Lobby Gold Rush

Jeffery Lindenmuth - November 2007

A veteran restaurant development group has hotels lining up for one of their triple threat new wine oases.

Lesson one: Don't call it a wine bar. "Well, to a certain extent it does defy description. You could call it a unique wine bar, but we really try not to use the ‘bar' word," admonishes Brian Reed, vice president of operations for the Puccini Group and the driving force behind ENO, a casual in-hotel destination that marries wine, cheese, and chocolate. The first opened last December in the InterContinental Chicago, a second in February in The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel in California. "Cheese is filling, wine makes you happy, and you crave chocolate for dessert. What more could you need?" says Reed, of ENO's trademark trio of tastes.

It's a simple formula that is working wonders, transforming its host hotels by luring young customers thirsty for wine, and education, from outside the hotel, while elevating the standard of wine service right down to the minibar. New ENOs are underway for the Westin St. Francis in San Fran­cisco, the Hotel Del Cor­o­nado in San Diego, and The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, another slated for Washington, D.C., and re­search is taking place in London, Prague, Amster­dam, and Miami. "We have a waiting list," says Reed.

At the heart of ENO's design is a custom communal table, affectionately dubbed the "Chevron table" for its Eames-era boom­erang shape. The Laguna Niguel ENO, with its walnut-clad walls and accents of silver, coral, and tangerine, includes two Chevron tables for 10 and two rectangular tables for eight, their high tops glowing with backlit names of wine grape varieties.

Holly Smith, wine director and sommelier of The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, explains that in a brilliant example of form following function, the table's curvature offers the perfect pulpit to chat wine while also positioning tabletop necessities at her fingertips. "Dif­fer­ent groups sit next to each other and get to listen in."

Enjoying a fair amount of autonomy, individual ENO wine directors and cheesemongers are encouraged to explore their local producers, observing minimum standards set by Reed, such as a mandatory rotating array of 35 to 50 cheeses and three different chocolatiers in each market. Slight departures from the wine/cheese/chocolate script in­clude a selection of stuffed olives and a plate of charcuterie meatily arranged with, say, bresaola, duck prosciutto, and duck mousse with Port.

While the Inter­Continental Chicago wine list offers 300 to 500 types of wines, Smith's Ritz-Carlton lineup soars upwards of 500 different labels and a cellar of 1,500 bottles. Smith's more than 50 choices of wines by the glass range from Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs Sonoma County ($8) to a glass of Opus One Napa Valley 2003 ($65).

While the main ENO mission is young, fun, and casual, with many bottles priced below $40, Smith's list also offers vintage wines for discerning—and flush—enophiles that veer from the stratospherically droolworthy, such as Château Pétrus Pomerol 1961 ($11,800) to closer-to-home classics like Shafer Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District Hillside Select 2000 ($300).

Wine, cheese, and chocolate may all be ordered either in single servings or flights. Served on a marble slab, flights of cheese are $17, with Laguna Niguel compiling provocatively named assortments like "California Dreaming" (Sonoma Dry Jack, Fiscalini Bandaged Cheddar, Point Reyes Blue) and "Three the Hard Way" (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Mimolette, and Roomano). A flight of three chocolates from Los Angeles' Jin Patisserie, titled "Earth Tones," delivers a little flavor anthology of cinnamon, lavender, and vanilla, and costs $11. In Chicago, Sarah's Candies and Gail Ambrosius are among the featured chocolatiers.

Smith says that pairing wine with chocolates is very different than pairing wine with chocolate desserts, but she has embraced the challenge: "It's exciting because I see chocolate with lavender and lemongrass and chrysanthemum. These are flavors that you also find in wine. We offer a chocolate passion fruit ganache, and it really brings out the fruit in heavier Pinot Noir and Syrah, while an espresso ganache goes really well with a nice deep Cabernet."

In addition to unraveling the mysteries of wine and cheese tableside, ENO patrons have the run of the wine cellar and the cheese cave (equipped with a charcoal-filtered system that changes the air every 10 minutes). ENO's retail section invites guests to purchase any of the products for takeout, along with appealing extras like honeycomb, quince paste, and Riedel stemware in which the wines are served.

It's easy to understand the clamor for future ENOs when you look at the current results. At the InterContinental Chicago, ENO reconfigured a lobby that previously featured afternoon tea and a piano bar. According to Reed, the 1,300-square-foot space now generates about $16 million annually. Hotel manager Andrew Gajary says ENO has boosted lobby traffic overall. "About 60 percent of the guests come from outside the hotel. They are local businesspeople and neighboring upscale condo residents," he says. "And, it hasn't really cannibalized the lobby bar, which serves the spirits customers." The Chicago ENO also attracts more women than the hotel at large: About 60 percent of ENO's guests are women, versus 40 percent of overnight hotel guests.

Both hotels co-package ENO with overnight stays and events. At the InterContinental Chicago, in-room video promotes a $10 "Nightcap" for hotel guests, where the ENO sommelier will pour a Port, dessert wine, or other appropriate late night libation, perhaps with a bit of cheese or fruit. VIP guests are sometimes offered ENO Amenities, which replace the foreseeable chocolate pillow-topper with a "hand-selected," in-room wine and local chocolate tasting. And during corporate functions, retreats, and conventions, ENO can now step in to offer alternative programming, like custom wine and cheese tastings for stranded spouses who've traveled along.

At The Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay, the ENO sommelier will work on a program called "Fire and Ice" to build a rotating in-room selection of red and white wines, according to Reed a sort of high-end minibar to replace the more "generic wines" of the past. And, at The Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel, an overnight "For the Love of Wine" package includes a 60-minute private Smith tutorial on two flights of wine plus two flights of cheese and one flight of epicurean chocolate with paired wines.

For a more affordable experience, hour long weekly ENOversity classes, at which wine­makers present their wines, cost $35 and are open to the public. As the number of ENOs proliferates, Reed plans to add a layer of networking that may appeal to global travelers and young connected tasters. "We're planning a computer program, where you can create an account and track everything you eat and drink." Reed explains.

ENO enjoys its biggest rush predinner, followed by dessert seekers who close the place down at midnight. Looking ahead, Reed, who describes himself as "a busy guy with an emergency prosciutto in my refrigerator," sees a younger generation ready to adopt ENO as their primary destination.