Next to the food menu, the restaurant wine program plays a significant role in generating revenue for hospitality establishments. From deciding how to charge a selection by the glass or by the bottle, to which regions deserve to get the spotlight and how they will elevate the dining experience, the role of the beverage director and/or sommelier is strategic, calculated, and extremely important.
The coronavirus pandemic completely changed the hospitality industry across the globe and caused many restaurants to shut down permanently. The most recent State of the US Wine Industry report from Silicon Valley Bank states that 2022 restaurant wine sales are expected to exceed the previous year’s $789B, but it will still take some time to recover what was lost in 2020 (growth change from 2019 to 2021 was -8.7%). However, as more guests continue returning to indoor dining, there’s a whole new opportunity for wine programs to shine brighter than ever before.
SOMM TV connected with three sommeliers to get their insight on what makes a successful wine program, plus how patrons can navigate the “big books” without fear and have the most enjoyable wine experience while dining out.
1. Streamline the Menu
In Chicago, Adam Butalewicz, the general manager of The Bristol, believes that having a wine book or menu that is clear and concise is very important. “There’s nothing more anxiety-ridden than looking at a wine list that is formatted or organized haphazardly; the font is hard to read, there is tons of filigree and decorations all over the pages and in the corners,” he says. “It should be simple, reflect the restaurant style and design, and be easy to navigate.”
Butalewicz also has the list organized by region and subregions of each country, allowing guests to connect the dots of their favorite wine. “By doing so, this encourages and empowers them to find something out of their norm, and it’s a privilege to be a part of that experience when the guests’ eyes light up after the first taste of a new wine they’ve never tried before!”
Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, the sommelier at The Cinder House at Four Seasons St. Louis, agrees that wine lists should not only be easy to read but also flow in a way that makes sense.
“Cinder House is a South American concept, so those offerings are easy to find and at approachable price points,” she says. “From Domaine Romanee-Conti to Ermes Pavese, our wine director, Anthony Geary, has built a fun wine list that has something for everyone.”
2. Complement the Food
The right food and wine pairing will not only surprise the guest during their dining experience but also showcase the strong partnership between the kitchen and the beverage team.
“The sommelier should work closely with the chef and have a deep understanding of the flavors and textures of the menu,” says Blackwell-Calvert. “Ask the chef questions on technique and inspiration because this is the information needed to make thoughtful and appropriate pairings. I consider flavors first when choosing a pairing, followed by body type and textures. Then I choose if I need to complement or contrast the dish.”
Lindsey Fern, who serves as the director of wine at The Little Inn at Washington in Virginia, aims to elevate a guest’s entire experience, including the beverage selection. “I like to select wines that complement the chef’s food and offer wines our guests may not have ever heard of before,” she says. “That said, if they want Pinot Grigio, all they have to do is say so, and we will recommend a wine they will enjoy. After all, that is the job of a sommelier, listening and making guests happy!”
For Butalewicz, asking the restaurant’s head chef, Larry Feldmeier, about flavors and themes during menu development gives him an idea of what direction he wants to take with pairing. At The Bristol, Butalewicz leans heavier on French wines, particularly Burgundy (Côte de Nuits, Cote de Beaune), Bordeaux and various sub-regions surrounding central and southern France, because those particular flavors and profiles beautifully complement Chef Larry’s creations. “I want the wine to either elevate the food, complement the food, or be a garnish to the food.”
3. Showcase Diversity and Balance
This may seem like a no-brainer, but given the ongoing state of supply and demand within the wine industry, sommeliers now have to think strategically about options (by-the-bottle and by-the-glass) demonstrating a range in style, region, production, and grape variety.
“I think it is important to maintain balance within the list: classic regions, up-and-coming appellations, range of price points, producers with stories you enjoy telling, and an understanding of the concept that the program is within,” says Blackwell-Calvert. “Have a plan for the customer you are selling to with every bottle you wish to add. My personal style is being a champion for regions and producers that the average consumer generally overlooks: English bubbles, Greece, and Portugal come to mind. I love maintaining a list with a global feel.”
4. Empower Staff To Speak Confidently About the Menu
Knowing facts – both big and small – about a bottle of wine creates a sense of camaraderie for the restaurant staff and leads the guest to trust a sommelier’s recommendations fully.
“My unique background in teaching and passion for education helps me drive that in my wine program,” says Butalewicz. “Teaching your team to understand the nuances of the wine, the wine list, and the glass pours can be challenging at times because wine can be very ambiguous.”
He suggests that staff members be open and honest about what they taste, smell, and feel – knowing that everyone will taste something different. “If someone tastes an orange skittle or a pink starburst, I want them to feel comfortable enough to say that because it’s possible a guest may experience the same flavor profile.”
5. Create a Welcoming Environment
Sommeliers and beverage directors exist not only to elevate a guest’s dining experience but also to share their wealth of knowledge. Blackwell-Calvert says that intimidation can look different from person to person and encourages guests to take a step out of their comfort zones to try something unfamiliar. “Be open to new suggestions from the sommelier as long as the somm is demonstrating an understanding of what you like to drink,” she says.
And Fern agrees. “ A good sommelier will never make you feel uncomfortable or foolish for not knowing about wine. We spend our lives studying it and don’t expect our guests to,” she says. “If you are ever met with arrogance by a sommelier, then know that you are not in the presence of a true wine professional. Wine is meant to be shared and enjoyed, so don’t overthink it. That’s why we’re here!”
6. Have Fun, and Get Creative!
For sommeliers and beverage directors, there are various opportunities to switch up their wine lists and give guests the chance to explore regions all over the world. “I prefer the by-the-glass list to offer guests something different, then throw in a high-end glass pour from an iconic region like Napa or Barolo,” Blackwell-Calvert says. “Offering the unexpected on the by-the-glass list keeps the curious guest excited to come back.”
With a prix-fixe menu and a wine list that changes daily, Fern works closely with her team to decide which wines will best satisfy a guest’s palate. “I tend to offer a wine that is comfortable along with something they’ve never had before and something that I think will knock their socks off,” she says. “I always put myself in a guest’s shoes: If I drive out to The Inn for an extraordinary meal, I want a wine that is equally as memorable,” Fern says.