Consumers have a thirst to learn about wine, and drink it too. Wine programs at hotel restaurants, bars, and lounges allow discerning guests and locals to explore varietals from countries unfamiliar to them, try organic and biodynamic options, and find approachable grapes at affordable price points. To keep business pouring in, hotels fill more glasses with the help of wine tastings, promotions, and, of course, a knowledgeable staff.
The most important initiative any property can take is to properly train its servers, says Mary Watson-DeLauder, chief sommelier for Benchmark Hospitality International. Watson-DeLauder advises that staff members should taste the wines in order to accurately describe them to customers. “If servers don’t know what they are selling,” she says, “then it a lot of times doesn’t matter what you’re selling.”
In her role, Watson-DeLauder conducts training at newly opened Benchmark properties, consults on their wine lists, and helps staff members earn wine certification. She also teaches employees not to be wine “snobs.” “Don’t ever just write something off because it may not sound like it appeals to you…until you taste something, you shouldn’t really have an opinion about it,” she says.
Emily Wines, master sommelier for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, allows the brand’s restaurants to be somewhat autonomous, but says the wine buyers must undergo training and need to choose wines that are in line with the restaurant’s concept and demographic. She educates staff members at the various properties about wine varietals and hosts “Shades of Green” training sessions with buyers to help them better understand terms like organic, biodynamic, and sustainable, and why eco-friendly wines are important.
The Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco unveiled a new wine program in July that Assistant Director of Food and Beverage Stephen Wancha says is more approachable and affordable for consumers.
He cites malbec as one such grape that has become increasingly popular over the last two years. “We target things like that at affordable price points that guests will enjoy,” he says.
Wancha says the hotel’s Seasons Restaurant worked hard to put together a wine program with a wide range of bottle prices, and also offers 28 wines by the glass from $11 to $38. “In the past, especially at properties like Four Seasons, we were able to expect guests to have disposable income to spend what they wanted on wine,” he says. “Now, it’s more of a challenge being able to pair wine for guests at any given price point.”
To make the wine list easier to navigate, the 500 labels are cataloged on iPad 2s using SmartCellar menu technology. Guests can sort by varietal, region and price, and read wine descriptions, awards, and suggested food pairings.
Many guests stay at the hotel after a visit to Napa or Sonoma, Wancha says, so the iPad menu allows them to search for a favorite they tasted on their Wine Country adventure. “That ties in nicely as well. It’s a fun platform for our guests to use,” Wancha says.
In the current economy, Watson-DeLauder finds that budget-minded travelers are more experimental in their wine selections and open to trying less familiar options at lower price points.
For instance, bonarda, which is widely grown in Argentina, is an approachable grape that’s a good alternative for a customer who wants a lighter red with a similar body as pinot noir, but for around half the price.
Unless it’s a special occasion, Watson-DeLauder says customers seldom go above the $40 or $50 mark when purchasing a bottle of wine with dinner, and she thinks properties will continue to see more wine-by-the-glass sales under $10.
Countries such as China, Moldova, Georgia, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay are producing good wines that are hitting the U.S. market at introductory price levels. “It doesn’t matter how anybody’s politics work,” she says. “When you’re getting a bargain, you’re getting a bargain.”
TASTINGS AND PROMOTIONS
With its new wine program, Seasons Restaurant implemented two promotions to increase business on slower days of the week. Complimentary corkage is available on Tuesday evenings, and on Wednesdays guests can enjoy any of the restaurant’s 50 cabernet labels at 50 percent off. “Tuesday and Wednesday are big nights to pick up covers interest in terms of city guests,” Wancha says. Thanks to the promotion, Wancha says Seasons has seen a 35 percent increase in covers on Wednesday nights, and a significant number of repeat guests.
Its wine tasting series, Seasons Swirl, has also been attracting a mix of locals and guests on select Tuesdays. The featured winemaker, or another representative from the winery, attends the event to help educate the participants as they taste their wine flights. To complement each wine varietal, hors d’oeuvres are available for a nominal fee, adding another source of revenue.
Watson-DeLauder says properties across the country are taking similar measures. “Everybody is doing whatever they can do to sell more wine,” she says. For instance, during the busy season at Landsdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va., where Watson-DeLauder was the sommelier for 15 years before her promotion in 2009, the property hosts lobby tastings on Saturday afternoons. This gives the hotel the opportunity to tie in a promotion with its restaurant, such as vouchers for half-price bottles.
Kimpton hotels are known for their nightly wine hour, at which guests can enjoy a complimentary beverage and learn about what they are drinking. “We have people pouring at the wine hour who are educated as to what the reason is for the choice and can talk about the wine,” Wines says. With the launch of Kimpton’s Wines That Care program in 2010, guests can sample wines that are handpicked for being “good stewards of the community or earth.” To prevent greenwashing, Wines says the featured winemakers must offer specific measures they have taken to be sustainable. She also selects wines that support charitable causes.
Keeping in line with Kimpton’s Earth Care program, at least 30 percent of each restaurant’s wine list features organic, biodynamic, and sustainable wines.
“One of the trends I’ve noticed, in talking to other people who work for companies like ours, is that a lot of people really like to have organic and sustainable products,” Wines says.
“Most people don’t do research on it themselves, but they trust when they go to a company that can do the research for them. That’s part of the success in places like Whole Foods.”
Some of the brand’s restaurants offer wines on tap by the glass, which reduces their carbon footprint and amount of waste. “Wineries will put wines in kegs that are refillable,” Wines explains. “It’s a way to ensure we have a fresh product offering and there are that many less bottles in the bin at the end of the night.”
The surge in eco-conscious wines happened prior to the current green movement, she says. In the 1960s and ’70s, quality wine took a dive as people started moving toward more modern methods of farming. By the late ’70s and early ’80s, producers started to realize that they were depleting the land instead of sustaining it for long-term use. A shift in mindset occurred and by the ’90s sustainable winemaking became more prevalent and farmers reverted to more traditional ways. Through use of compost and natural fertilizers, winemakers found that it resulted in a stronger plant that could withstand more problems than one coddled with chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“People’s tastes are shifting,” Wine says. “They want that flavor of something really alive and vibrant as opposed to something that just looks pretty.”