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02.2006

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: David Singer

AS IN MOST INDUSTRIES, wine has a list of the usual suspects. Inevitably, in almost every wine store or restaurant they show up, and consumers are drawn to them. To a degree it's hard to blame the wine buyer for this when these labels have so much positive force behind them. The first, and to some the most important, factor is the level of marketing by the producer or the importer. Multi-million dollar campaigns from top marketing companies take a great deal of the difficulty out of the sale, convincing their target market that the wine is good and that they, the consumer, should try it. They are doing our work for us, so why shouldn't we, as wine professionals, be happy about this? I will even admit that a campaign picturing a very attractive mermaid with a come hither look over her shoulder caught my eye. I won't name the wine, but I'll give you a hint: her tail wasn't the usual green. Then there is the price factor. Oftentimes, these wines have very attractive pricing. If they aren't the lowest, they certainly can be with 5 and 1O case drops. The best scenario here is if you are lucky enough to be targeted as one of the locations that their product must be in. Pricing, promotional product and events now are at your beck and call.

So what's the down side of buying and selling wines with significant corporate backing behind them? The first is the pervasiveness of the product, which works against you if the consumer remembers its price in a venue other than your own. This can be especially hard on restaurants, but also affects retail shops. The consumer thinks, "Why should I pay $3O for this wine in a restaurant when I can buy it down the street at my wine shop for $15?" Or, "How can you as a wine store charge $15 for this wine? That's outrageous, I'll buy it at my supermarket for $11." This is an age-old argument that should be avoided whenever possible. Dare I say that this is one of the exceptions to the customer-is-always-right rule. There are legitimate reasons for different prices on the same wine in different venues; however you'll never win this argument, not where it counts.

Another downside is the possibility of poor food and wine pairings. This could affect the cuisine of a particular restaurant or pop up in one season across restaurants. The cuisine of a restaurant may be the direct opposite of the wines being offered. The food is great, the wine with the well-known name is good, then the two are mixed and disaster happens. One day, perhaps, the majority of our clientele will have a greater understanding of food and wine and will know that the food before them can be wonderful and the wine outstanding, but shouldn't necessarily be taken together. Alas this day has not arrived. Because the consumer knows the wine as a good one, the food gets the blame and the customer doesn't return. Unfortunately, I have seen a number of restaurants where the fare of the house and the wine program have nothing, or at best very little, in common with one another. This seems to occur most often with a list of the usual suspects, where the restaurateur is relying more on well-known wines than true wine expertise to build a wine list.

What is the alternative to popular, corporate-backed brands? Actively seeking quality labels that are only on-premise for restaurants or off-premise wines that don't have 2O case drops in supermarkets. I won't sugar coat it, there is work involved to achieve this. Fortunately it's a lot of fun at times - it requires research, which requires tasting a lot of wine.

If you invest in finding these wines, it opens two key advantages for you, the wine buyer. First, now that you have a label that is unknown or relatively exclusive, what you charge for the wine is a smaller component of being competitive. This is not advocating for price gouging, but rather for building educated buying. That aforementioned bottle that the consumer was complaining about at $3O because it's cheaper at a store can be listed at $35 without complaint if the quality of the wine supports such a price. Your beverage cost has decreased while the potential for client loyalty grounded in a great wine experience has dramatically increased. Second, although the multimillion-dollar ad campaign is no longer a factor working in your favor, your staff becomes a valuable asset. Because they are educated about this particular wine and your menu, what cuisine it works with is now a unique element in your establishment. The more reasons you give your client to walk in your door, the more reasons you'll see them return. And that is the kind of popularity we are all after.

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