Selling Wine to Restaurants: Rules of Engagement In 2009

It’s still dark before dawn in the wine world. Consumers are still strapped, our operating costs are obliterating margins, and last year’s projections seem as hopeful as a bride without a first date. This goes for restaurateurs as much as wine producers.

So what are restaurants thinking about right now? Of course, we’re battening down the hatches, railing in expenses, focusing on advertising and more aggressive promotions, and tightening up menus and wine lists. We all know the effect of the last remedy on the production industry: we ain’t buying as much… significantly.

But still, there are things you can do ride out the storm, beginning with:

What’s Up with You Guys?

When guests are fewer, restaurants are focused on making every guest’s experience count for more. So now more than ever, restaurants are buying fewer wines “just” to have them on the list, and more wines that are unique, special, new and/or different. Anything to makes each guest’s wine experience that much more unusual, hence memorable. For wineries, this means retooling sales presentations, fact sheets and Web site texts to reflect as much product differentiation as possible.

If your Sauvignon Blanc is partially barrel fermented in acacia rather than white oak, make sure we know that. If your Syrah is farmed organically or is from a Biodynamic® certified vineyard, make sure we know that. If your Chardonnay is crisper, lighter, sleeker, and hence more food-versatile than ever before, make sure we know that. If your Pinot Noir was served to Barack Obama, we need to know that. If you’re trading cow manure for wine with your neighboring ranch to make better compost, and investing in a flow form to make your tea… heck, that’s more interesting than finding out you’re buying from Home Depot like us.

The salad days of Sideways are over, and more people are popping Resveratol rather than wine bottles to get their antioxidants. These are not the times when you can sell your wine based upon your previous reputation (no matter how hard fought) or, dare I say, quality alone. Today’s restaurateurs need “hooks” to catch their clientele, and you need to give them as much of that as possible.

It’s Glass Sales Stupid

In times like this, restaurants are upping their services, translating into things like bigger, more aggressive glass programs, $5/glass “happy hours,” and weekly “half price” days. In other words, restaurants are taking serious cuts that eat into their bottom line just to get guests in and keep people employed. What are you doing to show solidarity?

You could offer supportive glass pricing. Besides, one wine-by-the-glass placement has always been worth more than ten bottle list placements, which I bet you always knew. But are you or your sales managers working with distributors (who, as you also know, are famous for doing nothing on their own volition) to sweeten the pot for beleaguered restaurateurs? You need to set the guidelines to make glass placements happen.

The current sweet-spot for fine restaurant glass sales are wines selling for $7-$14/glass. With the standard three-times restaurant markups and based upon 6 oz. glass pours, this means getting wholesale prices to about $9-$18/bottle, or $108-$216/cs. Translated into FOBs: roughly $75-$150/cs.; which may or may not be your ideal pricing. But if you want to see your wine move at a pace of 1 to 5 cases a week in a single restaurant, that’s what you need to seriously consider.

Talk to (not at) Us

When chatting with sommeliers around the country, the biggest gripe I hear is about winery owners, winemakers or sales managers who talk at them rather than to them. It’s hard enough for sommeliers to be excited about being presented with the 1001th barrel fermented Chardonnay that may or may not taste as impressive as you tell them it is.

What sommeliers really like are wineries that put two and two together for them when the wines are being presented. In other words, redirecting your sales approach to answer the burning question: what can your Chardonnay do for us? Sure, the quality should be there; but how will it enhance our program, match our food, fit our price points, increase our profits, thrill our customers, fix the economy, and bring peace to mankind? Some examples of talking points:

• The crisper, sleeker, hence more food-versatile quality of your Chardonnay, tied to, say, just partial ML or cold climate grape sourcing.
• The combination of crisp acidity and mildly toasted, barrel fermented qualities, perfectly matching a restaurant’s smoky, cedar plank salmon, wood grilled chicken, or osso buco in dill Chardonnay sauce.
• Your generous reduction of ultra-premium, single vineyard bottlings from $24/bt. to $16/bt. to give guests an opportunity to experience first-class variations of terroir in glass choices, and the restaurant an opportunity to make a decent profit.
• The fact that your vineyard source is certified or in transition to organic or Biodynamic® status, in keeping with guests’ increasing interests in green industries.
• Recent LEED certification of your winery.

It may sound shallow, but sommeliers are also like everyone else: they like hearing about wines that are cool; that will make their wine programs look cool, and make the guests who order them look cool in front of their girlfriends, other friends, and colleagues. And to relate to anyone like that, you’ve got to be able to communicate as a longtime, concerned friend (even if you’ve just met the sommelier), rather than as a salesperson going through the same ol’ motions.

Help Us Eddicate

Finally, think about the last time someone came to you with a brochure or book that was truly informative and helpful to your business. We long suffering restaurateurs are no different. Unless they contain a good joke or two, sales sheets are so dreary; a shameful waste of paper. But something we can use to help educate our staff (no, not “how-to-serve-wine,” but about what makes the Sonoma Coast so special, why Carignane rules, or how the organic grape growing translates into deeper expression of grape and terroir in your wine), or give us great material for our next newsletter or wine promotion – this, we can use.

Educational material, in any way, shape or form that reflects you, and shows you care about our need to improve service and get the word out: that’s the ticket.

Right now, wineries are certainly not the restaurateur’s enemy. We have a common enemy, which infers the need for wineries and restaurants to join together and support each other, as opposed to getting as much as we can out of each other.

Randy Caparoso is a longtime (over thirty years), multi-award winning restaurateur, wine journalist, and a former wine producer himself. Notably, a Founding Partner of the Roy’s restaurant group. He is currently the Bottom Line Editor for Sommelier Journal, and writes an Organic Wine Match of the Day column for

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