Restaurant wine: An inside look

Restaurants get a lot of criticism from the Wine Curmudgeon ?- poorly executed wine lists, crummy service, and armed robbery prices.

But that doesn ?t mean they aren ?t trying to do better. In the past couple of weeks, I did a couple of functions with representatives of two important U.S. restaurant chains. At each, I said I wanted to write about what they thought about wine and the problems that many restaurants have, and promised them anonymity. They agreed. What they told me was quite encouraging.

First and foremost, they ?re aware that they have problems. I told the second group that I had one request: They they tell their servers not to argue with customers when the wine is corked or oxidized. I got lots of head nodding, and several laughed, since I ?m not the only who has complained about this.

Among the other points:

? Prices are what they are, though there seemed to be a sense that they shouldn ?t be that way. Frankly, this was much more than I expected. Usually, when I bring this subject up, I get dirty stares.

? Selection can be better. This did not make a big impression, until I offered this: Too many restaurants carry the same wines. What if the same was true for menus, in which every Italian restaurant, every steakhouse, had essentially the same menu? You could see the light bulb go off, and several marketing types said they could see the advantage of adding more interesting wines ?- though still commercial and still widely available – ? than the same old tired national brands that are on every list. Or, as I noted, it ?s not a crime to sell Sicilian wine in an Italian restaurant.

? Improved service. Yes, they know how bad it can be. And they ?re trying to do something about it. In fact, I was giving a wine presentation to the second group for just that purpose.

? More local wines. Both groups were interested in adding regional labels, and asked me for information about their regions. The impression I got was that the problem was not with upper management, but at the restaurants. Managers were hesitant to try something that they didn ?t absolutely, positively know would sell. Well, trust the Wine Curmudgeon: You can sell Texas wines in a Texas restaurant.

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