I've been off the wine sales road for quite some time but what stays fresh in my mind about my years on the road with wine is the general intransigence of so many restaurant owners and managers when it came to staff training and pricing wine to sell it.
A few days ago, I had to make a trip to Albany, New York, which happens to be one of my old sales territories. After a meeting with the publisher of my next book, I went off to meet up with someone who lives in the area for a glass of wine and some catching up. We settled on meeting at one of that city's longest standing downtown restaurant and bar, which I shall not name.
Except for much needed renovations to the rest rooms, the place hadn't changed much at all, and in more ways than one. It looked and felt the same, and it still offered a fair number of mediocre wines at ridiculously inflated prices.
What's worse, the staff seems not to have been trained in wine service as much as it has been trained in pushy wine sales.
My friend and I sat at the bar to have a glass of wine each. I asked the bartender for the wine list. His response was that the restaurant has just about every wine we could imagine. He suggested that I tell him what I want and he was sure to have it.
I told him that what I wanted was the wine list, but that wasn't clear enough for him. He repeated what he had just said, and then followed it up with a sales pitch for a new wine they had just gotten in, a Napa Cabernet named after the football Jets.
I pressed more and got the wine list but by then my friend was exasperated with me and he ordered a glass of some Chardonnay. I took the hint, put the wine list down and said I'd have a glass of the same. We weren't there to talk wine anyway.
About midway through our time at the bar, the bartender came over with two Riedel glasses into which he had poured some of that Jets wine. He wanted us to taste it and give him our impression.
The wine smelled like an out of control barbecue fire that had created lots of smoke after it was doused with Cabernet Sauvignon in place of water, and the wine tasted like smoked pork that had been marinated in Cabernet Sauvignon-based brandy. I wasn't sure if the wood or the alcohol was the defining feature of the wine.
I asked to see the label and to my surprise, the wine was not from bulk juice. It was listed as a "Produced and Bottled by..." Yet, I was certain it could not have cost the restaurant more than between $8 and $10 a bottle; it was listed at $49, which was about $10 for each alcohol percentage above 10.
When I pointed out that the wine was quite woody, the bartender said--proudly--that others have told him that. The bartender suggested that the restaurant had bought up all the cases of that wine available to the city, which, if true, is of course the best way to price a wine however you want--and get away with it.
Is that the best way for a restaurant to sell wine?
Maybe so. Maybe the American restaurant customer is an easy mark. Maybe people with dull palates and full wallets are the norm.
I used to think that I had the answer for restaurants.
I used to try to persuade restaurant owners and managers that they could both give the customer a good and reasonably-priced experience and still make a profit. I used to try to persuade them that good pricing leads to a more fluid (no pun) inventory, which in turn leads to profit through higher volume sales, which in turn leads to returning customers seeking to maintain that good feeling when they pay a reasonable price and have a good wine experience.
I used to tell the owners and managers that important to a good wine program is a trained staff. Trained not to push but to educate, not to lie their way through, but to own some knowledge to back them up.
I used to tell the restaurant people not to order wine by its reputation but
instead order wine that the trained staff liked and could get behind,
and with which the menu married well, always keeping in mind the price of the wine as it related to the price of the main course.
I used to offer to provide staff training, and some used to take me up on that offer, but I fear many did that because it was a free offer.
It came out later that the reason the bartender in that restaurant in Albany didn't want to show me the wine list was that in this winter period of slowing patronage, the restaurant simply doesn't have in inventory all the wines on the list. Rather than update the list, which the restaurant can't do because even in this easy to master age of desktop publishing a distributor prints the wine list for the restaurant, the bartender was told to push that Jets wine.
When next in Albany and wanting to meet an old friend for a glass of wine, do you think that restaurant will come up as a contender for a meeting place?
...and they will never know that they lost potential sales.