It's 2011, people -- and with US wine consumption rates skyrocketing, restaurants can't afford to let their wine service go sideways. How do you know when your favorite haunt might need a wine program intervention? Keep your eyes open for these telltale signs:
Listless Wine Lists: Settling into a cozy patio-facing seat at a busy restaurant in Cherry Creek after a particularly hectic day, we couldn't get our hands on the wine list fast enough. Imagine the horror we felt as we perused the dismal array of offerings. At the low end: Sutter Home white zin. The high end? Um, not sure we could exactly qualify the Geyser Peak sauvignon blanc we ended up ordering as "best," but believe it or not, it was the absolute best-looking option. Seriously, who still drinks Kendall-Jackson chardonnay? Priced at the astounding sum of $8.50 per glass, we can't imagine...but if there is someone out there, we want to meet them. Don't get us wrong: If you're drinking more wine (even these wines), that's a good thing. The point is, if you're a restaurateur and you decide to sell wine, it's your job to make sure there's something available for people who've moved beyond My First Wine territory.
By The Glass Ripoffs: Restaurants are, by definition, capitalist entities. They're in business with express intent of making money -- and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But gouging customers by charging exorbitant prices for wine selections offered by the glass isn't just uncool, it's ultimately bad for business. We know better than to expect to pay retail prices when dining out, but somewhere in the neighborhood of three to four times over retail is the norm, not five to six times. Savvy restaurants design wine programs to create goodwill with their wine-loving customers by providing them with an array of by-the-glass choices at prices that encourage them to explore a few different selections through the course of their meals. They'll always make more money by-the-glass than bottle sales, which makes everyone a winner. So let's keep it real, shall we?
Temps Gone Wild: This might be the most egregious of restaurant wine service sins, simply for the fact that it's just not that hard to get right. There's nothing worse than licking your lips in anticipation of that first, long-overdue sip of wine only to discover that it's A) sub-arctically cold or B) as hot and fetid as a July afternoon trapped in a basement with no A/C. Before folks in the service industry get all fired up about how lacking most restaurants are in proper wine refrigeration options, let's ponder for a moment the myriad selection of advanced systems available to French restaurants prior to the twentieth century: Oh, that's right -- there were none. So whether you're forced to store your whites in the service well and your reds in the kitchen just to the right of the broiler, all you need to do is invest in a little staff training. Over-chilled whites often need just a brief dip in a bucket of warm water; balmy reds improve vastly after only minutes in ice water. Done and done.
Pairings -- Or The Lack Thereof: Admittedly, this one's probably the hardest to get right. Sometimes the person in charge of the wine list is great at tasting and choosing fantastic wines, but just isn't doesn't possess the specific skills and experience it takes to really nail the art of pairing wines with menu items. Sometimes wine lists are built with an emphasis on place (flashy, pricey Napa cabs) or price (smokin' closeout deal on multiple cases of whatever) and the resulting ability to successfully match the restaurant's cuisine literally gets lost in the sauce. In an ideal situation, the chef and sommelier (or if there's no official wine steward on the team, the bar manager or whoever's in charge of the wine program) would review the entire menu and develop a shared vision for what kinds of wines really highlight and harmonize with each dish. From there, all the servers would have the opportunity to taste every dish on the menu, and then talk about -- better yet, taste through -- a few possible wine partners for each one. Guess what happens after that? Customers get to experience the highest expression of food and wine service -- the magic of a killer pairing -- which makes them order more wine.
We love our restaurants, and we want to see them sell as much tasty, well-priced, and properly chilled wine as possible. Just please figure out how to avoid these minor tragedies and everybody (just like Charlie Sheen) wins.