Selling wine in a down market

The first time I realized how severely our guests were cutting back on wine purchases was in early 2009. After a not-so-busy 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 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 at deep discounts. We immediately saw results. Here are some of the ways that I manage to sustain that despite today’s economic challenges.

Improve relationships

Surely there are one or two suppliers 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. If you have a good relationship with suppliers or vintners, don’t be afraid to negotiate, but be careful what you commit to. 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. 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? There are loads of well-made wines that we hesitate to offer because we fear that no one will “get” them. 

Adding value beyond pricing

The sad fact for smaller wineries is that they can’t afford to deeply discount wines. 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 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.

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