Understand Your Clients' Preferences Before Selecting Your Wine List
By Juan Carlos Flores, Executive Sommelier, Pueblo Bonito Hotels Resorts & Spas
It is not always necessary to have an extremely large selection of wines to have a successful business and happy clients. Do you recall how many wines were on the last wine list you read? Did you read them all? As a wine client, was it really important to you to sort through an enormously lengthy wine list before selecting the one you would order?
For most people, it is not. In the last five years I have lost many dinner partners because of my passion for reading and asking about everything on the menus and wine lists. Sometimes menus-and especially the wine selections-are so extensive that they can be painful for our dinner companions. Certainly, those of us in the food & beverage business are fascinated with seeing creative new ideas and new information, but it can be exhausting for the layman who just wants to enjoy a good meal, complemented by a nice bottle of wine, without spending thirty minutes on the selection.
Most of us have heard of restaurants that offer a selection of 1,500 or more different wines. Imagine the time and attention needed to read such a list-and then to remember what was read, even among just the first fifty wines on the list! Only a wine expert would consider that fun. For me, a sommelier with a passion for all aspects of wine, it is fun. But for someone who loves drinking wine but has no desire to actually study it, it's more likely to seem complicated, boring or scary.
I recall how impressed I was when I began visiting restaurants with large wine lists, and especially the first time I visited a really serious wine cellar. It was the Soci'et'e des Bains de Mer (SBM )wine cellar, which supplies four of the best luxury hotels in Monaco and has more than 400, 000 bottles, all separated by regions-of course most of them from France. I was not a sommelier then, and I knew that they must have someone in the restaurant to explain all that wine. Actually, they average three to four sommeliers in each restaurant, some even at mid-day for lunch service, and therein lies one of the problems in selling a large number of different wines. You must have well-qualified people to explain the wines and guide the clients; it's not easy to find such people, and it is expensive to pay them.
I was so excited by this experience inside that humid, softly lit place, smelling the history and the wet earth that I decided to study wine and become one of those men in a black suit with a "taste vin" hanging around his neck. When I received my sommelier's diploma, I wanted to work in the best places with the best and largest wine lists that I could find. I had the opportunity to do so with No"el Bajor, Chef Sommelier at Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, and David Biraud, Chef Sommelier at L'Hotel de Crillon in Paris. I was crazy about the wine lists and the prestige they added to the restaurant.
Three years later, after these rather elegant experiences in Europe, I had the opportunity to visit Las Vegas and discover a completely different concept that doesn't require four sommeliers-just one and a very nice notebook pad that serves as a wine list and gives you as much guidance as you need. You simply touch the screen, selecting country or origin and the type of wine, and it even gives recommendations for food pairing. It is very effective and so much fun that you forget dinner. To top it off, once you select the bottle you want to drink, a beautiful young lady is pulled up by a cable along a forty-two foot tower where all the 9,865 bottles are stored and she brings down your bottle. This was very different from the Europeans' conservative service but very impressive in a different way.
By the time I finished dinner in that restaurant I was convinced that I wanted to have my own restaurant with the largest and most spectacular wine selection ever, and of course with the best chef and the best view of the city. What I actually ended up doing was working as a distributor in Los Cabos, Baja California, Mexico, recommending my company's wines in every hotel, restaurant and country club in the area. I started by just offering various brands, but soon I was helping food and beverage managers who became my friends to structure their wine lists, and also training their people in the restaurants on how to give better service. Some of the hotels really cared about their chef's style of cuisine, others cared more about having expensive wines with famous names on their wine lists, and others simply wanted cheap wine to sell at expensive prices in order to make more money. I can't judge whether any one of those formulas was the correct one. Basically, what we proved is that a mix of them is what gives the best results.
At this same time, new international chefs were arriving in Los Cabos with new ideas and creative menus that needed wine to enhance the gastronomical experience. As a result, many interesting wine lists began to be created, and competition grew among the food and beverage managers to prove who possessed the best. The problem then arose that the notion of what was best became correlated with quantity, and even the smallest hotels and restaurants with any pretense to fine cuisine were in the game, ending with many costly bottles in their "cellars" that were never sold. Later, many of these restaurants came to understand that simply because another nearby restaurant (which had the advantage of offering great cuisine, correct equipment and good service) was selling a 100-dollar a bottle wine, it did not mean that they could do so too.
After working with a large number of people and learning from their experiences, there was one more project I wanted to accomplish. It was my dream to create the best cellar in Baja California, without hiding the fact that my real intention was to create the best in the country. My motivation stemmed from my experience with the Soci'et'e des Bains de Mer cellar I mentioned earlier, which supplies wine to four of the best hotels Monaco. Why not do the same thing in Los Cabos by centralizing the buys of different hotels and thus getting better prices? That is the basis for having great wine lists with a good quality to price ratio for restaurant clients. So I followed that dream and began working with Pueblo Bonito Hotels & Resorts, which owns seven hotels, four of them in Cabo San Lucas, and the company is still growing.
Whereas before I was thinking about having my own restaurant, training my staff and creating my own wine list, I now have at least two restaurants per hotel to consider. As for teaching, in the process of instructing others, I also gained valuable knowledge and experience. It quickly became clear to me that even in the same family of hotels, each restaurant has its own personality. Even if the restaurants' clients are more or less similar, they do not feel the same way in one restaurant as they do in another, nor do they consume in the same manner. It is important to understand where your clients come from, not just the country, but also the region and area, because the clients' habits heavily influence their decisions about what are they going to consume.
What comprises a successful wine list is ruled by the clients' manner of thinking, culture, religion-even the weather, as well as how the restaurant is perceived in terms of ambiance, seating, prices, food and service. If you don't have the capital to construct outstanding wine selections that offer some of everything, let your clients guide you. Change the wines that do not move and offer your clients more of what they know and prefer as well as what is in vogue at the moment. You will have better results in rotating your inventory, spending less money and making more profit. If what you want is to be different and teach your clients about new grape varieties, regions and brands, be sure you are in a place where your market enjoys discovering, and be sure to have knowledgeable people working with you. If you are in a wine producing region, you will of course promote wines from the estate or area, and if you are in a large cosmopolitan area, you will have more chances to offer wines from different parts of the world.
Whatever niche you choose, it is important to be aware of your clientele and their preferences. To ensure success, we as managers should base our choices on the tastes and desires of our clients.
Juan Carlos Flores, executive sommelier with Pueblo Bonito Oceanfront Resorts and Spas, was named Mexico’s champion sommelier in 2004, and in 2005 won the Five Star Diamond Award for best North American sommelier. Mr. Flores was educated in Mexico, France and the United States and speaks fluent English, Spanish and French. As executive sommelier, he oversees the extensive wine collections of Pueblo Bonito’s seven resort hotels and numerous restaurants, provides pairing recommendations, and serves as wine advisor and instructor. Mr. Flores can be contacted at email@example.com Extended Bio...
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