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R&I ? Editorial Archives ? 2004 ? February 15 ? Beverages

Educated Choices
Dropping old rules and attitudes about wine can increase sales

Buffalo wings and white zinfandel. Cheese ravioli and Chianti. Sauvignon blanc with barbecued ribs.

Toss out the red/white rules and the leather-bound wine list. Casual dining is cranking out wine sales and getting thumbs up from experts. National chains, eyeing a better guest experience, have invested in beverage training and it shows. Servers sell wine styles?not labels, vintages or scores?in plain English.

?Some chains are taking wine very seriously,?? says Fred Dame, referring to programs at Orlando, Fla.-based Darden Restaurants? Olive Garden and at Nashville-based O?Charley?s. The wine educator and president of Court of Master Sommeliers, San Francisco, says that operations that improve wine offerings stand to increase customer satisfaction as well as revenues. ?Wine is one area where operators can increase profits,? Dame explains.

Patron-friendly wine service is important at The River Cafe because Wine Director Joseph DeLissio knows "customers return if they're treated well."

Beginning next month, 207-unit O?Charley?s launches a training program designed to help servers and customers match popular dishes to wines. Waiters will be issued a Wine Finder, a cardboard reference tool the size of a guest-check presenter. It lists food categories and entrées, names of complementary wines, a few descriptive words, and brands available.

?It will make wine easy and accessible for guests and employees,?? says Colleen Brennan, beverage manager. ?Wine was intimidating, especially for servers in their 20s. This gives them confidence.?? She estimates check averages will see a boost of 10%.

In 1997, Darden Restaurants began a chainwide effort to make Olive Garden more authentically Italian. Before the initiative, wine was always a convenience item on the menu. Now, it is central to the guest experience, says Bill Edwards, Darden Restaurants? director of culinary and beverage strategies. The wine list expanded from 16 to 46 choices, including 38 by the glass. Prices from $3.75 per glass and $15 a bottle make wine affordable for most customers. Additionally, the 532-unit chain hosts free Friday and Saturday evening tastings.

Olive Garden servers are encouraged to offer a taste if a guest hesitates about a wine choice. And jargon is out. ?Simplicity breaks down barriers,?? Edwards says. Though he declines to give sales figures, beverage revenues are up 75% since 1997, and wine sales have doubled.

Comfort zone
Experts agree that intimidation by haughty waiters or wine stewards has no place in today?s restaurants, not even in fine dining. ?It?s a buyer?s market and customers return to an operation if they?re treated well,?? says Joseph DeLissio, wine director at The River Café in New York City.

?Customers return to your place because they feel comfortable with the dining experience, not threatened,? he explains. ?Listen to what the guests want in a beverage, then provide choices. If they order by price, offer a range. Include one or two bottles below the specific price. That?s where the comfort comes in. Obvious upselling never boosts sales?or goodwill.??

Expanded wine selections and sales are vital as casual-dining restaurants upscale menu offerings.

Wine programs, like lists, evolve with the market. When Southpark Seafood Grill & Wine Bar opened in Portland, Ore., six years ago, its wine list was organized by styles, not regions, vintages or varieties. ?We were a pioneer back then,?? says General Manager Karin Devencenzi. The simple approach paid off for the 200-seat restaurant. ?People don?t feel intimidated. Half my customers are wine geeks who ask technical questions. But the rest are tourists and locals. They?re not interested in vintages or pruning methods. They just want something good to drink with meals.??

Combine simplicity with a personal touch, and customers curious about wine will return to become regulars. That?s the experience of 2-year-old Punch & Judy, a 55-seat wine bar in New York City. Lacking descriptions and food-pairing ideas, the 200-bottle wine list consists of loose sheets of paper with names and prices in folders that circulate among guests. The owners create, update and change it weekly on the office computer.

Talking and being personable sells wine, says Constantine Mouzakitis, co-owner and wine enthusiast. Regular customers from the neighborhood know the seven servers by name and count on their suggestions. ?I hire people with restaurant experience, not wine knowledge. That, I can teach. People come for the adventure of trying something they?ve never tasted, not grape varieties.??

Table talk
Operators should train servers to be effective sellers, not wine experts. Dave Holstrom, a wine consultant and trainer in Portland, Ore., suggests teaching the basics: country of origin, a few words to describe how a wine tastes, and a food suggestion. More ideas from the experts:

  •   Get staff to taste and talk about wine. When employees use their own words to describe a beverage, it helps retention and builds confidence.
  •   Make learning fun. Try ?wine question of the day? contests and a weekly quiz. Create a file of index cards with basics for each wine. Use it for quick reference.
  •   Expand marketing through chalkboards, table tents, menu inserts. They?re memory joggers for servers and trigger impulse sales, especially of slow-moving bottles.

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