When the economy took a nosedive in late 2008, Arthur Hon, wine director at Sepia in Chicago, knew the career he’d come to embrace over the preceding 15 years was about to change. Bookings for holiday parties were far and few, and those that did lock in dates were met with “restrained interest,” says Hon. “It was the quietest holiday season I’d ever seen.” In the restaurant, customers also weren’t springing for the reserve list, instead choosing lower-priced wines or by-the-glass options, or ordering just one bottle for the table.
Yet even during those stormy times Hon saw hope: Cautious about spending money, customers were putting more faith into restaurant staff when it came to wine, expecting epic experiences.
“They’re looking for exciting things, things they’ve never heard of. They are looking for an experience they cannot create at home,” says Hon. “I try to list wines that [customers] probably will not find in a wine shop.”
Regardless of title—sommelier, wine director, or food and beverage director—the job has changed vastly within the last five years, and even in the five years before that. No longer is it simply about ordering wines and cobbling together a wine list. There’s an unspoken demand to be engaging and insightful when approaching each table. Customers want to go deeper than the plates and glasses in front of them.
“Talking with a real person makes it more enticing,” says Hon. This desire for transparency—knowing the person who procures the wine list—is no different than meeting fruit and vegetable growers at farmers markets. Although, in this case, diners also want to hear stories about a winery to more intimately connect with what they are drinking.
Wine professionals who have done their homework—and effortlessly describe the region’s terroir, the winery’s tasting rooms, and the winemaker’s background—can more effectively sell the wine, especially if the professional has already fallen in love with the wine himself.
Ascertaining the reason for the occasion, the variety of palates represented at the table, and what foods will be ordered is only part of the game.
“The sommelier or wine director really has to connect with the person at the table,” says Victor Rollo, Jr., owner of two New Jersey restaurants, Basil T’s Brewery and Italian Grill and Undici Taverna Rustica, as well as the Rallo Wines website that sells all-Italian wines.
Virginia Philip, Master Sommelier at The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, and owner of Virginia Philip Wineshop & Academy, a boutique wine shop and education center in West Palm Beach, completely agrees.
“People now want to be entertained,” she says. “In addition to being a sommelier, who must know about beverages, we must be extraordinarily entertaining to the diners.”
Yet the job is also still about bookkeeping, earning a profit, and placing orders for wine, especially during a down economy: “If you can’t keep your numbers, you’re out of a job pretty fast,” she says.
For example, in an attempt to retain even greater control over her bottom line, Philip puts her sommeliers on the loading dock to meet trucks delivering wine.
“Trying to get that stuff picked up and sent back can be a nightmare,” she says, alluding to the all-too-common error of receiving the wrong wines or a partial shipment.
Access to technology has helped Philip build a dream wine list at The Breakers. She knows when a wine on her list has been discounted on a wine site—at which point she might either slash the price or remove it completely—and she knows what high-end Bordeaux wines, like Château Lafite Rothschild or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, are selling for at auction.
Keith Wallace, founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, helps shuttle would-be sommeliers through rigorous courses that prepare them for a career in wine. “Ten years ago, you honestly did not need a sommelier except for high-end restaurants. Now the beverage manager needs to know wine,” he says. “We’re training more sommeliers now than we ever were in the past.”
With that comes higher expectations for certification, says Carlton McCoy, Master Sommelier at Element 47 inside The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado. McCoy estimates the exams are about 25 percent more difficult than they used to be. However, 80 percent of the staff at The Little Nell’s Element 47, which has evolved into a destination for wine geeks, has been educated in wine to some degree—including some of the bus boys.
As a restaurant’s most expensive price point, wine sales have taken a definite hit during the down economy.
“People are looking further into the wine list to find good value,” says Wallace. “You’re seeing less and less higher-end French wines and less California wines. What you’re seeing is a movement downward in every single market.
“They’re looking for better value—such as Argentina, South Africa, and Spain—than high-end wines,” continues Wallace. “Ten years ago, it was easy. You put in a certain amount of California wine, some Bordeaux, some Burgundy, and you could be done with it. Now you really have to work.”
Serving Amateur Connoisseurs
Whereas a decade ago wine lists were sprinkled with first-growth Bordeaux bottles, or higher-end Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons, that’s now gone by the wayside.
“It’s a more educated clientele. They’re no longer going for brand loyalty, but there are also expectations for high quality. People know too much now,” says Wallace.
This means wine professionals must brush up on wine trends—and do so often. “I try to stay up to date with what trends are happening,” says Hon, who realizes that most diners get their information about wine from advertisers with big budgets. His goal is to introduce their palates to lesser-known wineries. “You are always trying to look for the next new thing. We become a spokesperson for the wines we believe in.”
Wine poured by the glass continues to rate high with diners. It’s easier to spend less than $10 to try a wine. “You have to have a decent wine-by-the-glass program for sure,” says Philip.
The advent of technology—including wine blogs, online wine magazines, and wineries’ sophisticated websites—has helped bridge the gap between the diner and the sommelier in terms of wine knowledge, but it has also forced wine professionals to stay on top of their game.
“I like that technology is playing a very important part in how people are consuming wine. When people open up the wine list they pull out their smart phones,” says Hon.
Some restaurants have swapped out printed wine lists for iPads, with the list pre-loaded. Having information about the wines at the diner’s fingertips is a huge advantage.
“The iPad list opens the door for the more introverted, or intimidated, guest,” says Chris DeChillo, director of food and beverage at EDGE in the Four Seasons Hotel Denver. In December, the restaurant rolled out its iPad wine lists after six months of testing.
“We wanted to make sure it was the right fit,” he says, and instructed his staff: “I want you to play with the iPads and try to break them. And by ‘break’ I don’t mean throw it on the ground but instead try to get it to do something it’s not supposed to do.”
Every five minutes the iPad wine list automatically updates, removing any sold-out selections so that the diner is viewing a precise list of offerings. Featured alongside each wine are tasting notes, the winery’s history, and an image of its label. Photos are published with news of upcoming wine events such as tastings, classes, and winemaker dinners.
The cocktail menu also features photos, which has helped boost beverage sales. “In the first quarter of 2013, our cocktail and spirits sales jumped about 27 percent,” says DeChillo.
But perhaps the best perk is that the iPad is a customer-engagement tool: Using the iPad, diners can send themselves emails about wines they enjoy at EDGE.
“Today’s wine diner is definitely more savvy about wine than in the past,” says Philip. Often they want to know about newer wine-growing regions and have a special interest in grapes farmed organically.
Even the most seasoned of wine professionals is continually learning. While in Italy recently, Rollo had his own epiphany that defied the adage that suggests white wine ought to be drunk with fish and red wine with meat. He was served slightly chilled Schiava (an Italian red wine) for the first course followed by white wines paired with each remaining course.
“People need to step out of the box and make their own statements on wine,” says Rollo, referring not just to customers but also to wine professionals,suggesting there needs to be a unifying quest to explore and redefine the wine culture as we know it today.