms to include this thinking? NOT, how does the industry convince Millennials to drink more wine…
The Answer Is a Focus on Food
This does not seem intuitive, unless you dive into the European fine dining concept a little more deeply. Many countries take pride in and raise their children to think of natural local foods and the local culinary tradition as a part of their identity. I am not suggesting this should be the goal here, but it does give you an insight into how this wine pairing tradition could begin in the U.S. Investing money in a media campaign would be critical, but not to simply advertise wine, strangely… the media content would need to be focused on how the wine enhances the FOOD experience. Currently in the U.S., younger generations view wine more as a “cocktail” to be drunk on its own. With this viewpoint, wine is a poor value compared to Beer, Cider, Hard Seltzers and Spirits/Cocktails. A perception that could have a huge affect on future demand and ultimately wine production. It is all a matter of changing perceptions…
Famous Chefs as Spokespersons for Wine?
I am not an advertising exec, but it seems fairly clear. Think of it this way: a professional chef would never be trained without a wine pairing education. The wine industry must begin creating marketing content around cuisine, with the appropriate accompanying wine. Pay famous Chefs from the Food Channel to be out front, not winemakers. Have them talk about their favorite wine-food pairings and why. I am sure other creatives would have even more engaging ideas for marketing using this theme.
Could Culinary be the Savior of the Wine Industry?
I am no genius. Who knows? It might work. I would think the industry would not find it too difficult to fund a marketing board that could tackle such a large ad campaign… IF it was viewed as important enough to influence wine consumption trends in the U.S. I am curious, can anyone else out there see the merit in this idea?
Non-chain restaurants are often family affairs and frequently – even with the best food – are the least profitable, poorest run category of business in the U.S. Why should you care? The strategic profitability of a restaurant can be a key indicator of the quality of the dining experience, not just the success of ownership. As a consumer, if you look for these ideas in action, you will find your favorite spots without much effort.
What to Look For (restaurant owners are you listening?)
Does the restaurant/bar have a beverage specialty: craft cocktails, fine whiskies, different styles of beer, quality/value wine list? If you don’t enjoy alcoholic beverages, you can stop reading now. If you do, stick with me here…
If beverage sales is not at least 1/3 of a sit-down restaurant’s sales, you can bet they won’t be in business long. In training for restaurant financial management, 50% of revenue is the recommendation. If there is one thing I am sure of, the best loyalty builder is a successful beverage program. Where I see the serious consumer passion coming from is – their preferred beverage category: whisky, wine, beer, and/or craft cocktails. Yes, the investment can be sizable, but can a restaurant afford not to?
A Successful Beverage Program
It is irrelevant which category(ies) are chosen, the clientele will eventually find the restaurant, with a minimum of invested marketing dollars.
Training, Training, Training… employees who find their passion in the category should be identified and have them lead staff. ALL servers should be trained to have some familiarity with the beverage specialty of the house. Encourage passionate clients with knowledge of the category and have staff funnel them back to the lead. Inventory choices have to be smart for this category of clientele. Find both brands/labels popularly known AND uncommon brands consumers can explore. Inventory should be strategic, with a good/better/best approach and there should be at least a few value items in each quality category. Local alcohol distribution laws should be investigated and multiple sources should be used, if possible: winery/brewery direct, distributor, auctions, overstock re-sellers and local producers. Each state usually has more than one type of alcohol resale license. Most – except the 100% liquor license (bar) – are more reasonable in cost. Licensing options may open purchasing to more channels, provide more buying power and selection. Unfortunately in my state for example, by law, restaurants & bars have very few choices.
Take a minute to look for these services and specialty inventories. Ask about their availability. Notice the difference, when you find it. Praise the positive and provide constructive feedback on the negative. It is in your best interest. In some ways, your involvement can be a key to the success of your favorite spot. AND… most importantly, vote with your dollars. Try to limit your entertainment budget to the businesses that provide this kind of experience. My wife and I do.
Main course food is a very low-profit sales category for sit-down restaurants. Without volume, focusing on this is not a winning business model. As a consumer, who wants to join the herd? From the food category – starters, appetizers, sides and desserts can drive profits AND seriously enrich the customer food experience. Look for super yummy looking and creative menu items here. It is evidence of a well-run restaurant, a smart chef and the beginning of a great dining experience. A chef has much more lee-way to be really creative with these items, without breaking the bank on cost and can add experimental flavors that might not be acceptable to a portion of their clientele. On the staff side, owners need to find foodies for servers and have the chef train them to recommend flavors and pairings, not just dishes. Servers need to upsell the appetizers, sides and desserts. If you have ever had a server suggest specific menu items due to the flavors… it can really add to the dining experience, especially if you enjoy pairing food flavors with beverages.
If you don’t have a Fleming’s in your town, or have just not had dinner at this restaurant chain before, bear with me. I will try to provide some reference. Fleming’s is a high-end steakhouse, similar in style to Ruth’s Chris, but not quite as expensive. They have been running a four course wine dinner special (branded as the title of this review) paired with Wagner Family wines (Caymus label) and my wife and I decided to give it a try. There were two options: Earth – vegetarian and Fire – meat. We selected Fire. Our overall experience was one step down from true gourmet, but very enjoyable. This is the full detail.
Dish: BURRATA WITH NORTH ATLANTIC LOBSTER
Wine: 2018 SEA SUN, CHARDONNAY 90 pts. (100 pt. system) or 16 pts. (20 pt. system)
Wine Note: Sweet citrus nose with lemon-lime mousse on the palate. High acidity and a fair amount of oak. If you like stainless chardonnay, this is not your wine. My wife and I prefer Old World style oaked chardonnay, so the very fruit forward profile was a little out of character. Nice mouthfeel. I would guess, the winemaker allowed some extended lees contact. Enjoyable chard for our palates and the acidity paired very well with the burrata. Some aging potential, if you like to lay down your wines.
If you have never had burrata, it is a soft cheese a little like mozzarella in flavor, but creamy and richer. Love the stuff and the fresher, the better. This burrata was excellent, but it was the other components that were a little disappointing. The lobster did not seem really fresh (we ARE in land-locked AZ, I suppose) and needed to be poached in butter. Lobster flavor was a little off and weak. The parmesan cheese crisp flavor (on top) almost over-powered the more delicate burrata below. Still… pretty enjoyable and an excellent pairing with the acidic Chardonnay.
Dish: COCONUT-CRUSTED PORK BELLY
Wine: NV RED SCHOONER, MALBEC 89 pts. (100 pt. system) or 15.5 pts. (20 pt. system)
Wine Note: Fruity nose with a little burn from the alcohol. Palate is filled with red and black fruit – black plum, blackberry and boysenberry. Medium acidity and medium minus tannins. A touch of residual sugar. Lighter, smooth mouthfeel. Very easy drinking red with a bit of structure. Successful for the style of wine it was meant to be. Drink now, don’t hold.
The pork belly was very tasty and the grits were fabulous! Our restaurant added goat cheese, instead of cheddar (on the website) – fantastic idea. The vegetable medley included (not shown below) was seasoned with spicy chiles. I pushed my veggies aside, in order to really enjoy the grits. The fruity, sweet wine was needed to pair with the leftover spiciness from the veggies. Turned out to be a pretty fair wine pairing with the fat from the pork belly and spice.
Dish: FILET MIGNON & BONE MARROW
Wine: 2019 CAYMUS VINEYARDS, CABERNET SAUVIGNON – NAPA VALLEY 87 pts. (100 pt. system) or 15 pts. (20 pt. system)
Wine Note: OK, you Caymus fans out there, I get it. Easy drinking Cali cab, but I just can’t do it. There is so much oak, as the joke goes, I could set the dang wine on fire. Fruity nose, but lacking freshness due to the over-powering oak. Blackberry and black currant on the palate, with some dark chocolate in the middle. Medium minus tannin and medium acidity. Simple wine flavor profile. I am sorry, neither my wife, or I could finish this wine. Just not a good match for our palates.
The filet was seasoned well and perfectly prepared. I have had better bone marrow. It needed to have more of the fat rendered out. Altho I will say, the filet with a bit of bone marrow on top was a pretty tasty bite.
Dish: ORANGE OLIVE OIL CAKE
Wine: NV EMMOLO, SPARKLING – CALIFORNIA 89 pts. (100 pt. system) or 15.5 pts. (20 pt. system)
Wine Note: Citrus fruit on the nose. Palate of primarily lemon with a touch of tropical fruit. This is a cuvee style sparkling with a small amount of residual sugar. High acidity. Nice mouthfeel with a medium length finish to round it out. This could be more interesting with some bottle age. Has enough of a backbone to enjoy in 3-5 years.
If you have not had olive oil cake – no, it does not taste like olive oil, but it IS very moist. I have had the orange version before and this was quite good. The tart lemon coulis drizzled on the plate was a nice addition. The citrus flavor in the cake paired very nicely with the sparkling wine.
Dining Experience and Rating
In general, this was a serious white tablecloth experience. Great service from our waiter, she was friendly and engaging. One of the managers stopped by twice to check in on us. I felt like there was a genuine interest in making sure the experience was enjoyable. I felt a bit rushed tho. This is the kind of meal that takes time to work your way through. I understand they want to turn tables, but for this kind of bill, you expect the time to have an experience. I would score the experience at a 92/100, or a 2 of 3 star equivalent. The meal was very good (especially the steak), but could have been better and the service was really excellent.
I have spent the last ten years scoring thousands of wines. I am also a serious Foodie, but as a trained Somm, I have looked at that experience through the lens of wine pairing. My wine training courses and evaluation took place at The Art Institute in conjunction with a chef training program, so I have always viewed the two pieces of food and beverage service as a whole. My perspective has broadened since visiting Italy and being exposed to the Slow Foods culinary movement. Recently, I decided to begin including fine dining in my evaluation, as I realized… it is rare for me to enjoy a bottle of wine apart from food. After starting the journey down this path I realized, if I am going to start evaluating food/food service, I needed to apply a methodology (like the 20 pt. UC Davis wine scoring system) to be fair and score with consistency. I went looking and found Department of Health score cards and forms for evaluating internal restaurant processes, but could not find consumer judging, or scoring sheets. If anyone reading this knows of a restaurant scoring template, please share…
Developing a Restaurant Scoring Method
I had to build a list of the factors that had the biggest impact on my dining experience and arrived at the following categories: location, ambiance, cleanliness, server disposition, timeliness of service, menu selection, flavors, balanced/complimentary composition, fresh/light/heavy food character, properly seasoned food and overall quality. I would hope this list is similar for you Foodies out there? Then, I had to select a scale and weight the individual categories. I used the wine scoring systems as a guideline and realized the UC Davis 20 pt. system was too compressed and I needed a 100 pt. system to properly judge the restaurant experience. This is my view of how to weight these categories: Location – 4/100, Ambiance – 8/100, Cleanliness – 8/100, Servers – 16/100, Service – 8/100, Menu – 12/100, Flavors – 16/100, Balance – 8/100, Fresh/Greasy – 4/100, Seasoning – 8/100, Overall Quality – 8/100. Cleanliness should probably be weighted more like 50/100, but that approach would favor mediocre establishments, so I made a compromise. I built common descriptors into each category and loaded this all into a spreadsheet template.
Dining Expense Categories
Then… I realized, not everyone wants to spend $50/pp on a meal, so I went about building a price scale. Scoring info was all over the web on this issue, but I did make a few personal decisions, to base the price categories on: a TWO course meal, include the cost of tax (5%), tip (15%) and exclude beverage and dessert. I concluded, not everyone is eating dessert today and it made sense to throw in an average tax/tip amount to provide a full price picture.
Scoring vs. Rating
It then occurred to me, it was important in fine dining evaluation to have both a scoring system AND a rating system. So, I developed a separate rating system incorporating the scoring system described above (see below). Here is my effort to complete comprehensive rating charts:
97 – 100
92 – 96
89 – 91
85 – 88
80 – 84
74 – 79
Choke it Down
50 – 73
Restaurant / Food
97 – 100
3 Star Equivalent
92 – 96
2 Star Equivalent
88 – 91
1 Star Equivalent
82 – 87
77 – 81
Poor Diner Quality
72 – 76
50 – 71
Does not include fast food, or take-out restaurants. Sit down only.
$20 and under
$20 to $30
$30 – $50
$50 and over
The dollar signs represent cost of a two-course dinner/pp, taxes and a 15% tip (no drinks or dessert).
I hope you found my process of some interest. I enjoyed putting this system together and will be using it religiously moving forward. Let me know if you have a different viewpoint on this topic, think I should be tweaking a few areas, or believe I am totally out of my mind (entirely possible).
Trained, certified Advanced Sommelier. AZ Art Institute Wine/Chef program focusing on wine pairing and beverage/culinary program development. Wine writer/blogger. Wine collector with extensive wine travel. Previously, consulting to the restaurant trade. Offering cellar management and procurement strategies, wine training & education, beverage business planning and marketing to the trade. Enjoy my blog at - www.coolclimatewine.net, my professional profile at: www.linkedin.com/in/douglasjlevin, my Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/TheDOCG, my Twitter feed at @douglasjlevin, or my tasting notes at https://rb.gy/r4xpom.
The Wine DOCG is a media persona of Douglas Levin. I attempt to be as transparent as possible regarding the opinions and reviews on this site. I accept no payments to review wine and I do not accept money in compensation for reviews. I do write other content distributed via other media sources and will always provide intent and/or compensation. I do accept samples from wineries and other outlets, without conditions about content. I do buy wine for review. This is over half the wines reviewed. This site is not focused on wine review though. The majority of my tasting notes are posted to the CellarTracker website here: www.cellartracker.com, user name: djlevin.
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