Whining and Dining
...complaints, considerations and solutions...
It is quite likely that a restaurant
dining experience may be the most common introductory portal consumers enter to the
pleasures of fine wine. Once one's preference for wine has been established
and knowledge of wine begins to accumulate, however, the bloom is
off the rosé and attempting to enjoy wine in restaurants can
be exasperatingly thorny.
Wine consumers regularly complain about
wine service in restaurants, more often than not. They complain about
being gouged by highly inflated wine prices. They object to wine lists
with limited selection choices or that have incomplete information,
are poorly organized, use small type, or are otherwise difficult to
read. They complain about poor wine service, specifically about servers without wine knowledge, who can
neither recommend wine nor even answer simple questions about what
brand of Chardonnay is offered by-the-glass or what wine from the
list is driest. They object to glassware that seems selected primarily
to endure rough handling, rather than to enhance the wine.
They complain when reds are served tepid and whites icy. Do these
complaints and objections have legitimacy? Does anyone listen?
SYMPATHY FOR THE
Owning a restaurant is a high-risk, often low-margin
venture and operating one is a constantly demanding, intermittently
frantic-paced, and frequently unforgiving pursuit. Restaurants come
and go with regularity in most cities and resort areas.
Restaurateurs must carry a substantial
inventory of perishable goods that are highly susceptible to waste
and theft. They spend many hours of preparation and cleanup for each
hour they serve meals. Employee turnover is among the highest of any
Diners can be impatient, rude and demanding
and tend to have short, silent memories when it comes to pleasant
surprises in food and service, but long, loud, and unforgiving ones
when expectations, even minor ones, are not met.
Customers may take offense at "rules"
enacted to prevent abuses, such as a minimum charge per table, gratuities calculated automatically
for large parties, charges to credit cards for "no show" reservations,
or a "plating" charge for splitting an entrée. These tariffs
are all results of real costs to the establishment caused by a very few inept, discourteous diners that must otherwise be covered by higher overall prices to every customer. Some restaurants depend upon high customer turnover to make profit and may even resort to decorating shemes that ensure no diner lingers too long, such as bright lighting or uncomfortable and crowded seating.
On the other hand, most Restaurateurs
love their work. They are a breed that is part artist, part businessman,
and part performer. They often reap as much satisfaction from the
act of creating as they do from earning profit and praise. The trick
is in managing to produce a blend of all three that can attract a steady supply of customers. The successful among them recognize that a memorable fine dining experience includes quality food and beverage enhanced by ambiance provided by flattering lighting, soothing music, comfortable chairs, etc.
"Professional" dining critics
may extol a dining establishment's virtues as well as expose weaknesses ... in public, in print, and without
warning! Even a favorable review can turn out badly for the establishment
caught off guard and unprepared, without enough food and staff to handle a curious public response. How
often does a newspaper review a furniture store, a medical office,
a supermarket, or a stock brokerage? It is certainly not a possibility that threatens these businesses weekly.
DRINKING UP THE
The number one consumer complaint about wine in restaurants
is price gouging. This is a problem that is half perception and half
Think about it: whether the marquee
says McDonald's or Maxim's, the beverages offered have high markup.
Although diners complain about wine prices, soda pop, coffee, and
iced tea are far more inflated. A McDonald's 24-ounce Coke sells for
US$1.49 -- the entire ingredients, cup, lid, and straw cost under
US25¢ -- that's very nearly a 600% markup.
Wine consumers are spoiled by the relatively
low markup on retail wine, such that, outside major cities, independent shops exclusively
dealing wine are practically nonexistent, unable to profit enough
to sustain their owners. A bottle that wholesales for US$10, for example,
might be found selling for US$14 retail. If that same wine is offered
at US$30 on a winelist, it would probably raise some hackles. But
if that same wine were served at McDonald's, using their beverage
economics, it would be US$60!!!
Some restaurateurs lack a personal
appreciation for wine, take a cynical view of those who do and have
a "sucker born every minute" attitude toward quality and profit. It is easy to spot
their symptoms by their wine lists: domination by only two or three
brands; lack of any familiar brand names; failure to list vintages and
appellations; "house wines" listed only by type with no mention of
producer. Regular fine wine consumers simply avoid these places.
A far more pervasive problem is that
even honest restaurateurs fail to comprehend that profits are measured in
dollars, not percentages. Hospitality School theories of keeping Pouring
Costs under 20% are ancient history. Restaurateurs using this theory fail to realize that high wine prices
have contrary effect to making profit, because high prices retard overall
All restaurant profits are not created equally. Wine
requires the least preparation of any commodity of fine dining. There
is very little spoilage or waste, since distributors or producers
will normally take care of replacing off-condition bottles.
Surveys strongly suggest that, as a
category, wine drinkers are the most frequent diners and also the
most generous tippers. Logic follows that the most frequent diners
would also be the most likely group to talk about and recommend dining
There are always those dinner hosts who are most interested
in making an impression on their guests and willing to pay the
toll for the highest-price cabernet or chardonnay in the house, rather
than learn enough about wine to search the list for the best-tasting
wine for the food ordered. It is easy enough to accommodate show-off diners by stocking a few bottles of trophy wine.
Instead of trying to make $100 by selling
wine to 10% of the tables, why not make $100 by selling wine to 50%
of the tables and earn the tangible bonuses of a word-of-mouth "buzz"
from the customers and a well-compensated staff? Smart owners know
this and consequently are busy filling tables and selling wine to
a high percentage of those tables.
Besides learning that reasonable profits will
lead to strong sales volume, the other area where restaurants most
often need improvement is staff training. It is very disconcerting
and time-wasting for the server to have to leave the patrons and find
a manager or bartender in order to answer simple questions about the
At minimum, the servers should be familiar
with the wines offered by the glass, the types and brands and be able
to provide a basic description of how they taste. It also helps a
great deal if the servers enjoy wine themselves; there no requirement
for them to be expert, just enthusiastic.
A reasonable frequency for training
would be regular monthly sessions. Each meeting should include a basic
lesson on a particular appellation and grape variety and include wines
to sample and compatible menu items to suggest each wine with.
THE PERFECT WINELIST
Much like the food menu, the winelist is a convenience,
a stock catalog so the dinner host isn't required to browse the actual
inventory in the pantry or the cellar (although this can be great
fun for those of us so inclined). Common wine list problems are listed
a few paragraphs back. To be successful, a wine list has some basic
considerations beside selections and prices.
An ideal winelist should be listed
in an organized way to make choosing simple, rather than a research
project. There are many schemes, but the most sensible is to divide
by color, then style -- light, heavy, off-dry, etc. -- and, within
those categories, in price order.
Considering the ambient light in
the dining room, the type font selected should be easy to read
and the point size large enough not to cause customers to compromise their vanity by reaching for reading glasses or asking for a flashlight. Readability is especially important to keep
in mind since more than half the U.S. population turned 45
Public surveys of diners indicate that
wine lists should not include food suggestions (this demeans knowledgable wine customers). However, the
great majority of diners only enjoy wine occasionally and these folks
very much appreciate one wine suggestion with each item on the
Washington Post wine columnist Ben Giliberti has some additional
thoughts in his article "$15
at Home, $30 Out: Why?"
Regarding that occasional awkward situation,
Jim Gordon makes good sense and good suggestions in How
to...Send a Bottle Back, his article
on the Wine.com site.
Restaurateurs, maitre d's, sommeliers,
dining captains, waitstaff, bartenders and other wine server-sellers
can benefit by subscribing to Restaurant
Wine, a bi-monthly newsletter that profiles successful wine programs,
reports cutting-edge trends and recommends wines by price category.
Author Ronn Weigand is the first person ever to hold the titles of
both Master of Wine and Master Sommelier.