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Creative Wine Buying in a Down Market

The first time I realized how severely our guests were cutting back on wine purchases when dining was in early 2009. After a not-so-busy rainy Tuesday at the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, when we’d served about 100 guests, I noticed that there had been only one bottle of wine sold. All other consumption was by the glass. This fact, combined with the doubling of sales calls from distributors and wineries eager or desperate to sell whatever they could, started me thinking. I quickly began to find ways to deliver high-quality wines at price points that wouldn’t leave the guests anxious about ordering a full bottle of wine.

The result was a list of 30 wines that we sold for $30 each. Many of these had previously appeared on our wine list for $45, $50, or more. We immediately saw results! We all know that the image of a restaurant with patrons enjoying the open bottles of wine on their table sends a message that you are at a wine destination. Here are some of the ways that I manage to foster and sustain that feeling despite today's economic challenges. 

Improving Relationships with Distributors and Vintners

Surely there are one or two suppliers (wineries) with whom you already have a strong relationship, or vintners whose philosophy closely matches that of your restaurant. Find ways to bond by working with their wines that are in abundant supply and therefore might be purchased at discount or with appealing incentives. A sure-fire menu match, even one where you are working with a challenging grape variety, can move a lot of wine and support your position as experts in providing extraordinary dining experiences. If you have a good relationship with suppliers or vintners, don’t be afraid to negotiate, but be careful what you commit to. You don’t want to be bogged down with the same Chardonnay for six months when your guests demand more diversity and there are more deals to be made. Taking 10 to 20 cases of a wine will help with their goals and will certainly maintain a happy partnership with a top producer. 

Buying Outside Your Zone

The current economic situation makes it very difficult for those suppliers who haven’t yet sold through their previous year’s vintages to release the new. In a competitive wine market where consumers and critics want to talk about the most recent, brand-spanking-new wines, sometimes it’s difficult to be left a year or two behind. If you taste these older wines thoughtfully, what you’ll often find is more freshness than expected or a subtle development that makes the wine interesting and ultimately satisfying for the guest. The average wine drinker in a restaurant is more concerned with immediate satisfaction than being perceived as au courant; so bringing these gems to the table is a win-win situation. Often the suppliers will motivate you to help them move on to new vintages by offering desirable pricing or promotions. The same goes for wine pedigree. Who knew that a Sicilian Pinot could be so good, and for only $8 per bottle as our cost? There are loads of well-made but overlooked wines that we hesitate to offer because we fear that no one will “get” them. They come from regions where the dollar is cheaper and values are prevalent. With proper training and enthusiasm, your staff can turn guests on to something new and help them learn that, in the long run, it pays to be adventurous. 

Adding Value Beyond Favorable Pricing

The sad fact for smaller wineries is that they can’t afford to deeply discount wines the way the big companies can. These loyal businesses that visit your restaurant, promote you, and otherwise support you can help you sell the wines and please your guests in other ways. Wine education, guest speakers, field trips if possible, and whatever motivational gifts they may have for your staff will go a long way towards making a memory for the guest and strengthening the knowledge and drive of the servers to generate better wine sales overall. Suggest having a sales rep in the house to talk to the guests and perhaps pour tastes of the wine. A small-production Sauvignon Blanc or Zinfandel that might otherwise get lost on a wine list will automatically become relevant to your guests when they get to taste it with someone who can speak firsthand and passionately about the wine. With the need to sell wines so high, companies are putting as many people on the street as possible, so experts from many of the producers you already work with should be available to you on a regular basis. 

Finally, to keep your operation as vital as possible, try to continue to use these strategies even after things pick up for you. If you keep your eye on the goal of bringing dollars to the bank rather than the right percentage points to your accountant, and keeping wine in the glasses of your guests, you will weather this crazy economy and come out stronger, with more friends, contented diners, and smarter servers as a result. 

A final note: Distribution laws vary from state to state and so pricing, discounts, and incentives may also vary by necessity. 

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