Peter Vargas, Assistant Manager and Sommelier of Mountain Lake, offers advice on how to build wine lists that support the culinary program and engage members.
Beverage and wine programs can be tricky to deal with. You have to make sure what you put on your cocktail and wine list makes sense to the group you want to attract, is in the realm of what your members are looking for, and matches with the theme of your food and beverage outlet and the locality of your club or resort.
Over the years, I’ve visited dozens of clubs that have caused me to pause and scratched my head, wondering what they are trying to achieve with their beverage menu.
This past summer, I was working with the food and beverage director of a big club in Palm Beach, Fla. I was helping develop the beverage program in one of their new restaurants. This particular outlet has an Italian theme and she wanted some insights about what they should put on the wine list and how to organize their selections.
Both of these elements are important when it comes to running a wine program that will move inventory.
You need a list that is easy to read. If it’s not easy to read, members will look at it for two minutes and then get frustrated and order a cocktail. I suggest clubs first pick a way for the wine list to read and then stick with it. The most common approach is to list items by region and then grape varietal or vise versa.
When I spoke with my friend in Palm Beach, I told her I thought the restaurant concept was great and I suggested the wine list to be very Italian-themed. I cautioned her from putting on producers or varietals that members are not familiar with as servers will not be able to speak in-depth about each wine in order to properly sell them. I instead suggested she stick with varietals members know about like Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Cab-based Super Tuscans, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Glera (Prosecco), and Moscato.
Then I suggested leaving a little room for a couple of varietals that were out of the left field and some members could try by the glass if they would like. We also had to make sure there were some other wines from different parts of the world in case members didn’t want to drink Italian wine all the time with their meal. That in itself hits the theme of the restaurant and what your members usually drink.
This brings me to the next point: Know where you are and who your members are. I hate to generalize but living in Palm Beach my whole life and seeing firsthand what the cliental is like, especially at country clubs, you would be pretty successful if you made a wine list featuring California Cabernet and Chardonnay, Some Burgundy Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a few Bordeaux Cabernet blends, Pinot Noir from California and Oregon, and Whispering Angel (not Rose, specifically Whispering Angel). I hate to be that guy, but club members in Palm Beach have made the stereotype, not me.
Club settings are simply not the place to only feature hip, cool, trendy, natural and organic wines. It’s also not the place to feature only what your wine rep tells you they want you to have. Do yourself a favor and do some research about what the membership wants to drink and make your list into something your members are excited about buying from every time they come to lunch or dinner at the club. You are going to be able to sell a lot more wine, have happier members and have a happier bottom line if you have chosen and priced your wines correctly.
The next step into bringing a wine or beverage program back to life or giving it a new pep in its step is looking to do new and exciting things. Wine dinners are always a good option for using wines in your inventory that haven’t been moving very quickly. This will help not only move the product but hopefully showcase some new varietals or regions that members aren’t familiar with and expose them to something new. If wine dinners are a “been there, done that” type of thing then think about switching up to a dinner that pairs with beers or spirits like Scotch, Whiskey, Bourbon or Tequila. You could also do a dinner that pairs with specific cocktails. Different elements of the cocktail to pair with different elements of the dish. Dessert/wine pairing dinners are always fun and different, because who doesn’t love dessert for dinner.
Sometimes thinking outside of the box is the best approach and seeing what others on your team think could get the creative juices flowing. I have done a couple of blind tasting seminars with the membership at the club I work with now and they have been very successful. Taking the tools of blind tasting taught to me from studying for exams through the Court of Master Sommeliers and bringing it to a small audience of members has been so much fun. It gets the member to really stay in the present by using their senses of sight, taste, and smell. Most of the time I turn a member on to a new varietal they would have never tried before because when you are blind tasting, you can’t have any preconceived notions about what it is so they automatically don’t like it.
Last, the one thing that members want most in every single club I have worked at or members that I have spoken to that belong to different clubs around the U.S. is knowledge. They want a staff that knows at least a little bit about wine and the menu they are presenting. They want to know that the staff knows their taste in wine and to pick out something they would enjoy without even looking at the wine. They want to talk about wine, they want to speak to someone who knows about producers, regions, and pairings. Members don’t want to have to work and make a decision at the table all the time. As an F&B supervisor, manager, or director you need to gain the knowledge and then pass it along to the staff, or better yet learn together so you can create more of a relationship with your team and everyone can understand the goal of learning about wine, beer and spirit.