Unlocking Bacchus' Trove

Jeffery Lindenmuth - November 2011

By the bottle or by the glass, when it comes to selling the high end of the list, sommeliers are finding that familiarity breeds contentment.

Given the uncertainty of the global economy, restaurant wines are a convenient place for diners to trim their dinner checks, selecting lower priced wines or opting for an affordable glass over a prestigious bottle. At Dromoland Castle Hotel & Country Estate, a five-star property in Clare, Ireland, sommelier Brigid O'Hora reminds diners there is a right time to splurge, introducing the wine list with the admonishment, "The taste of a good wine is remembered long after the price is forgotten.

"We're trying to promote indulgence without clubbing people over the head with it. A lot of people have obviously had a tough time over the past couple of years, and we want to remind them that it's OK to go for it," says O'Hora. And go for it they may, with a wine list that features many bot­tles priced in four figure euros, including premier cru classés of Bordeaux, multiple vintages of Spain's Vega Sicilia Unico, and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche.

While the average bot­tle sale hovers closer to 55 euros, O'Hora says that select luxury wines have continued to perform well. "High-end wines have taken a hammering, but what we're finding is that the bigger brands, the established producers in Bordeaux and Burgundy, are in demand for their consistency and quality. When you're watching your pennies, you don't want to take risks." In a post-recession world, the flight is not just to value, but to security.

Like many wine directors, O'Hora has a laser-like focus on guest preferences. There is no room for hubris on today's wine list. "My personal passion is for the smaller vineyards and boutique wines. I've taken on a few, but they're a hard sell right now. We go with what works because, above all, we want the guest to be happy," she explains.

Dr. Jeremy J. Siegel, Russell E. Palmer Professor of Finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, observes in his best-selling finance books that consumer staples are the best performing stocks over the long run because even during a recession people tend to stick with trusted, premium brands like Colgate, Pepsi-Cola, and Heinz.

Likewise, at David Burke's Primehouse in The James Chicago, carnivores continue to stand by familiar wines. "People want wines like Caymus and Shafer and Silver Oak," says Michael Mason, director of outlets and general manager for the restaurant. "The luxury wines that continue to sell have well-established brands. Other wines, like Corison, may be equally nice and equally limited, but they suffer because they lack the name recognition."

In a clever effort at upselling, the Primehouse wine list employs the chefs, sommeliers, and servers to offer a "page pick" for each page of the list, highlighting a particular wine with a personal tasting note from one of its on-staff aficionados. Matt Bills, server, suggests Château du Cèdre 2007 from Cahors ($80), while executive chef Rick Gresh likes Emeritus Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley 2008 ($87).

According to Mason, "the response has been very, very good, and the page picks are usually top sellers on their page."

Mason has also encouraged more attentive service from sommeliers, addressing not just big bottle spenders but by-the-glass buyers, checking in on their experience and offering options. "As people moved to glass pours instead of bottles, we began to speak with them in more detail about the half bottle selection as a way to get those diners into the right bottle," he says.

Even in remote locations, well-heeled guests have an affinity for the familiar nowadays, according to Tom Pitlak, food and beverage manager for The Inn at Perry Cabin, an Orient-Express property located in St. Michaels, Mary­land. "The challenge I've put forth is to have what people like to drink when they travel around the world. These people know what they like, and when they see it on a list in a remote place, they are astonished and will treat themselves to it," he states.

Whether perusing Bordeaux or Napa Valley, the wine list at the inn's Sherwood's Landing restaurant offers an excellent spectrum of price in each category, with wines to suit any budget from about $40 to $1,000. The current hot spots for high-end wines appear to be red and white Burgundy around $200 to $300 and American Cabernet Sauvignon at the same price range, including popular names like Lewis Cellars, Quintessa, and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.

Lesser known producers from all regions continue to be a challenge. "I kind of stay away from boutique-y wines. Recent experience has taught me that you're better off sticking with great wines that people recognize," says Pitlak. However, in order to add some variety to the list and to satisfy his own curiosity, he seizes the opportunity to pour more eclectic wines with the tasting menu ($125 with wine pairings), offering, for example, a Sawtooth Winery Syrah from Idaho that might otherwise prove a tough sell.

The embrace of the familiar includes not only brands, but varietal categories as well, observes Bryan Hammill, food and beverage manager at The Ahwahnee hotel in California's Yosemite National Park, where the list might be described as the best of California--plus Champagne. "Guests continue to spend money on Cabernet and to some extent Chardonnay. They're simply not willing to spend as much for a Syrah or Zinfandel or other off-varietals, so we have adjusted to that in our purchasing," he says.

However, Hammill also cautions that the wine list serves a purpose beyond merely selling bottles. Replete with California winemaking luminaries and legends, the list in The Ahwahnee Dining Room makes a statement about regional pride and serves to promote events like the Vintners' Holidays series, which has featured winemakers Ed Sbragia, Helen Turley, Bo Barrett, and many others over the past 30 years. "We're aware that the wine list portrays an image. Whether wines are selling or not is not the only thing that makes them important to The Ahwahnee. Regardless of trends of the economy, we must maintain the presence of the list, so it's more a case of slight adjustments here and there to compensate for peaks and valleys," says Hammill.

Richard Dean, MS and wine director at Taj Campton Place in San Francisco, has been proactive in keeping high-end wines flowing through the 60 seat Campton Place Restaurant. Among the opportunities that Dean has seized is the ability to attend to diners in the more casual Campton Place Bistro and Bar. "I go into the bistro and have success doing some hand sells and flights. We have a $19.95 burger, so I knew we had the clientele there," explains Dean. "You'll often have the single diner, the professional or business traveler, who doesn't want to sit alone in the formal dining room but still wants to have a good time and buy a great bottle." Upping the level of wine service in the more casual venues of the hotel is a win for everyone.

In other instances, Dean has reduced his inventory, including an annual allocation of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti he inherited, by selling to collectors and as carry-out. "Our license permits us to sell wine out the front door, so when we took delivery of the DRC in July 2008, just as everyone else was reducing inventory, we were able to sell some of the wine that way." Eager dinner guests from Asia also hauled high-end Bordeaux home from the Campton cellars.

With those recession years still apparent in the rearview mirror, Dean says he is again acquiring more high-end wines, through "careful" purchasing. Premiere cru classé Bordeaux and California's cult Cabs remain reliable sellers. "The first growths are still strong; when you're the best of anything, it's going to sell. To those wines you can add wines like California's Bond and Harlan as always having demand."

In addition, Dean has bolstered the half bottle list as a way of selling luxury wines, just in more affordable portions. "It's an expense report issue. Two diners will each file for their own half bottle," he explains, noting half bottles are also popular in-room.

Dean continues his long tradition of hosting winemaker dinners, which draw wine lovers from his own email list, numbering over 18,000, and the wine club membership of prestigious participating wineries, like Newton Vineyard. Through this kind of cross-marketing, the Campton Place Restaurant now draws more non-hotel guests than hotel guests for its Michelin-starred dining and 1,200 selection wine list, courting a demographic of enthusiastic and affluent wine lovers. By getting them in the door, and giving the people what they want, premium-priced wines are succeeding on hotel wine lists.