Are Fine-Dining Restaurants Alienating Wine Consumers?

July 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

Two quotes caught my eye in the recent Restaurant Awards issue of the Wine Spectator in Harvey Steiman’s article “A Growing Passion for Wine”.  The first was Piero Selvaggio’s quote “Today, any restaurant with a serious wine program must have at least 25 or 30 (wines by the glass).  People can try something they might otherwise take a chance on.”  The second, in the same article, was from a wine industry icon whose credibility cannot be questioned “I walk into some restaurants today and I am embarrassed.  I’ve heard of maybe 25 percent of the wines on the list”, says Kevin Zraly, who put together the list at New York’s Windows on the World that won a Grand Award in 1981. “Too many young sommeliers get obsessed with having a list full of wines that no one else has. My list is better than your list. And they are leaving the customer out in the cold.”  (My emphasis)

Well Piero, offering  just 30 wines by the glass puts you 3 behind Olive Garden and 8 under the BTG count at P.F. Chang’s the last time I checked (Note: P.F. Chang’s also offers these same wines by the half-glass).  And just so we have a fine-dining benchmark here, Gramercy Tavern offers 28 wines by the glass and taste. Winemetrics’ survey of over 165 chain restaurants indicates that the average casual dining chain has 23 wines by-the-glass (BTG), the average upscale casual list has 30 and the average fine-dining chain 32 (actually, if you take out Flemings with its 100+ BTG selection, that average falls to 29).  My point is that fine-dining restaurateurs, and their sommeliers, should get out a little more and check out a local upscale casual chain – they may find the wine choices, promotion and service surprising.  For example, what if I were dining in your restaurant and asked to taste one of your BTG selections before buying it, what would the waiter’s reaction be?  Well, at Olive Garden, the waiter would not only swiftly comply with that request but might even offer me a taste before I even asked for one!  

I want to thank Kevin Zraly for publicly addressing an issue that rarely comes up for discussion in blogs, the arrogance of the wine elite. It is very easy to ignore the vast majority of wine drinkers when you are being endlessly courted by the best producers and suppliers on the planet.  Suggested reading for the Masters of the Wine Universe: Constellation Brands Project Genome which documents the importance of recognized brands to all levels of wine consumers.  The arrogant assumption here is that fine-dining customers are all avid readers of Parker, WS or other wine publications and are ‘ in the know’.  In my experience, just the opposite is true. During my days in marketing with a major importer, I would get frantic calls from colleagues and friends, all considered wine knowledgeable, dining out in certain top NYC restaurants. There was nothing on the restaurant’s wine list they recognized and they were calling me to vouch for some obscure producer from California, France or Italy.  Certainly there is room for both obscure finds for the wine enthusiast and well-known, respected brands for the less adventurous consumer.

 I realize many beverage directors/sommeliers pride themselves on educating the consumer but to someone who thinks he or she knows a thing or two about wine, handing the wine list back to the sommelier as if to say, “ I don’t know any of these wines, you pick one for me”, is downright demeaning.  If Kevin Zraly is saying he doesn’t recognize 75% of the wines on an establishment’s  list, I think there may be a comfort issue with a vast majority of their customers.

For the record, I have no affiliation with any of the restaurants, people  or the wine company mentioned in the above copy.

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