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R&IEditorial Archives2004 — June 15 — Beverage

Sweet Suggestions
Dessert wine sales increase with training, salesmanship and bold pairings of sweets or savories.

Dessert wines are more readily associated with tuxedos and white tablecloths than they are with bistros. But offering a port with cheese or bittersweet chocolate cake in a casual venue can elevate the dessert and the experience to something special.

Dessert wines often are overlooked by both operators and guests, more out of tradition than prejudice. Americans are conditioned to order wine with entrées and coffee with dessert.

Concept and menu should determine which dessert wines are selected to offer diners.

“Dessert wines present an opportunity to catch a ‘sweet sale,’ ’’ says Madeline Triffon, sommelier and wine director for Unique Restaurant Corp. in Bingham Farms, Mich. The group’s dozen restaurants all have a selection of sweet wines. “The idea to order a dessert wine does not come easily to most guests,’’ she says. “It puts responsibility on staff to suggest them. You can’t be passive.’’

Creating an appropriate list of dessert wines requires a realistic look at menu, concept and customers, according to Robert Plotkin, a Tucson, Ariz.-based beverage consultant. “Dessert wines don’t work in every venue. Sometimes, an ice cream drink is more fun and appropriate than an aged port. You’ve got to understand the concept and customer.’’

In creating the list of eight dessert wines for 60-seat Green Zebra in Chicago, Co-owner Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky considered the vegetable-centric menu of Chef- co-owner Shawn McClain, the offbeat tastes of customers and what is offered by small producers. Her selections come from California, Italy, Austria, Australia, Canada and France.

Dessert wines’ share of the 627 million gallons of wine shipped in the United States in 2003, according to The Wine Institute, San Francisco. Champagnes and sparkling wines accounted for another 4.5% of the total.

“Part of the fun of promoting dessert wine is giving customers an experience,’’ she says. “But they’re a hard sell. Customers rarely think to order them.’’ Training staff with tastings, pairings and discussion raises confidence to suggest them to guests.

To increase awareness of dessert wines, Triffon uses printed point-of-sale materials or a separate wine list inside the dessert menu. Offering samples is another effective marketing tool. “A splash of tawny port gives an experience. Margins [on dessert wines] are not the issue. Even in a casual venue, you can sell ruby or tawny port, a fruit wine or Muscat (sweet fortified wine from France) in the $5 to $9 price range,’’ she says.

Prices at Mark’s Restaurant & Bar in The Mark hotel, New York City, start at $8.50 for 3-ounce portions of muscatel and climb to $23 for a Beerenauslese (sweet rich white wine from Germany), according to Richard Dean, sommelier and beverage manager. “Dessert wines move fast in the bar,” he says. “People see the attractive bottles and want to try them. They’re also in the prix-fixe menu.’’

Tastings and training help staff understand differences among the many dessert wines available.

Taste Tempting
Truluck’s Restaurant Group in Austin, Texas, promotes its wines through special vintner dinners and ongoing tastings at four Truluck’s Seafood, Steak & Crab House units in Texas and one in Naples, Fla. The concept offers bottles, flights and 100 wines by the glass. But even in wine-centered restaurants, dessert wines account for only 5% of overall wine sales for the group, says Dave Mattern, general manager and sommelier, based in Houston. The list has 15 choices, mainly ports and sherries.

He trains staff to suggest through personal recommendation. “The server will plant the idea of a dessert wine right after the entrée dishes are cleared,” says Mattern. “When the dessert tray arrives, he places a dessert wine list on the table. Then, he mentions one item, a carrot cake, for example, and suggests that it goes well with muscatel.’’

The standard pour is 3 ounces. Port is the best seller and most cost-effective because it is shelf-stable. “I can open a 1983 bottle that costs me $300 and keep it around,’’ he says. Mattern buys dessert wines in half-bottles and refrigerates them after opening. He also gasses open bottles with nitrogen to inhibit spoilage. The average turnover of a bottle is two to three days.

Big rich desserts, a signature at Truluck’s, do not cannibalize wine sales, he says. “About 75% of customers order a dessert with dessert wine.’’

Last Course

Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky, co-owner of Green Zebra and Spring restaurants in Chicago, reports that dessert wine sales represent 30% of her overall wine revenue. She offers tips for increased sales.

  • Get staff to experience dessert wines through tastings, pairings and discussion. They should know why port goes with walnuts, muscatel with lemon tarts.
  • Teach differences between fortified wine and table wine, alcohol content, aging processes and taste characteristics.
  • Capitalize on the distinctive shapes of wine bottles. Display them with appropriate glassware such as cordials and flutes.
  • Match foods with wines of similar sweetness or intensity. A German Eiswein is typically very sweet and pairs well with meringue or baked Alaska.

  • Wine Check

  • Alcohol content and residual sugar distinguish dessert wines from table wines.

  • By definition, table wine is any still, nonsparkling wine with alcohol content of up to 14%. A wine with alcohol content between 14% and 24% is classified as dessert wine or naturally occurring high-alcohol wine.
  • Fortified wine is a wine to which brandy or other spirit has been added. Alcohol level ranges from 17% to 23%. Examples include port and sherry.
  • U.S. shipments of dessert wines (domestic and imported) increased from 32 million gallons in 2000 to 41 million gallons in 2003, according to The Wine Institute in San Francisco.

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