Organizing wine dinners show customers you’re serious about wine…
and they often pay big dividends, too.
BY MICHAEL SHERER
Wine dinners have been a hot concept in restaurants for several years now. The same holds true for many retailers, who are taking advantage of the trend and organizing their own. They range from elaborate multi-course dinners featuring a selection of wines with each course to basic tastings pairing wine and food. Results are as varied as the events themselves, but retailers are discovering that wine dinners can help them achieve a number of objectives.
The concept is simple: give customers an opportunity to taste several wines paired with different foods. Using a multi-course dinner as a vehicle allows people to taste different types of wines with different types of foods. The idea is to open people’s eyes both to unfamiliar wines and new ways in which wines can be enjoyed.
“Wine in this country is part of the cocktail culture,” said John Downing, wine buyer at Hi-Time Cellars, Costa Mesa, CA. “People go to bars and order a glass of chardonnay or merlot as a cocktail. We now have so much technology to make great wine, but wine here is not part of food culture.”
Historically, wine was consumed for caloric intake as well as enjoyment. Making wine was a way to preserve and transport a perishable food crop — grapes. Wine dinners focus on wine as food, Downing suggested, putting the enjoyment and understanding of wine back in context.
Creating informed customers is just one outcome. Wine dinners offer several other potential benefits, from attracting new customers to increased wine sales.
Organizing a wine dinner is fairly straightforward. Take the time to plan carefully, though, so it’s an effective use of your time and resources.
Decide what you want to get out of a wine dinner and what you can realistically expect. State law may prevent you from selling or taking orders at the event, for example, but there are other benefits.
* Create Awareness
Wine dinners can raise your visibility, letting people know about your store and your wine program. In its first year of operation, The Wine List, Hyannis, MA, organized five wine dinners, and hopes to do more this year.
“One of the main reasons was to promote ourselves with people who go to restaurants,” said Jackie Kantrowitz, co-owner and general manager. “They’re not so much for immediate financial gain as long-term exposure, to make more people aware of who we are.”
* Attract New Customers
By teaming up with a restaurant in the community, you can appeal to a wider base of potential customers. Done right, both you and the restaurant will gain new customers.
“There are always people at our dinners who aren’t my customers,” said Frank Pagliano, owner, Frank’s Union Wine Mart, Wilmington, DE. “Our groupies bring along friends. Whether people order wine or not, if I see a new face, I’ve made out.”
* Reward Loyal Customers
“Public relations is the number-one reason we do wine dinners,” said Walter Ktroba, director of wine, Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, Elizabeth, N.J. “It’s an enjoyable evening for our customers.”
Since most retailers make no money on the dinners themselves, many see it as an opportunity to do something extra for their customers.
“We do them almost exclusively for the benefit of our customers,” said Jeff Vignaux, general manager, Prestige Wine & Spirits, Orchard Park, NY. “People who come are usually from our list, so we see them more as a way to reward our loyal customers.”
Wine dinners give you the perfect opportunity to tell your customers more about wines — how they’re made, why they have a particular taste, what foods they go well with, and much more.
“We started the Bacchus Wine Society 30 years ago to educate people about wine,” said Dan Manning, vice president, Haskell’s, Minnetonka, MN. “It now has about 1,800 members, and we do 12 functions a year. Eight of those are wine dinners with local restaurants.”
* Incremental Sales
In states that allow retailers to take orders or sell wine at wine dinners, the incremental business can add up. Wine dinners can be a good way to move a special wine or introduce a new one.
“We had dinners more as a promotion in the beginning to let customers know we were serious about food and wine,” Pagliano said. “They’re a big part of our business now.”
Give yourself enough time to plan and promote the event. Two months is usually enough, giving you a month to organize and a month to publicize. Smaller events may be organized in as little as a month in advance, but many retailers plan schedules much earlier to include a listing of events in catalogs.
Haskell’s plans the schedule for the Bacchus Wine Society six months in advance. Pagliano sets up some events a year ahead.
* Create A Theme
Customers are likely to get more out of an event that has some method to its madness. Themes give events cohesiveness and a way to make each dinner different from ones you’ve done before. A few suggestions:
- Single producer. Focusing on a single winery can show customers how different wines can be from the same producer. It may also give you a chance to promote a producer’s lesser-known wines.
- This approach also gives you the option of holding the dinner at the winery, if it’s local, or asking the winemaker to attend the dinner and talk about the wines.
- Wine style. A dinner featuring a specific type of wine or varietal can show customers how different the same style can be from one winery to another, or even from the same producer. One of Haskell’s most successful wine dinners recently featured six champagnes, all from the same producer. Other retailers have featured Bordeaux, new Beaujolais, and many other varietals.
- Regional wines. Building a dinner around wines from a particular region also can be very effective. Gary’s Wine & Marketplace often takes a regional approach for seasonal dinners, featuring Alsace wines in the spring, for example, or Rhone wines at a winter dinner featuring game.
PJs, in New York City, prides itself on its portfolio of Spanish wines, and tries to incorporate them into three or four tastings each year in addition to others like its burgundy dinner with Clive Coats in March and a Bordeaux dinner scheduled this spring.
- Focus on food. Since the point is to show how well wines go with certain foods, sometimes it’s fun to choose the style of food first, then select the wines. Pagliano has come up with ideas like a farmer’s dinner with organic products, including wine; a crab fest featuring New Zealand wines; and an heirloom tomato dinner with Zinfandel. A lobster dinner is planned for this summer.
A recent dinner hosted by Prestige Wine & Spirits was held at a restaurant specializing in Pacific Rim cuisine. The menu was paired with wines from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Successful wine dinners hosted by Haskell’s recently have been held at seafood restaurants, with wines selected to complement different shellfish and finfish.
Select The Venue
Once you have an idea for the theme and the wines you want to feature, it’s time to pick a place to hold your dinner. Logical choices are local restaurants that have good food and are reasonably knowledgeable about wine. Other options include dinner at a local winery, or catering an event at some other location. The owner of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, Gary Fisch, has even hosted small winemaker dinners in his own home.
When choosing a restaurant, finding one that prepares food suited to the wines you’re promoting is just the first step.
“Some restaurants are better than others at executing wine dinners,” Ktroba warned. “Wine service and timing are key. For a trouble-free evening, work with restaurants you know.”
Introducing your customers to a new restaurant in the area can be exciting, too. Be sure to eat there first to evaluate the food and service before you book an event.
Work with the chef to develop a menu. Many retailers give the chef either descriptions or samples of the featured wines and a price range, and let the chefs develop the menu.
“Chefs want to put their best foot forward,” said Manning. “Wine dinners are a chance for them to show off.”
Arrange For A Speaker
Educating customers always should be a key objective. Having a winemaker or winery rep on hand to talk about the wines being served also can be a draw.
If you are featuring wines from a country or region, the importer or a wholesaler rep may be able to speak. Sometimes the restaurateur or chef is an expert. In many cases, someone on your own staff knows enough about featured wines to speak at a dinner.
“The closer you can get to the source, the better,” said Downing. “Producers can validate what we’ve been saying about their wines and give customers a much deeper understanding of their wines and their philosophy.”
Give presentations early in the evening and keep them relatively short. Make them as lively and entertaining as possible so customers see them as part of the evening’s entertainment and not something to suffer through before they get to a good meal. Keep comments about individual wines served with each course brief.
“We always have someone do an initial presentation,” Manning said, “but it’s harder to hold people’s attention as the evening goes on.”
Give Customers A Reminder
Provide some sort of keepsake at the event itself that customers can take home with them. At a minimum, most retailers provide printed menu cards listing the featured wines. Many also provide tasting notes or a little booklet in which people can jot down their own tasting notes. Other ideas include making copies of the labels or providing information on the winery. Many wineries have press materials for this purpose.
Haskell’s sometimes offers door prizes. Placemats are marked at random, and at the end of the evening, customers with marked placemats receive small gifts like corkscrews provided by the winery or a wholesaler.
At wine dinners hosted by Frank’s Union Wine Mart, customers can sometimes win gifts like wine bags or corkscrews by answering a quiz at the end of the evening. Occasionally, distributors will provide large bottles (magnums or jeroboams) for a raffle drawing
Promote Featured Wines
Though you may not be able to sell wine at the dinner or take orders, you can offer customers incentives to purchase featured items.
Haskell’s, which can’t sell at events, offers a special “Bacchus” price good for one week after each event. The stores usually sell up to a dozen cases of each featured wine as a result.
The Wine List, which can take orders but not sell, offers a discounted price at wine dinners of 10% off for each bottle, 15% off on six bottles and 20% off on a case.
Frank’s Union Wine Mart usually offers 20% off at wine dinners — more for a mixed case of all six wines.
Price It Fairly
Most retailers leave it up to the restaurants they work with to set the price of a wine dinner. But it’s best to give chefs a ballpark figure of the final cost to consumers.
Typical wine dinners range in price anywhere from $50 to $250 per person depending on the menu and the wines being served. Often, a supplier or distributor will provide the wine for free or at cost, which can either reduce the cost for customers or give the restaurant a little more room to be inventive.
For a special event like a wine dinner, $50 to $75 is a good range, and very acceptable to most customers. The more special the occasion or the wines, the more likely people will pay substantially higher prices to attend.
Frank’s Union Wine Mart hosted 118 wine dinners last year, with a few priced in the upper range. One was at Philadelphia’s famed Le Bec Fin restaurant at $200 per person. At another, costing $250 per person, the featured winemaker was a big enough draw that several people flew in for the event in private jets.
To broaden the appeal and attract more customers, several retailers have begun hosting tastings instead of more formal dinners. These events usually feature several tables or “stations” where customers can sample different wine and food combinations.
These tastings range from relatively simple, with perhaps a dozen wines and food such as cheese and crackers and hors d’oeuvres to elaborate tastings with 50 or more wines and a variety of menu items, even multi-course dinners. Prices vary from $15 on up, depending on what’s offered.
“I have vendors come in and set up shop on a Friday night,” said Chip Cassidy, wine buyer at Crown Wine & Spirits, Ft. Lauderdale, FL. “We’ll taste as many as 50 wines and serve cheeses, pates, olives and pasta. We’ll attract as many as 1,000 people. We get beautiful women in here and guys know that. It’s better than going to a bar.”
The chain also hosts an annual charity wine tasting aboard a cruise ship, tasting as many as 125 wines and pairing them with food like veal chops and mushrooms or pasta and shrimp. Customers pay $75 to attend, $50 of which goes to charity.
Wine and food are meant for each other. The more you can help your customers taste wine in the context of food, the more wine you’re likely to sell. Wine dinners are a great way to give your customers that education and you some incremental sales.
Publicize The Event
Start publicizing the dinner at least three or four weeks ahead of time. Even if you want only a dozen people to sign up, spread the news as far and wide as you can to let people know about your program. Some of the ways in which retailers notify the public about upcoming events include:
- E-mail letters
- Website announcements
- Catalog mailings
- In-store signage/handouts
- Local newspaper event calendar listings
- Newspaper advertising
- Local radio advertising
- Phone calls
Frank’s Union Wine Mart sometimes has an in-store tasting of featured wines the weekend before a wine dinner to promote the event. Restaurants the store works with also often put out menu cards with the featured wines on their tables in advance of the dinner.
Here’s a sample menu from a wine dinner hosted by Frank’s Union Wine Mart, Wilmington, DE, last year. The menu was developed by Georges Perrier, executive chef of Le Bec Fin, Philadelphia. The speaker at the event was Veronica Barclay, marketing partner of Pessagno Winery, Monterey, CA.
JanKris Almond Sparkling Wine $14.99
Saffron Pasta, Sweet Peas, Veal Trotter & Lobster Pates
Pessagno Central Avenue Pinot Noir $29.99
Oil Poached Salmon, Wild Mushroom
& Red Wine Reduction
Pessagno Spring Grove Vineyard
Pinot Noir $34.99
Rack & Sirloin of Lamb, Fennel & Potato Compote,
Pessagno Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay $34.99
Pessagno Gary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir $69.99
Hand Selected Aged Cheeses
Pessagno Monterey Zinfandel $24.99
Tomato & Strawberry Gazpacho with
Tarragon Ice Cream
Pessagno Monterey Port $39.99