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.
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.
Meal: Arugula salad with Burrata cheese and red Beets, Pepper crusted Prime Filet medium rare with mash potatoes, green beans and fried onion strings. The shared desert was profiteroles layered with vanilla ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce.
Wine Pairing: Stags’ Leap 2017 Petit Sirah Napa Valley – Score: 94/100. Wine paired well with Dish: Yes.
Stag’s Leap 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley – Score: 91/100. Wine paired well with Dish: Yes.
My wife grew up in Cape May on the Jersey Shore and her family has owned a beach house there for a couple of generations. She visits for a week, or two, in the Summer every year and I usually join her. We always make sure to arrange our reservation for Tisha’s and it is always the culinary highlight of the trip.
Restaurant Menu and Ambiance
The menu rotates every week with as much local in-season produce as possible. The choices are typically American style seafood and meats, with a few other items such as pasta dishes. My wife and I have been visiting Tisha’s for near 20 years now and have never had a mediocre dish. Although, I would suggest the seafood and meats, over the other dishes. The veggies are always in-season and fresh. There is good reason why Jersey is called the Garden State!
The ambiance includes indoor and patio dining with a small, upscale white tablecloth feel. Reservation availability is limited in the Summer. The servers are always friendly and attentive, but the premises can get very busy. Patience is needed for both the kitchen and servers in the Summer – to enjoy the experience. The restaurant staff requires your entire order upon arrival and paces the service for you. It seems a little odd for fine dining, but I have never had a bad experience.
The salad had great flavors and textures. The Arugula was peppery, the Burrata cheese was creamy and fresh and the beets were fresh and sweet… tasted almost like fruit. Nine times out of ten, the beef is out of this world and this was one of those nights. The Filet is on the menu with a bleu cheese flavored butter sauce, but my wife and I prefer the beef without it. The medium-rare steak was a touch towards the medium side, but the beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender and very tasty. The sides were fresh and accompanied the beef well. The desert was very tasty, not too sweet and the pastry was light and airy, but not quite fresh enough to be perfect.
My wife and I enjoy Stags’ Leap wines. Please note, this is NOT Stag’s Leap. If you weren’t aware, the two wineries settled a law suit years ago by agreeing to move the apostrophe. Christophe Paubert (Stags’ Leap winemaker) is French trained and produces wonderfully balanced wines. In contrast, the other Stag’s Leap produces the more typical Napa fruit-tannin bombs.
The Petit Sirah is not a typical U.S. product for this variety. This had a typical fruit driven profile, but was much lighter, structured and balanced. Red and blue fruits were on the nose and palate. The wine was dry with medium tannin, medium+ acidity and a nice long finish. The texture was a bit silky with fine-grained tannin. As a comparison, this was nothing like the very common Michael David Petit Sirah. The wine actually paired well with the Burrata cheese and beets in the salad.
The Cab had a huge fruit-bomb nose, but the palate was not quite as concentrated. Still more fruity than I would prefer, with plum and blackberry on the attack. A rather simple taste profile, but with good balance and excellent structure. The wine was dry with medium tannins, medium+ acidity and a long fruity finish. This cab had the signature Stags’ Leap fine grained tannin. It paired very well with the Filet we had for the main course.
Rating Charts Used in this Review
(Common industry comparative data used with detailed scoring templates)
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).
You are attending a wine tasting, wine class, an attendant is recommending a wine at a restaurant, buying a wine at a shop, or deciding which vintage to pop from your cellar… If you are an average consumer and “Two Buck Chuck” (okay, probably $4 now) is your thing, please move on to the next article of interest. If wine selection is a bit more important to you read on…
Most wine enthusiasts are faced with these situations frequently and try to make sense of the value proposition. Do you trust recommendations? How could wine professionals understand what you enjoy? Should I pay $20 for a bottle, or maybe splurge and spend $30? What IS a quality wine and how does it taste different? Which food tastes better with which type of wine?
If you spend any time asking yourself these questions, you need to know the difference between these certifications. Well, why should you trust my explanation? If a certification helps to define my content here… I have trained formally, tested and passed the first two levels of Sommelier certifications. Strictly speaking, I am a certified Professional Sommelier. The next level is Advanced and then Master Sommellier. There are a little over 200 MS certified individuals in the world and just the Master test requires a 3 day commitment for the Theory, Service and Tasting sections. Even with a fair amount of experience, it would take me a year (or more) off work to study for that one! All of these certifications require much preparation and are quite an accomplishment. The failure rate for all of these tests is high.
What is a Master of Wine (MW)?
The certification body is the Institute of Masters of Wine and requires a research project and paper. This should give you an idea of the direction here. The path here is Stages 1,2 and 3, prior to the Master designation. An MW will KNOW virtually everything about all wines around the world: all varietals, how they are farmed, all individual world Terroir, vineyard strategies, winemaking techniques, wine taste variation, etc. Where do these people play in the industry? Usually, they work as technical consultants to media, wineries, publications, distributors and importers, etc. There is much to learn about wine from one of these individuals, IF they know how to teach it.
What is a Certified Wine Educator (CWE), or a WSET L4 certified Consultant?
The certification bodies here are the Society of Wine Educators and Wine & Spirits Education Trust. The path to CWE can be to study and test for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW), or not. The path to WSET L4 typically goes through L1-L3. These are the most prestigious wine education organizations in the world and they certify as you might guess… the teachers of wine. Why is this distinction important? Think of these people as the educators. If you were to take a wine class, it would be good to have a teacher with one of these certs. It validates their level of knowledge and that they have been introduced to a methodology for teaching wine.
What is a Master Sommelier (MS)?
The most prestigious certifying body here is the Court of Master Sommeliers. I was certified by the International Sommeliers Guild (ISG). They are connected to the Food & Wine education programs at the Art Institutes in major cities in the U.S. In my case, the Phoenix Art Institute and we had the opportunity to work with the chef education program there for food pairing training. The path to MS is already described earlier in this article.
I have a real bias towards these people. The difference here is, you are trained on Theory, Tasting and SERVICE. Why is this different than the other certs? Yes, I was trained to understand how different varietals and styles TASTE and I was tasked to learn about wine production and growing, but the big difference here is the focus on FOOD and matching an individual palate. I was mentored to believe that there can be a difference in wine quality, but wine flavors only apply to an individual palate. There is no “bad tasting wine”, only wine flavors appreciated by different clients. I was trained to learn HOW to pair different flavors (both FOOD & WINE) with different clients and their perception of an enjoyable EXPERIENCE. In essence, this certification focuses on recognizing HOW & WHY people enjoy different foods and wines and how to build an experience that is tailored to an individual. Look for these certified attendants at RESTAURANTS. They will know their stuff and if you can get some one-on-one time, they will enhance your dining experience.
The Difference Based on Your Need
I think you will find this quick guide helpful and easily understandable. If you are taking a wine class, look for WSET and CWE certified individuals. If you have decided to start some sort of business in the wine industry, an MW as a consultant would be a good choice. If you are at a restaurant, a Sommelier on staff would be a good indication of the quality of their wine program. All of these individuals have a level of wine knowledge that can offer much to your personal wine experience, but there are differences as noted above. If you are participating in a wine tasting, any of these people could lead a group successfully with very interesting and rich content for you to enjoy.
So, keep an eye out and ask about certifications. There are a million so-called wine experts. In fact, some can be amazing. I have spent time with wine collectors that would blow you away. Although, if you want to be sure that your money is being spent wisely for classes, education, or dining… Look for the folks with formal training and certification testing. You will have a better chance of getting the most for your money and a much improved experience!
So, let’s say it is Friday and you are Mr./Ms. average wine consumer on your way home from work. You drop in to the grocery store for a few things and a bottle, or two, of wine for the weekend. Your tendency is probably to go to a brand label you know that has proven reasonable value in the $10-15/btl. range, like Yellow Tail, Cupcake, or Woodbridge. Now, let’s say this day you just got a raise, or your just feeling a little adventurous and decide your willing to up your budget to $20/btl. and you look at the 100′ long wall of wine in front of you… and you are totally lost! What do you do? Make a selection at random? by varietal? because you like the pretty label? If you are like me (before the wine training), I eventually gave up and rolled the dice, picking a bottle at random of a varietal I thought I enjoyed. Half the time, I struck-out and had to pour the bottle down the drain. It happened too often to stick to my pride and drink the awful bottle.
If this sounds familiar, just what can you do to be a little more realistic and have a better chance of selecting a bottle you will enjoy? This will require a little advance thought and a little time to walk through the process, but in the end, you will feel like your money is being better spent!
How do You Drink Wine?
Most importantly, think about how you drink wine: with food, or without. Food requires wines with more acidity to cut through and compliment fats, proteins and carbs. Acidity is the component that makes you salivate and a “bite” is usually felt near the back sides of the mouth and tongue. Easy drinking (less acidic) wines may be what you enjoy, but are best drunk on their own. For example, it is difficult to find a Malbec, or Red Zinfandel with good acidity. I am convinced this is the result of producers assuming people have discovered Malbec and Zin as simple, fruity wines that drink well without food. These varietals can present much more character, but aren’t often produced this way. In the end, wine is a business and if a producer doesn’t think they can sell a type of wine, they will simply choose not to produce it.
If you enjoy wine primarily accompanied with food, then one approach can be looking for regions that are known for producing primarily acidic wines, i.e. Chianti (Italy), White Burgundy (France), or White/Red Bordeaux (France).
Special Case: if you are a red meat eater, wines with high tannins should be your choice, as the tannins break-down the fats in the meat and clean your palate between bites. When your palate is cleared, it prepares your taste buds to appreciate the full flavor of the food with each bite. Tannins are the component that makes your mouth feel like Marlon Brando chewing on cotton balls for his next big scene in The Godfather. The cottony dryness is usually felt between the teeth and gums. These wines are fantastic paired with red meat. Examples would be: all Cabernet Sauvignon, Italian Sangiovese, French Red Bordeaux. Italian pasta dishes with red meat sauces are also good pairings for these types of wines.
Why Do You Drink Wine?
Do you drink wine for the appreciation of the flavor, or do you just enjoy relaxing with a bottle of wine after work? If you are the latter, just make an effort to learn the better quality growing regions and select something in your price range from one of these areas. In general, wine regions that are known for their quality, or have been growing wine for generations, tend to offer generally better wines. An example would be Napa Valley in the U.S., or Bolgheri in Italy. If you can find a $20 bottle of Cab Sauv from these areas, give it a shot… it is more likely to be enjoyed, than a random Cab from Lodi, or Mendocino. If flavor is your thing, you are going to be one of those needing to put some effort into learning about wine regions, because that is the only real method for selecting wines by flavor profile.
If you are selecting wine to enjoy with friends, or at a restaurant… some of these same strategies can work. If you are lucky at the restaurant, you might get a server that actually knows something about wine, but in general think of these situations as opportunities to learn more about wine. I have written several more advanced posts on this site to help with a detailed approach to fine wine selection, if you are ready to dive in.
A few comments from readers outside the U.S. highlighted the cultural bias I showed in this piece. So, for my readers outside the U.S., I decided to write a follow-up with that in mind…
I have written before about cultural differences and how it affects wine culture and wine jobs around the world. It is difficult to shed the result of our up-bringing. My point has always been – evaluating the quality of a wine is the same around the world, but whether it is enjoyed with or without food… or which foods pair best to local palates – are not simple questions with easy answers.
I took many cultural “liberties” in the previous piece, assuming a shared understanding. Also, I SHOULD have offered an evaluation regarding the best wine-food pairing… As a starting point, keep in mind, all four wines were essentially Bordeaux style blends, the wines were similar in profile and this style of wine pairs well generally with red meat.
When I hold a tasting of varietally similar wines like these, it definitely allows a focus on evaluating structure and balance vs. flavors/aromas. A more technical approach, but one I prefer. If you read my tasting notes, I ALWAYS discuss the structure and balance of the wine – regardless of the pairing. I tend to evaluate wines based on how well they are made vs. how much I enjoy them. This is the FIRST concept I was taught in formal Sommelier training. The French wine was BY FAR the best balanced wine at the table. So, in a tasting of similar style wines, it offered the best wine-food pairing of the four. Which wine did I enjoy the most without food? The 1993 Beringer Private Reserve.
In my opinion, this “Cultural Bias” is the biggest challenge that a wine professional can face when trying to bridge the chasm between Old and New World locations: accommodating the local wine culture. This affects every discipline in the wine industry, affecting how the wine is made, how it is marketed, serving decisions… Perhaps, this thinking explains the importance of an involved U.S. importer to a European producer.
In the U.S., it is more common to enjoy wine without food. One of the challenges I had to overcome in my training, but it also affects how I approach evaluating wine for my U.S. audience. I believe there are a few ideas differentiating wine drinkers in the U.S. from many other locations around the world:
1) A significant share of the wine consumed in the U.S. is enjoyed before, or after dinner, without food.
2) Americans are looking for a less formal and relaxed wine experience.
3) When paired with food, wine flavors should enhance food flavors, rather than just complement the flavors. Wine is not often consumed primarily to clear the palate as is common in Europe.
In closing, I was asked for a better description of the food prepared and enjoyed with the wines. So, here it is:
Beef Short Ribs – braised with a balsamic reduction for 3 hours in a pressure cooker. They were rich, meaty, and very tender.
Mac & Cheese – a uniquely American comfort food. This is an extremely rich pasta dish made with butter, cream and lots of cheese. In this case we made the pasta from scratch vs. pre-packaged.
Succotash – another uniquely American dish. A mixture of corn, butter beans (we subbed cannelloni) and okra (we subbed zucchini) in a light butter sauce with salt pork flavoring.
My wife and I were recently in a winery tasting room in Mendocino County enjoying several wines and a gentleman from France joined us at the tasting bar. This producer happened to offer a cool-climate Syrah mixed with 20% cool-climate Zinfandel and Viognier. A very light style of wine, with the Zin adding a brighter red fruit character. I remarked that I wished I had a bottle of this wine to pair with our Turkey and stuffing dinner from a few nights before… and wow, both the attendant and the Frenchman laughed out loud!
Is Food & Wine Pairing THAT Different in the U.S.?
At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but it stuck with me and eventually had me thinking about the nature of food – wine pairings. Is a Sommelier‘s job different in Europe vs. the United States? Does the European restaurant patron look for something different, than their American counterpart? I began turning over my Somm training in my head and realized, there really are two separate and distinct points of view to this discussion:
When pairing with foods, wines should contribute to mouth-feel, exhibit balance to complement the food textures, but primarily – the wine should clear the palate between bites. The idea being: clearing the palate with wine allows you to fully experience the flavors of the food in each bite.
When pairing with foods, wine should compliment the flavors in the food and ENHANCE its enjoyment. In this case, a wine is selected based on pairing the wine and food flavors so the whole is tastier than the parts.
I know EXACTLY what that Frenchman was thinking… in his mind, that fruit-forward wine interfered with the taste of the food. I thought back to his preferred wines at the tasting bar. He purchased the most acidic Pinot Noir that was the least fruity and the best balanced (BTW, I enjoyed it too). His thinking regarding the pairing was completely at odds with mine. Lighter Zins (with good acidity) are a great pairing with turkey and gravy, because the wine compliments the food. These two people were so against that kind of thinking, that they had laughed when it was suggested. A strange experience, but very instructive.
Another Wine Job That Requires an Understanding of Cultural Preferences?
Sometime back, I wrote a piece on the cultural differences affecting the wine marketing and media manager position. So, now the Somm position is affected by this too? OK, I am not saying my preference here matches everyone in the U.S., but the wine education training I have done, has shown it to be true – at least in my small sample. Does this mean Somm training and certification should include the regional and cultural preferences of local wine consumers, NOT just regional cuisine? Could this also mean, there is no one definitive training approach to content that will apply to both the Old and New Worlds?
For the professional Somms reading this, what has your experience been? Am I painting to broad a brush on the issue? I don’t read much talk about this on wine related websites. Is this observation and discussion relevant?
Can European Wine Producers Access the Mainstream U.S. Market?
I have two acquaintances from Europe on a work visa here in the States. It is always interesting to hear their perspective on wine. They view wine very differently than the majority of my U.S. friends. When I am looking for someone to explore and appreciate the complexities of Northern Rhone, or Burgundy with me… it is rarely my U.S. friends. Decades of high Robert Parker scores have been driving demand for high alcohol, big oak and rich mouth-feel and have skewed the high-dollar U.S. Cabernet market towards palates that have been trained to demand it. I know, because that was mine back in the day. It’s all good though. I have come to enjoy both the big & bold and lighter complex styles. Although I must say, the wines that fill that special place for me are often the more balanced lighter wines of Italian origin. With such major differences in style preference between here and there, can a wine executive from Europe having grown up with a different wine sensibility… truly understand the American consumer?
Many Europeans Experience Wine as an Accompaniment to Food
Until 2010, I primarily drank wine before, or after a meal, but rarely with. Based on my friends, acquaintances and wine education events, this is the primary wine experience for the majority of Americans. It wasn’t until my Sommelier training that I was introduced to the idea of wine as an accompaniment to food. Too many U.S. consumers evaluate wines and make buy decisions based on tasting without paired food. I don’t believe this is well understood by wine industry executives in Europe. The popularity of the big fruit-forward taste profile in the U.S. is a good barometer for this discussion.
Is There an Assumption of Basic Wine Knowledge?
There are a few points to make on this topic. Wine is a common fixture on most French, Italian and Spanish dinner tables, consequently children are exposed to wine at a very early age. This leads to basic wine knowledge being assumed by many Europeans. In addition, branding regional food and wine by city, or area name is well understood there. In the U.S., this is a confusing and foreign concept. Until another approach to marketing is developed, the under $50/btl. retail wine market here will continue to be an elusive target for European producers.
Many Europeans might cringe at the idea that the most popular food dish in America is probably boxed mac & cheese. The foodie movement is a relatively new trend here. Working with consumers in the U.S. means starting with people from the ground up and building demand with little steps.
Are European Producers Targeting Only U.S. Collectors and Connoisseurs?
Importing marketing, or sales professionals from Europe is a thoroughly misguided idea… unless you are trying to target the 5% of the total market (by volume) that are the collectors and connoisseurs. I have had only a few experiences with Europeans in a sales role for wineries in the U.S. They have all been French and were the singular worst experiences I have had during all my wine trips to California over the years.
Changing the American Wine Paradigm
The challenge in the American market is convincing the average consumer that wine is not just for special occasions and holidays… or… is not just a glass on tap (yes, most winebars are now serving on tap) with friends before, or after dinner.
The more I talk to people in wine marketing in the U.S., the more I realize how misguided many are… and how absolutely correct the winemakers usually are… winemakers and vineyard managers are just farmers at heart. It is this wine for the “regular Joe” story that resonates with the average American Consumer. If wine is to gain greater market share here, it should be experienced as relaxed and fun, with no rules. Put together an effective explanation of why focusing on wine can make life richer… and there you have a marketing campaign that will have an impact in the U.S.
One day last year, my wife and I walked into a wine bar in Castello di Bolgheri, Italy (OMG, this sounds like the beginning of a joke!). They had 20 wines in a commercial dispensing system… Sassicaia, Ornellaia, Le Macchiole, Sapaio, Grattamacco, Ca’ Marcanda and more (pardon mixing my wines/producers) and I blew a boatload of cash sampling higher priced, older vintage, hard to get wines in 2 oz. pours. Never saw such an impressive selection of wines BTG in my life! I will remember the fun we had that night for many years!
Wine Bars and the U.S.
Could this wine bar concept be successful in the U.S.? Let me throw this out there… could providing wine education and then exposure to these kind of exquisite wines from all over the world be successful? Obviously, the demographics of the area would be a huge factor, but assuming you were located in a high-income area… could it make business sense, or would it be a disaster? Definitely – paired tapas and the right atmosphere would be a must.
A Passion for Wine and Curiosity
In my case, I am always curious about ultra-premium wines. Frankly, it is fun trying to determine if the value makes sense, or the price point is bogus. In the process, you always run across an amazing gem, like we did that night. Although generally, I am not up for spending big money on a full night of it. In this case, my wife and I were on vacation and we decided it would be fun to treat ourselves to the experience. Are we the only couple with disposable income that feels that way? Would the location have to be a tourist wine destination like downtown Napa, CA? Will the new Coravin wine preservation system provide the method for making this concept work?
Which Wine Experience Are You Looking For?
Being of entrepeneurial spirit, I try to guess at the different kinds of consumers that make up the marketplace. When you choose to drink wine at a bar, or restaurant, what most influences your selection?
1) pair with food 2) price 3) value 4) broad appeal for the entire party 5) explore new wines 6) the old dependable 7) hunt for exceptional quality 8) try multiple wines and a diverse experience
Is seeking out an exceptional wine value on your radar, or like many believe… are you just looking for a passable wine at the right price? Many in the industry have the view that people are just happy to be out enjoying a good time with friends…
$700 USD/btl for Harlan Estate Cab? Really?
Here are a few lines from a recent wine auction. Sorry, vintage dates are missing, but you get the point. $75+ for a 2 oz. taste of wine? I don’t think many would be curious enough, although I have watched people pay that for a shot of utra-premium tequila…
Harlan Estate, Napa Valley, USA – $709 Schrader Cellars Old Sparky Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA – $624 Caymus Vineyards Grace Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, USA – $617
How about $25+ for a taste of these wines?
Paul Hobbs Beckstoffer Las Piedras Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, St Helena, USA – $182 Dominus Estate Christian Moueix, Napa Valley, USA – $180 Bevan Cellars ‘Oscar’ Sugarloaf Mountain Proprietary Red, Napa Valley, USA – $180
Chateau Montrose, Saint-Estephe, France – $192 Chateau Haut-Brion Le Clarence de Haut-Brion, Pessac-Leognan, France – $192 Chateau Lynch-Bages, Pauillac, France – $188
At some point, you become saturated with high-priced offerings beyond your budget. Occasionally, I stop and think about all the buyers out there spending this kind of money on wine. Sometimes… I just can’t get my head around the wealth that must be out there.
Wine Bars in My Area
Don’t know about you, but I look for decent food and ambiance with great value wines in the low, mid and higher priced categories. Sometimes, you are out on a special occasion and want to splurge. Having craft beer on tap too is a plus, for the times when a beer just sounds right. Unfortunately, this ideal place does not exist within 20 miles of my home and has me wishing… and hoping, the next new entrepeneur will take the risk and get it right.
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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