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Menu strategist award winner: Danielle Price, Smith & Wollensky

Price is the sixth of the Menu Strategist Award winners chosen by the editors of RB for excellence in chain-menu planning. As the conventional wisdom goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And you could say that Smith & Wollensky's long-standing wine list was working. After all, the upscale steakhouse chain boasted one of the most comprehensive wine selections anywhere; the New York anchor store alone had over 25,000 bottles downstairs. S&W was routinely praised for its varieties, which the finicky Zagat guide has called "great," and its yearly promotion Wine Week (in which customers could sample 10 wines for $10) had won national recognition for its wine list.

And that's roughly when Danielle Price stepped in and changed it. Nearly all of it.

For those who might call such a move crazy, Price called it strategic. Because popular as the wines were, a great many of them were also imports. And S&W—which had grown from one location in New York into a serious national chain— had branded itself not just as a high-end dinnerhouse, but an all-American one. See a problem?

But there were other good reasons for an overhaul. The 26-year-old steakhouse had seen its customers change with the times. Many of today's wine drinkers have a huge interest in domestic and locally-produced wines, something that hardly existed when the restaurant first opened its doors in 1977. And with wineries now operating in all 50 states, American wine had simply grown into a force that it would have been foolhardy to ignore. So management decided the wine list needed to not only be consistent, but make a statement in line with the brand's larger positioning.

"We're an American steakhouse," Price says. "We're open all over the U.S. The majority of our sales are American wines. It makes sense for our list to be a compilation of the country's finest offerings. We've been featuring American wines for as long as we've been open, but we wanted to add more and different ones. And we wanted to be pioneers and support up-and-coming wineries."

Laudable goals perhaps, but no easy task. Price's considerable challenge was to draft a new wine list that would build on, not diminish, the equity of its predecessor. It had to include enough big-name offerings to please the expense-account crowd, sufficient novelty to attract wine aficionados, and enough accessible labels so the uninitiated could feel comfortable making selections.

It was delicate business, but Price was also ruthless. Out went all the Bordeaux, the Burgundy, the Chianti, and the other imports too. In came selections from across the U.S., including some regions hardly known for their wines, such as South Dakota and New Jersey.

In came, in fact, a lot more than that. Price's "Great American Wine List"—unveiled this fall and now being implemented in units throughout the country—sports 650 selections studded with sought-after boutique wines, classic labels from established vintners, and worthy bottlings from emerging producers. It features extensive vertical collections of California cabernets, some dating back as far as the 1970s.

To specifically showcase new American vintners, Price assembled a selection of "Undiscovered Gems"—a grouping of largely unknown wines that Price found during a summer of traveling and tasting. There's a Virginia pinot grigio, syrah from Louisiana, and a Texas merlot.

Why go out on a limb with untried bottles such as these? Smith & Wollensky founder Alan Stillman turned plenty of heads when he listed California wines alongside French ones way back in 1977, so Price's move was intended to keep that pioneering message intact.

Price also recognized the importance of each S&W location being able to showcase not only American wines but local ones as well. "Columbus, for example, will have Ohio wines," says Price. "These won't be cookie-cutter lists."

And yet she had to make consolation moves, too. For those who pine for classified Bordeaux, for example, Price assembled a "Vintage of the Century" section featuring more than 100 of the heralded 1997 California cabernets. It keeps the American-wine theme while still catering to the palates of seasoned wine-drinkers.

The architect of this American-wine compendium actually got the yen for wine in Britain, while attending Oxford University. "We sipped sherry in our tutorials," Price recalls, "it was very civilized." It prompted the Long Island, NY, native to join the wine-tasting club and begin buying wines on her own.

Price says that her early exposure to a variety of wines helped in her selections for S&W, though that was not without its challenges.

For one thing, says CEO Alan Stillman, "switching over to an all-American list was incredibly expensive. However, we intend to get more people from all over the U.S. to come into our restaurants because we have the most interesting wine list."

Other challenges included setting up distribution for some of the smaller wineries and training the staff to sell the new inventory. This is why the systemwide rollout is a gradual one. "It's a big process," says Price. "We don't want to rush it."

It's a bit early, therefore, to gauge how Price's changes will affect the bottom line. But there are early signs that her list is well received. "We're now selling a larger variety of wines than we have in the past," Stillman says. "The list is working out fantastically."

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