Thursday, December 4, 2008
It's 3 AM, Is Your Wine List Answering the Call?
Of course, everyone knows what a wine list is – the list of wines you can order in a restaurant. Yeah, right. Like “service” is someone taking your order without first saying hello, without telling you the specials or giving intelligent answers, slapping your dishes on the table in no particular order, forgetting to refill your water or to offer coffee, and then taking your money without saying thank you or goodbye.
What do consumers actually look for in a wine list? Seventeen years ago the nation’s most popular wine magazine actually put that question to its own readers – all predominantly strong wine and food lovers – in a multi-question poll. The results of three of those queries:
• 70% of those polled agreed that the “optimum length” of the ideal wine list should be only 20 to 50 selections. So why do many of us in the business still believe in the-bigger-the-better approach to wine lists?
• Responding to the question, “how useful is wine list information in choosing wine?” – 70% of this magazine’s readers described wine lists in the U.S. as “poor” or “fair.” Zero votes for “excellent,” and 9% voting for “good.” Ergo: even knowledgeable wine lovers believe that restaurant wine lists are just not informative enough.
• To the question, “how helpful are lists in matching food and wine?” – 77% rated wine lists as “poor” (mostly) or “fair.” With the rise of exponentially more food consciousness and culinary sophistication during the past seventeen years, do you think consumers today care less about wine and food matching than they did before? Not a chance.
Have things changed much since 1991? I guess. We are seeing more wine lists that address the issue of being more informative by adding descriptions and tidbits of information. We are also seeing a few wine lists that suggest food matches, and even some food menus that suggest wines for specific dishes.
But by and large, the restaurant industry is still generally afflicted by the notion that big wine lists (that is, those with anywhere from 200 to over 2000 selections) are better than small wine lists; whereas the vast majority of consumers probably aren’t impressed by that at all. All they are calling for is a wine list that makes more sense than hieroglyphics, that is more entertaining than a telephone book, and that has something to do with the dishes they are about to eat.
Does your wine list fit the bill? Let’s go through a check-list of some hard questions:
1. If your wine list is “big” (say, over 200 selections), is it big for a reason – like giving your guests multiple options of wines that you know taste magnificent with specific dishes on your menu? Or is it big for reasons that your average guests really don’t care about – like, because you enjoy tasting and buying lots of wine, or because you’ve read somewhere how good this or that wine is and what score it’s been given?
2. Do your selections actually differentiate you from your competition in the eyes of your guests, or are you going after the exact same wines found in every other restaurant, grocery or retail store down the street?
3. Like “Charlie the Tuna” in those old commercials, are you selecting wines that represent “good taste” or that actually “taste good?” That is, are your wines chosen to give you the highest percentage chance hearing your guests go, “Wow, that’s the best wine I’ve ever had!” Or are they chosen just to make you look good?
4. Are you writing descriptions for each (not just a few!) selection on your wine list to help your guests make decisions, and also to perk their interest, senses, and ultimately their thirst?
5. When you write your descriptions, are you being helpful by giving the information that guests actually need (i.e. is it dry or sweet; very sweet or slightly sweet; light or heavy; lots of oak, subtle in oak, or pure and fruity...?); or are you just providing long, half-hallucinatory, grocery list-like descriptions cribbed off distributors’ sales sheets (i.e. “grapefruit and apple with hints of leafy herbs, peaches and cream, and crispy, pan fried passionfruit”).
6. In your descriptions, are you throwing in other interesting tidbits to stimulate guest interest; like the name of the winemaker (if it’s a prestigious winemaker), the wine’s growing region, the significance of the growing region, or one or two dishes that taste absolutely wonderful with that wine?
7. In your wine list categories, are you being creative by dividing them up by taste (like “dry, full bodied whites” as opposed to “light, slightly sweet whites”), by food suggestions (“crisp, dry whites for oysters and shellfish,” or “big, full bodied reds for steaks”), by special interest (“organic & biodynamic whites,” “exotically scented European whites,” or “wild, wacky Southern Hemisphere reds”), or any which way you can to make your list uniquely interesting?
8. Are you still offering just a measley five or ten selections (or less than 10%, 20% of your selections) of wines by the glass despite the fact that in most restaurants today over 50% of wine sales are by the glass?
9. If you’ve found some truly unique and delicious wines that go great with some of your dishes, are offering them by the glass, or do you expect your guests to take giant leaps of faith and buy full bottles just on your say-so?
10. If you’ve found numerous truly unique and delicious wines, are you giving your guests the opportunity to have fun with them – like, the chance of tasting two or three next to each other with one dish, or at a bar just out of curiosity – by offering them by the glass in 2 or 3 ounce portions on top of 5 or 6 ounce “full” portions?
11. Are you tasting your staff on a regular basis (at least once a week) on all the new and exciting wines you’ve found in mandatory meetings in order to make sure every selection on your list counts (and also to make sure your hard work as a hunter of uniquely fine wines isn’t for nought)?
12. Are you testing your staff on a regular basis (at least once a month) to make sure they’re awake and taking notes during the wine meetings?
Do you query your staff – and even taste samples of prospective wines with them – to find out what your guests are really saying about the wines on your list; in order to not only make intelligent decisions but also to garner the maximum support of the people who are actually doing the selling and serving?
13. Are you standing pat, or are you continuously growing to keep up with the increasingly sophisticated tastes of your guests and the evolution of your menu; in order to keep yourself and your staff on your toes, and loving what you do?
14. Above all, are you bringing back the fun of wine to your guests, and taking pains not to insult their intelligence or underestimate their thirst for new and exciting wine experiences?
So how is your wine list answering the call as a recession buster? Or shall I say… ring, ring!
What Are Sommeliers for, If Not for Training?
Professional sommeliers represent such an investment on the part of serious "wine restaurants" that they are compelled to perform far more duties than simply serving, ordering and restocking wine.
Many of them are compelled to assist or even stand in for everyone from SAs and food runners to mâitre d's and floor managers, book banquets and large parties, conceive and execute special events, write newsletters, open and close restaurants, and even run back to the kitchen when someone on the line keels over. It's the nature of the beast: as costs rise and management salaries are crunched, the "sommelier" is either the first to go, or the easiest one to call on for double or triple duties. Tell me about it.
But where the modern day sommelier can most effectively prove his or her worth is in the area of staff wine and food training. After all, with specialized knowledge of both wine and the food components matching wine comes a responsibility: to share that knowledge, and make direct impact on sales, profits, and the critical success of the restaurant.
As one of those quasi-manager/sommeliers I've been teaching wine sales in restaurants for over thirty years. I know everyone, of course, has their own approach, and I've observed many other magnificent restaurant wine trainers with incredible records of success to prove it. Based upon all that, here are the ten basic steps to the way I approach staff training:
1. Begin by passing out a basic wine "primer" (if you haven't composed one yourself, you can assign a book), requiring them to read it, and tell them they will be tested.
2. Start your own training addressing the "language" of wine sales by teaching and tasting the staff on the basic sensory components of wine (dry, sweet, full, light, tart, soft, oaky, fruity, and all the important variations of grapes and aromas).
3. Progress by teaching/tasting them on how the basic sensory components interact with food (concepts like similarity, contrast, and physical textures); preferably, of course, with sample dishes.
4. Administer that basic "primer" test you threatened them with earlier, and make them take it over and over again until they pass 100%.
5. Once that minimal comfort level is met, introduce staff to the world of wines (grapes, countries, AVAs, terroirs, winemakers styles, etc.), one wine at a time, slowly-but-surely (you cannot rush this part... it goes on forever).
6. Yes, during each wine training meeting (preferably at least weekly), you always discuss the basic selling points of each wine, the profile of guests who will most likely appreciate each wine (a big Cabernet for longtime big wine connoisseurs, a Cornas for Francophiles, Gruner Veltliner for guests ordering oysters or fish in vinaigrette, Riesling for the first-time wine drinker, etc.), and basic methodology of sales (basically, when and how to volunteer the wine information that you have to share). It's simple. After you taste each wine, you ask your staff, what makes this wine special... how do we sell it... who would be turned on by it... what dishes would it be ideal with?
7. Assign individual research papers (one page reports, a copy for each team member, are fine) to staff on a specific subject, to be presented to the rest of staff at the start of each wine training meeting.
8. Ultimately, during each meeting, you should also be encouraging participation from staff (don't make meetings one-way discussions!); allowing them to share particular sales experiences with each other, personal experiences of wines they've enjoyed outside of work (or wines tasted in other restaurants), and even their opinions about the best wines for certain foods and guests.
9. Test, test, and re-test at least several times a year (enthusiastic staffs love the challenge anyway).
10. Finally, when opportunities to attend distributor/supplier wine tastings come up, you need to encourage your staff to not only attend, but also to report back their findings (i.e. recommendations for the wine list). If you can't attend a tasting, you should assign people to attend "for you." If you really want to know how to get staff to be not just competent but also personally invested in your restaurant and wine program, this final step is the way to go.
In any case, I've developed many sharp, enthusiastic, ambitious wine buyer/managers from virtually "nothing" (i.e. kids fresh out of high school) over the years by following this methodology. Hope it helps you establish your own!
Composing Menus for Winemaker Dinners
Conceiving and executing new dishes for specific components in wines is the more difficult but by far most satisfying way to build a food and wine menu. Whereas there will always be a limited number of wines to choose for a dish, the combination of ingredients and techniques that can go into an originally conceived dish are virtually endless. You’ll always get a better match when you create a dish specifically for a wine rather than choose a wine for a ready-made dish.
Case study: in 1992 we hosted legendary winemaker Tony Soter in two of our restaurants; Soter acclaimed for his Etude Wines, as well as for his work as the original consulting winemaker at Spottswoode in Napa Valley.
The Soter winemaker dinners presented us with a unique opportunity because the menus for each of these dinners were planned by two different chefs: chef/owner Roy Yamaguchi in one restaurant, and his longtime chef de cuisine Gordon Hopkins in the other. As I always did during the thirteen years that I worked with both of them, I followed these two rules of thumb every sommelier or wine manager needs to do when working with a chef (no matter how wine savvy the chef):
1. Begin by putting everything down on paper -- beginning with the order of service and all the basic components of each wine -- which will give your chef the opportunity to visualize the makeup and direction of the courses.2. Based upon the wine components and basic principles of similarity and contrast, list as many food related ideas and dish suggestions as possible in order to give your chef the widest possible latitude in which to apply his/her personal style and creativity.
Further details, utilizing the Soter/Etude/Spottswoode scenario:
ESTABLISHING ORDER OF SERVICE
Step one in the planning of every winemaker dinner is listing the wines in your projected order of service. Although the traditionally accepted order is white wines before reds, lighter before full, and dry before sweet, keep in mind that the actual palate is not necessarily constrained as such as long as each course’s food and wine match is in harmony and balance. David Rosengarten and Joshua Wesson deserve a lot of credit for establishing this premise in their classic book, Red Wine with Fish (Simon & Schuster 1989).
In any case, for our particular dinner with Tony Soter we decided to follow a conventional pattern:
1st: Spottswoode, Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 1990
2nd: Etude, Carneros Pinot Noir 1990 & 1988
3rd: Etude, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1989; Spottswoode, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 1988
4th (dessert): Topaz, Late Harvest Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc & Sémillon 1989
BREAKING DOWN THE WINES &
SUGGESTED FOOD COMPONENTS
Step two is isolating the basic taste sensations, tactile qualities, and aroma/flavor components of each wine; and based upon that, drawing up your matching food ideas utilizing the principles of similarities and contrast. The ideal method is to break everything down on paper for your chef; allowing him to take the bits and pieces that stimulate his own thought process, and referencing them with his own culinary mental library. For the Soter dinners, these are parameters I outlined for the chefs:
1. Spottswoode, Sauvignon Blanc
Description: Bone dry white; medium body (not light, not heavy); perceptively crisp, medium acidity (lightly tart); fine, smooth (silky) texture; fresh fruit fragrances of melon and citrus; lighter aromatic nuances of green grass and vanillin oak
Suggested dishes: Mildly spiced, summery sweet shellfish appetizer (i.e. shrimp, scallops, crab, etc.)
Similar ingredients: Mildly acidic fruits (tomato, lime, lemon, grapefruit, pomegranate); mildly acidic cheese (Chèvre or Feta); leafy green herbs (oregano, thyme, parsley, tarragon); pungent herbs (chive, cilantro Mexican mint marigold, lemon grass, kaffir lime); vegetal components (olives, bell peppers); very mild vinegars (if balanced with wine’s acidity)
Contrasting ingredients: Vine ripened tomatoes (lomi lomi or concasée); sweet Maui onions (in moderation); moderate spice (restrained use of chili or chiles); aromatics (mild curries, mustards, tumeric, achiote)Extremes to avoid: Heavy cream or butter (will make wine taste thin and acidic); high salt (brining) or soy
2. Etude, Pinot Noirs
Descriptions: Lush, round, fleshy, succulent California style reds; medium body (not light, not heavy); moderate (towards low) acidity; rounded, soft tannin (but filling); black cherry perfume (fruit quality flavor over layered tannin); tinge of peppermint spice and warm, smoky/vanilla oakiness
Suggested dishes: Salad using smoked meat (beef, duck or quail), or smoked seafood course (salmon, calamari, tako), or modified cioppino (meaty fish, mussels, clams, octopus)
Similar ingredients: Wild berries or cherry; baby greens (very tender, mildly peppery); mild caramelization of meats; smoky notes (re grilling or charring)
Contrasting ingredients: Mushrooms, onions (especially pearl or caramelized); sausages (fresh or mildly cured); alliums (shallots, garlic, green onion); spices (cinnamon, clove, cumin, nutmeg, celery); mild (like Big Island) goat cheese; mustards
Extremes to avoid: Sharp vinegars (winy balsamics only in moderation); salty/sharp cheeses (blue, Feta, etc.); more lethal herbs (dill, cilantro)
Descriptions: Two chunky, black toned, hefty, dry red wines; full body; low acidity; full, generous tannin (rounded, but almost palate drying at the core); combination of flesh and muscle in texture; deeply aromatic blackberry/cassis-like aromas (black cherry nuances); rich, charred oak, faintly minty and green olive/pepper aromas/flavors
Suggested dishes: Lamb with a twist (in pot-a-feu, garlic sausage, or combined with sweetbreads or white beans), or marinated loins or wood grilled chops stuffed with olives or soft ripened cheese, or fanciful “lamb sandwich” (Napoleon style utilizing offal, couscous, semolina, crusted polenta, etc.)
Similar ingredients: Wood smoke; natural reductions (concentrated without sweetness); wild berries; bell peppers (plays off wines’ herbal notes); smoked green chiles; olives; peppercorn, walnut, hazelnut (tannin neutralizers); eggplant, mustards; deep, aged cheeses (Cheddars, Manchego, Gouda, Parmigiano, etc.)
Contrasting ingredients: Earthy vegetables (fungus, beets, alliums, garlic); scented herbs (mint, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, mint); tomatoes, stewed or in nage (stripped of sugar, acid); double or triple crème cheeses (in moderation)
Extremes to avoid: Salty blue-veined cheeses; immature (ammonia-like) Chèvre and Brie; pervasive herbs, spices (dill, cilantro, ginger, kaffir,); sun dried fruits or tomatoes (too sweet/tart); sharp leafy vegetables (spinach, sorrel, napa cabbage); stinging dried chilies, powders or curries
4. Topaz, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon
Description: Sweet (approximately 10% residual sugar) dessert wine; full body (not delicate, about 13% alcohol); elevated, lip smacking balancing acidity; long, viscous (high glycerol), silky smooth texture; concentrated fig and honey-like aromas/flavors; underlying green grassy and apricot-like fragrances
Suggested dish: Creamy dessert with fresh fruit
Similar ingredients: Sweet/moderately tart fruits (berries, cherry); creams (custards) or crème fraiche; honey and fruit liqueurs (moderation)
Contrasting ingredients: Mild dessert spices (vanilla, nutmeg, almond, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, anise); citrus (i.e. lemon as flavoring, not dominant fruit); fresh mints
As you may have surmised, the interesting part of this exercise is that we had two chefs following the same parameters with the same wines, who ending up preparing prepare two different dinners on two consecutive nights. Here’s how it went:
Roy Yamaguchi’s Menu:
Kahuku Shrimp with Crispy Spinach & Spicy Lemon Grass Curry
Spottswoode, Sauvignon Blanc 1990
House Cured Duck Salad with Caramelized Pearl Onions & Shallot Sauce
Etude, Pinot Noir 1990 & 1988
Napoleon of Lamb with Sweetbread Spring Roll & Roasted Beet Sauce
Spottswoode, Cabernet Sauvignon 1989
Compote of Poached Bing Cherry with Kirsch Crème Fraiche
Topaz, Late Harvest Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon 1989
Spottswoode, Sauvignon Blanc 1990
Etude, Pinot Noir 1990 & 1988
Etude, Cabernet Sauvignon 1989
Topaz, Late Harvest Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon 1989
Although he always described himself as an Euro-Asian style chef, for winemaker dinners Yamaguchi typically exerted restraint on his Asian side, giving a classical sense of balance to his dishes through technique as much as seamlessly woven ingredients.
I always loved, however, Hopkins’ aggressive, oft-times challenging or unorthodox matches; particularly in his mildly spiced cioppino (in its execution, the scented morsels of seafood sat in a pasta bowl over a small puddle of concentrated broth) and his visions of Morocco (the fragrantly brown spiced lamb was particularly luscious with sleek, oak spiced, dried fruit-like concentration of the Etude Cabernet).
In both dinners, the chefs amplified the crisp yet creamy textured, melony scented dimensions of the Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc by striking notes of similarity with the grape’s intrinsically herbal, acidic nature: the lemon grass in Yamaguchi’s shrimp, and the mildly vinegary, red peppers and crusted green herbs in Hopkins’ soft shell crab salad. By layering dishes to match a wine’s nuances, you can push forth its most flattering qualities while drawing attention to its complexity.
Contrast, on the other hand, is an approach fraught with risk, but which can raise a match to exhilarating heights. Re the mildly salty and acidic tastes of Yamaguchi’s house cured duck salad in a jus-laced vinaigrette: surely, not to be expected for a basically low acid, dry red wine (the Etude Pinot Noirs) with a modicum of bitter tannin. But because the wines are in themselves balanced (Soter always places lush, almost sweet fruit qualities above the tannin in his red winemaking style), and because Yamaguchi deftly balances salt and acidity with sweetness (caramelized onions), earthy flavors (shallots, oils and duck stock), and moderate bitterness (use of young, leafy mesclun leaves), the sum total of the course comes up fresh, lively, and enervating.
This is why when crafting dishes for wine, you need to always go back to the first principle of wine and food matching: just like good cooking involves a balancing of ingredients and technique, good wine/food matching involves focusing on how specific components in wines interact and achieve a sense of balance and harmony with specific components in dishes.
And the key to that, of course, is making sure that you start off with a wine that is balanced and a dish that is balanced, before going on to create a dish and a wine that are balanced together with multiple dimensions of similarity and contrast.
CLASSIC & CONTEMPORARY MATCHES
There are many old standby, tried-and-true wine and food matches, as well as a number of others reflecting more contemporary style dining, all based upon the basic, commonsense principles of similarity and contrast in food and wine matching. As food and wine for thought, a few interesting examples:
- Full bodied, dry, richly flavorful white wines (like Chardonnay and Viognier) with meatier “other white” meats (like pork, veal and chicken) in richly flavorful sauces
- White wines with zesty acidity (i.e. Sauvignon Blanc) with foods with matching degrees of acidity (like salads in mildly sharp vinaigrettes, or cheeses like Chèvre)
- Slightly sweet yet zesty white wines (like German Rieslings) with seafoods prepared with slightly sweet, sour, salty, and even spicy-hot sauces and ingredients (since sugar in wine and as a food ingredient brings contrasting balance to spicy, salty or acidic sensations)
- Soft red wines (like Pinot Noir and Beaujolais) with soft but full flavored red fish (like salmon and tuna)
- Zesty, pungent, earthy/foresty red wines (like Chianti Classico and Rosso di Montalcino from Tuscany) with zesty, Italian influenced dishes (use of pasta, tomato, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, and resiny herbs like oregano and rosemary)
- High tannin reds (like a youthful Cabernet Sauvignon) with slight bitterness or astringency with red meats prepared with slightly bitter peppercorns, vegetables, or char from wood grilling
- Bright, zesty, sweetly fruit scented red wines (like red Zinfandel and Syrah) with fatty meats in zesty, sweet or even spicy sauces and marinades (re barbecued or even teriyaki style beef or pork ribs)
- Big, herbaceous, minty or cedary Cabernet Sauvignon based reds (from France’s Bordeaux, California or Australia) with red meats in sauces reduced with aromatic green herbs (mint, thyme, sage, etc.)
- Smoky, toasty, aggressively oaked wines (like many Chardonnays, and most ultrapremium reds) with white or red meats that are aggressively grilled, roasted or wood-smoked
- Sweet, high acid, intensely fruity “late harvest” whites with sweet desserts made with fruits retaining natural fruit acidity (berries and stone fruits peach and pear)
- Sweet, full bodied wines (fortified reds like Port and Banyuls from France, or golden colored Sauternes from France) contrasting with salty blue cheeses (like Roquefort, Gorgonzola and Maytag Blue)
- Sweet, full bodied fortified reds (like Port and Banyuls) with bitter/sweet chocolate desserts
Common Wine Accents (and How to Apply Them)
Let’s put it another way: if you are serious about your wine program, then you’re serious about your spelling of European wine names and terms with their customary accents.
So first, utilizing most Microsoft Word/Windows applications, the quickest ways (apart from usage of Symbols in the Insert toolbar) of applying the most common accents:
CTR + ', the letter
á, é, í, ó, ú
Á, É, Í, Ó, Ú
CTR + `(accent grave), the letter
à, è, ì, ò, ù
À, È, Ì, Ò, Ù
CTR + SHIFT + ^(caret), the letter
â, ê, î, ô, û
Â, Ê, Î, Ô, Û
CTR + SHIFT + :(colon), the letter
ä, ë, ï, ö, ü, ÿ
Ä, Ë, Ï, Ö¸Ü, Ÿ
CTR + SHIFT + ~(tilde), the letter
ã, ñ, õ
Ã, Ñ, Õ
CTR + , (comma), c or C
Here are some common (and maybe not so commonly seen) wine names and terms in need of correct accents:
Comte de Vogüé
Crémant de Bourgogne
Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe
Grand Cru Classé
Sélection de Grains Nobles
Clos de Bèze
Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
père et fils
Côte de Beaune
Côte de Brouilly
Côte de Nuits
tête de cuvée
Comte de Vogüé
Moët & Chandon
Quälitatswein mit Prädikat