Red Alert

19 January 2006
Red Alert

White wines' dominance ebbs as diners rediscover reds.

This article first appeared in the 15 November 2005 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website

By Jamie Popp, Senior Editor

Restaurant wine directors grateful for increased sales can address their thank-you notes to moviemaker Alexander Payne. The popularity of his 2004 film "Sideways," about a road trip through California's wine country, exalted pinot noir, turning the Burgundy-style red into an object of cult-like interest.

"No longer do diners limit themselves to merlots and cabernet sauvignons on wine lists. Guests are starting to drink other varietals. It started with syrah and, probably thanks to ‘Sideways,' has continued to pinot noir," says Marian Jansen op de Haar, director of wine at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, a 35-unit concept based in Tampa, Fla.

Schaumburg, Ill.-based researcher ACNielsen reported that retail sales of pinot noir were up 16% year-over-year for the 12 weeks following the film's release. Sales of merlot also improved.

Taste plays a major role in the shift, op de Haar says. "The reason consumers are moving from merlot is because the smoother, mellower flavors they like in merlot also can be found in syrah and pinot noir."

Randy Hollingsworth, vice president of support and operations for Atlanta-based PJ's Coffee and Wine Bar, which operates 50 locations, says pinot noir is the big seller at its 10 expanded wine-bar units.

"People are more specific about what they're looking for. Awareness is greater," he says. Interest is high in pinots from Oregon's Willamette Valley as well as from California's Russian River area, he adds.

Warm Reception

Movies may inspire trends, but cooler months play to consumers' inherent desire for warming reds.

"When weather turns colder, guests drink more syrah, cabernet and grenache," says Sona's Wine Director Mark Mendoza.

The operation recently added syrah to its by-the-glass offerings, which now total 50 wines. Popularity and bottle price are factors in selecting wines for the program, Mendoza says. However, he deviates from this rule when he breaks into his vintage wine collection to offer "something that is a bigger seller during the winter months."

Beyond pinot noir and syrah, red wines such as malbec from Argentina have gained a following.

"For '21' Club, red wines from Argentina seem to be the newest area for growth," says Philip Pratt, wine director for the New York City fine-dining restaurant, which features a 22-seat wine cellar for private dining.

Michael McMillan, executive chef and co-owner of Opus 39 in St. Augustine, Fla., sees more guest interest in malbec, a French varietal that also is widely produced in South America. Malbecs share space on the 44-seat restaurant's wine list with California vintages.

Red-wine blends also have found places on many menus. "Bordeaux-style blends [cabernet and merlot] and other cabernet blends such as super Tuscans or cabernet sauvignon-shiraz from Australia have become popular," says Fleming's op de Haar.

Bin 36 introduces guests to new red-wine regions and blends with two signature flights. Red Hot Reds combines wines from lesser-known regions: a red from the Douro Valley in Portugal; syrah from Languedoc-Roussillon, France; a blend of grenache, syrah, Mourvèdre, Cournoise from Santa Barbara, Calif.; and a Tuscan red. The Sexy Reds flight includes an Italian blend of Sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon, Carmenere from Chile, syrah and zinfandel from California.

Encouraging Experimentation

Some diners come to red wine easily, while others need coaching. A hands-on serving approach can coax guests to break from their typical wine choices.

Mike Maglin, vice president of concept development for The Melting Pot-an 85-unit Tampa, Fla.-based casual-dining chain-selects not only traditional reds from Italy and France, but also introduces guests to less-familiar varietals.

"You've got to teach staff to encourage diner behavior and choice," he says. Instructing servers on how to recommend syrah or shiraz if a guest asks for merlot is part of the training.

The Melting Pot also uses flights and food-and-wine-pairing menus to build wine loyalty. Its November four-course pairing menu recommends two white wines, a Washington state merlot and an Australian shiraz. Maglin says diners can try a flight of all four with dinner.

At Sona, wines are carefully selected to accompany its six- and nine-course tasting menus. Servers conduct tastings each Saturday for more than an hour to learn more about the restaurant's 1,300-selection wine list, which is divided into Old and New World styles.

Scott Jellins, wine director at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar's Boston location, pairs chopped salad made with chicken, asparagus chunks, artichoke hearts, olives, blue cheese, pancetta and mild vinaigrette with a Willamette Valley pinot noir, "because of its versatility and pairing with vegetables."

The chain trains servers about viticulture and wine-service basics. Blind tastings improve servers' appreciation of different wines' flavors and tastes.

Fleming's locations annually host three special wine-pairing dinners. This month's includes two white wines, a Bordeaux and a Tuscan red.

Service Standards

A quick cool-down in an ice bucket might be a good idea for some red wines.

"Reds are often served too warm. They taste more refined and less alcoholic around 66F," says Marian Jansen op de Haar, director of wine at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.

To increase sales, The Melting Pot has retrofitted existing units and built new restaurants to include a climate-controlled wine room to store red wines at optimal service temperatures.

"We're able to provide a better-quality product because the wines age more slowly and evenly," says Mike Maglin, vice president of concept development.

Glassware choice also can have an impact on wine flavor, says op de Haar. At the very least, operations should stock one glass for reds and one for whites. Restaurants that have extensive wine programs generally have more sizes, each matched to a style of wine.

The Melting Pot's tables are now preset with crystal wine glasses with a 12-ounce bowl, which allows better aeration than the smaller glasses previously used, Maglin says.

Palatable Pricing

Often restaurant wine prices well exceed the retail cost per bottle. Opus 39 restaurant balks at that philosophy. While concerns about bottom-line profitability usually dictate wine-list prices, the St. Augustine, Fla., operation takes a different approach.

"We have a selection of 450 wines and everything is available by the glass," says Michael McMillan, executive chef and co-owner. "The price per glass is 25% of the bottle cost. If the price is more than $40 per bottle, a two-glass minimum is required."

Also unusual is Opus 39's approach to recommending wines. Only a dinner menu is presented to guests, who then are escorted to a tasting room where they can try as many as 12 wines to accompany their meal.

"The wines we have open in our tasting room are those that have been served as wines by the glass," he says. "We sell red wines we never would otherwise because familiarity and price usually sells wines on a list."

Even wine that goes unsold during an evening shift doesn't go to waste. Leftover wine is used for training staff, McMillan says.

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