Drink Pairings 101 - Wine and Craft Beer
How to Make Your Wine or Craft Beer Program Stand Out
Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky boasts one of the most envious jobs as the wine director at the Intro restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Every three months or so, she completely revamps the wine menu as Intro brings in a new chef who transforms the restaurant into his or her concept for a season.
It’s rewarding, yet challenging as she must take into account the chef’s personality, restaurant concept, menus and guest profile before she sits down to plan the wine list. There’s much to consider, from price points and dining style to whether the chef or customers prefer a particular region. It’s something that takes skill, a great palate—and patience—and it doesn’t hurt that she’s clocked in more than 20 years in the hospitality industry and has planned wine lists at restaurants she’s owned in the past.
“The most successful wine programs understand the food that’s going out, understand the audience and understand the price points,” explains Kim-Drohomyrecky. “At Intro, specifically, each chef has a different field of perspective. The consumer is something where I can gage is going to be more of a discerning audience, and the price points we mitigate based on who and what are coming in.”
That’s a lot to consider, but at some point, it must get fun, right? At some point, restaurants like New York favorites Blue Hill, Eleven Madison Park and Terrior—which were all named to the World’s Best Wine List for 2015—created, through trial and error and plenty of consumption, their very first wine lists. Each one of those venues boasts stellar relationships between front and back of the house, which is key. Get everyone on board with what you’re trying to accomplish, stresses Kim-Drohomyrecky.
She uses as an example the first chef in the series at Intro: C.J. Jacobson, a southern California-based chef specializing in cuisine and ingredients from the region. Kim-Drohomyrecky paired wines with his five-course tasting menu. Jacobson preferred wines from the southern California region, so Kim-Drohomyrecky used those, plus some wines that were “quirky and global that fit into his cuisine.” She built a list that matched the profiles of his cuisine: umami, natural and vegetables, for wines that were earthy, contained high acidity, with medium body and didn’t have too much tannin structure in them.
“His food profiles surprisingly married with a lot of Mediterranean wines,” she said. She also discovered while working with Jacobson that his menu didn’t require higher-priced wines. “It made no sense to have a $40 bottle of wine (on the menu) and then a $300 bottle of wine,” she explains. “We focused on looking for a sweet spot on our list that made sense relative to the check average. We focused on offering bottles from $40 to $125 because the (food) check average was $75 to $95.”
Kim-Drohomyrecky says that Intro’s rapidly changing concept keeps her on her toes. She’s creating food-wine pairings she’s never considered before and it helps expand her knowledge on what’s out there to consume. She’s also found that diners are likely to spend more money on wine by the bottle when they order full entrées as opposed to tasting menus with four or five courses.
“I’ve had to bulk up our wine program,” she says. “It’s the biggest it’s ever been and we’re adding to that mix—because now people are more responsive. They do a glass and then invest in a bottle because they have bigger entrées.”
Yet, she advises that restaurants aiming to make a profit off their wine programs should also consider bulking up the by-glass options. “The glass pour programs are where you try to find ways to make sure your margins are better. That’s where you try to find that sweet spot.
“The higher-end wines you take less of a markup on because you want people to be able to enjoy those and you don’t want to price yourself out of that market, but you want to have it. Your glass pour program allows you to run a 25 percent cost, which helps you with your high-end wines that you may price at a 33 percent cost, which lands you right around 27 percent (overall). That’s what you should be shooting for.”
In the end, says Kim-Drohomyrecky, it’s all about building a program that is cohesive to the food. “I have always looked at the wine program as something that as you look at your menu by the time you flip it over to the wine list, you think ‘This makes sense.’
“Like you would not put Cabernet-dominant wines into a (vegetarian-focused) restaurant. I’m working on a new sushi restaurant (Naoki Sushi) right now and I am not going to put big boy Cabs on there because it’s going to overpower the food. And the size of the (dining) room is small, so why would I have a three-page wine list? It needs to be nimble; something that can be changed quickly.”
City Winery founder Michael Dorf started off as a wine enthusiast when he opened the first location of the live music/wine restaurant/winery hybrid in New York. But along the way he focused on curating cohesive lists that made sense to him and his customers. He says he learned more about wine simply by drinking it and taking classes.
“(Right out the door) we were able to put together a fantasy list of 400 to 450 wines and had to decide how to divide it up,” recalls Dorf. “Most of the wines were from California and Oregon, and then Old World wines from France, Italy and Spain.”
But once City Winery’s winery program was up and running, Dorf found himself in a unique position not available to most wine-focused establishments. He could offer an exceptional wines-by-the-glass program because the wines he produces are about immediate drinking. Seventy-five percent of the vino City Winery produces does not go into a bottle and are instead aged from three to 18 months in oak barrels, then moved to 60-gallon stainless steel tanks. That allows them to be very efficient and environmentally friendly.
On a busy night, Dorf says, they’ll sell about 1,000 glasses of wine. “In this way, we’re saving bottles, corks. And when you put wine in the bottle you have to add extra sulfites and preservatives to prevent it from going bad. We can make wine on site, put it into stainless steel when it’s ready, and then serve it by the glass in an efficient cap system. We never have any waste. It is very eco-friendly.”
Another way to be efficient and eco-conscious, says Dorf, is to offer a tap wine program. He adds that more distributors like Silvertap Wines, Tap 26 and Vin Tap Wine are starting to provide this service. “I think you’re going to see more and more examples moving forward of tap wine as a concept.”
He also recommends checking out the Coravin system for restaurateurs looking to preserve wine inventory. It’s ideal for wines-by-the-flight or wines-by-the-glass program as a “needle” goes right through the cork, so it never sees air.
“The needle is microscopic,” he explains. “You never have to worry about the wine going bad. You can do little tastes. You never lose any air. It has a chance to revolutionize the wine industry—along with tap wines.”
For Paul Courtright, part of building a beverage menu that “has something to say” is taking part in the overall conversation in the world of wine, beer or cocktails. The industry vet previously served as the beverage director for two restaurants in Austin, Texas, and helped build and maintain their wine, beer and cocktail programs. He now works at Candid Wines, so he believes that it’s essential to interact with quality sales reps, worthwhile blogs, newsletters, books and servers.
“That not only helps put a beverage program in a larger context, but it helps drive sales by including your guests in an experience that exists within and outside your restaurant,” he explains. But part of that experience should not be overly verbose menus, Courtright says. He prefers that the beverage menu mirrors the food menu in terms of categorization and description.
“In my opinion, the best way to include the guest in the overall experience of the restaurant is to make sure that your staff has the training to actually have a conversation with the guest. Confident servers who can answer questions thoughtfully rather than reciting a script put the guest at ease. In the end, it’s less about educating the guests than it is including them in the dialogue to whatever degree they wish and having that be a part of their experience.”