Operators are discovering the benefits of fusing menu development with wines
Michael Keaveny does not consider himself a wine expert. But he knows what he likes and he understands the importance of a solid wine list, one that offers a broad range of price and taste.
When he took over the kitchen at Painters’ Restaurant in Bellport, a community on New York’s Long Island, he was excited about the challenge of revamping the list and coordinating it with his cooking.
“I want customers to see that some thought went into the wine list,” says Keaveny, who worked in California’s Napa Valley before taking his current position. “I’ll sit down with the food and the style of wine I think might go with it. The selection process evolves from there.”
With jug wines now banished from the operation, Keaveny says he is making inroads at the upscale-casual restaurant featuring contemporary American fare. As he builds a following, he avails himself to servers and guests who have questions on food and wine, strengthening the rapport between food and wine as a way to build the clientele. “When a chef takes a few minutes to make a wine recommendation with his food, it creates a comfort level and makes the customer feel a little special,” says Keaveny. “Everyone wants to be recognized.”
Operators are finding that coordinated menu and wine selections can be a powerful tool for enhancing a restaurant’s brand as well as increasing the bottom line. But affinity between wines and foods means more than pairing flavors. The styles of wines and varietals offered should be in step with an operation’s concept. Chef and wine buyer need to understand each other’s approaches.
On the simplest and most practical level, “wine-friendly” means presenting guests with familiar food and wine in a manner that does not intimidate. While it may seem blasphemous to connoisseurs, the friendliest food-and-wine relationship is one that allows customers to drink whatever they like instead of what the chef considers the optimal pairing.
“If customers do not like a wine, they won’t enjoy the food it accompanies,” says Pieter Verheyde, head sommelier at Alain Ducasse in New York City. “That is the same whether they are eating at an expensive or inexpensive restaurant.”
Offering guests a choice of wines always begins by suggesting those that complement the food, says Verheyde, who began his training at age 12. “We never speak about wine-friendly foods. We talk of food-friendly wines,” he says. “You consider the strengths and weaknesses of the wine: tannins, acidity and crispness. Wine should never overpower food, and there should never be too much contrast with the dishes.”
Yet certain foods call for wines that stand up to robust flavors. For example, Keaveny serves grilled flat-iron steak with a sauce made with cabernet sauvignon. He roasts wild mushrooms with garlic, thyme and extra-virgin olive oil and then adds wine, reducing it to a sauce. To drink, he passes on pinot noir because “it would get lost” in the robust flavors. Instead, he suggests a French cabernet or a blend that includes cabernet, merlot and zinfandel so it is a bit fruitier.
Sarah Stegner, chef at The Dining Room in The Ritz-Carlton, Chicago, doesn’t worry about which wines are paired with her food because Sommelier Steven Lande knows her style so well. Stegner is a proponent of local ingredients, harnessing their fresh flavors to make an impact. Each day, she and Lande talk about the evening’s dishes and his wine selections. The two have worked together for six years.
“If Sarah is preparing a wonderful local asparagus that’s presented simply with truffled hollandaise, the dish is all about the food; the wine needs to support that. I may select a white Rhône or an American Rhône varietal because I want the vegetable to be the star,” says Lande. “With hollandaise you can’t pick something too acidic.”
De La Tierra, a recently opened restaurant at the Sundy House resort in Delray Beach, Fla., faces a different challenge. The food that Executive Chef Johnny Vinczencz prepares can be spicy and have numerous components. His ancho-cinnamon pork tenderloin with hash of molasses-cured, applewood-smoked bacon and sweet potatoes and onion chutney is one example. Another is red-curry seared tuna steak with rock-shrimp sticky rice cake, fresh pea sprouts, lemon-guava ponzu, wakame and wasabi caviar.
“When your dishes include a lot of bold flavors, guests want wines that stand up to the food, something that will make the dining experience even better,” says Vinczencz, who helped compile De La Tierra’s wine list.
Because of the warm Florida climate, diners often prefer white wines since they are served chilled and can be more refreshing. “In that case, we like whites to have some depth so that they don’t get lost in the food.”
Wine dinners, often with the winemaker in attendance, are a fine-dining staple. These days, the approach is becoming more casual. Bingham, Mich.-based Unique Restaurant Corp. regularly holds Wednesday Wine Bar events at its four fine-dining restaurants.
The promotions center on specific themes, such as “Weird Wines We Love” or “Burgundy, White and Red.” For $30, participants sample eight wines, hors d’ouevres and cheese while Unique Restaurant’s Master Sommelier Madeline Triffon discusses the wine selections and answers questions.
“It’s our way of demystifying wine and making it food-friendly,” she says. “Customers are very interested when there is no pretense or snobbery attached to it.”
B.R. Guest multiconcept owner Stephen Hanson also sees the virtue of helping customers feel at ease with wine. Operating on the philosophy that an enjoyable dining experience leads to repeat traffic, Hanson’s Blue Fin restaurant in New York City offers guests a computerized handheld wine list. Customers input food choices and the device offers wine suggestions.
On weekend nights the recently opened, 240-seat Weber Grill Restaurant in Chicago serves more than 800 guests, averaging 550 nightly during the week. The fare is backyard barbecue–steaks, ribs and even grilled corn on the cob replete with a piece of bread to evenly spread the butter—and wine offerings couldn’t be more apropos, with 34 reds compared to just 16 whites.
The list follows a trend that offers wines not by varietal but by style, which works particularly well with the concept’s distinctive and bold food. Under “Spicy Barbecue Reds,” a California zinfandel pairs nicely with charred New York strip steak with sautéed mushrooms and blue cheese as well as smoky ribs and barbecued chicken. “Light Fruity and Fun Wines” include Gewürztraminer from Alsace as well as California white zinfandel.
“It takes the mystery out of wine,” says General Manager Brian Ingram, who was a chef for Dallas-based Brinker International before joining Weber. “By listing attributes, wine lists allow customers to go right where they want to be, whether it’s ‘Big and Beefy Reds’ or ‘Soft and Unique Reds.’”
Following its intention to deliver authentic Italian-inspired dining, Orlando, Fla.-based Olive Garden is building wine into its brand. “We want to bring a true Italian culinary experience to this country and part of that is to incorporate wine,” says Salli Setta, senior vice president of culinary and beverage. “With the exception of breakfast, wine is served with every meal [in Italy], and wine is considered food. We want to bring that approachability to America.”
Since Olive Garden started listing wine suggestions next to foods about 18 months ago, wine sales have increased 20% compared to the industry average of 1%, Setta says. With the goal of offering something for every diner, the concept recommends a range of wines for each section of the menu, from appetizers to salads, filled pasta to fish and seafood. An Italian merlot, an Italian blend of three grapes, and a California chardonnay are recommended selections for the chain’s “classic recipes” such as chicken parmigiana, fettuccine Alfredo and lasagna.
“We matched body to body—heartier wines to heartier food and lighter food to lighter wines,” Setta explains. “If you understand the complexity of the dish and then look at the wine recommendations in the menu sections, you can navigate the wine list.”
Because the 496-unit chain has been successful with its food and wine approach, more complex and interesting offerings will be added this fall. Setta says the goal is to supply choices for the beginner’s palate as well as the more sophisticated drinker’s.
“At the end of the day, our belief is that if you like pinot grigio and you want to eat it with your steak, that’s what you should have,” she says. “It is a fuller dining experience.”