What was Dennis Fenrick thinking? In a challenging economy, he’s opened a wine-focused restaurant, called Syrah, on a desolate stretch of Highway 57 north of Green Bay, with only a BP station and a Subway across the road for company. And he’s doing well, with repeat customers and favorable reviews on consumer sites like Yelp and Facebook.
Wine-savvy restaurants are capturing more dollars per table as customers enjoy ordering a glass or bottle with dinner. Restaurant owners who aren’t paying attention to their wine service are missing out on revenue, tips and repeat business from clients who have come to expect a good wine experience with their food.
Given that tourism is a $12 billion business in Wisconsin, you’d think that restaurants would know how to sell wine. Many servers don’t have a clue, and even bartenders in good restaurants claim total ignorance of the wines being offered. This not only loses restaurants money, it reduces Wisconsin’s appeal to tourists who expect competent service.
Fenrick, who has run small restaurants and most recently food services at Lambeau Field, lives on Green Bay’s East Side. He couldn’t find any restaurant within a comfortable distance, so he opened one. Now he is drawing area residents who have also been looking for an attractive restaurant with good wines.
“Wine is one of the funnest parts of the restaurant business,” says Fenrick. “The culture is changing with all the cooking shows on TV, so people are getting more adventurous with their wine.” The restaurant carries about 20 wines by the glass. In addition to providing a theme and a name, Fenrick figures that by going with wine and beer, he saved $30,000 in opening costs compared to the bill he would have faced for a full bar license and inventory.
“The majority of our clients are 35 to 55. We have some who are disturbed they can’t get an Old Fashioned; some stay, some don’t. It’s not a deal breaker.”
Although the vista from the highway may not be lit up with house lights on a winter’s night, the communities of Dyckesville, Brussels, Casco and Luxemburg are nearby.
Syrah shows that good wine restaurants can do well even in unfamiliar locations.
Jill Bassett has run Plae Bistro for five years. Customers who have given her high ratings online also complain that their GPS couldn’t find the place, which is tucked into the Development Drive complex southwest of the Hwy. 172 and GV intersection just west of U.S. 43. She thinks a good selection of wines by the glass is a key part of her draw.
“A lot of restaurants which I consider my competition serve house wine or one or two glasses from their list by the glass because they want that bottle sale. They are missing out on people who don’t want a whole bottle. When I go out with my husband, I want white and he drinks red. Having a good selection of wines by the glass can determine where we go.”
Kohler Resorts in Sheboygan has the most ambitious wine program in the New North, from the Horse and Plow pub with a decent selection, to the resort’s top restaurant, The Immigrant, which has 500 wines to choose from. Every autumn, the resort offers the Kohler Food & Wine Experience.
“We look at wine as a key part of all our guest experiences anywhere in the resorts,” says Teo Zagroba, beverage manager for The American Club Resort.
What does it take to get wine right?
Educating the staff, says Zagroba. Kohler devotes a week at the end of March into April on training the staff, a task which gets easier each year because many have been with the resort for several seasons.
“We provide them with the tools to sell the product and increase their gratuity. You would figure the connection is logical, but some people don’t realize it,” he adds. The resort works with Wirtz Beverage Wisconsin which helps him and the wine steward build their lists.
Ambitious wine restaurants put a lot of effort into selecting the wines, usually tasting and approving each wine before it goes on the wine list, and checking again with each new vintage.
At Chives, in Suamico’s Vickery Village, Chef-Owner J.R. Schoenfeld says all his servers taste. To keep customers coming back, he is strict about his list. The key is researching and tasting to find good wines, since many wineries are better at marketing their wines than at delivering quality.
“We want to offer wines that aren’t available in grocery stores. We taste, find out from our guests what they like and keep track of it, since sales evolve.”
Bassett at Plae Bistro has at least two staffers taste wines with her – she gets more opinions and they learn about tasting and the wines that are going on the list.
Union Hotel decided it wanted to be known for the best wine list in the area, says McKim Boyd, co-owner of a family business. He updates the list as tastes change, such as the evolution from merlot to zinfandel to Malbecs. The hotel offers 45 wines by the half bottle, which works well for the traveling business person or for couples where one likes white and the other prefers red.
The wine experience
Wine restaurants create an experience around the wine service, although disagreement on what constitutes an elegant wine experience starts with the wine list.
At Chives, which has an extensive selection wine list priced from $28 to $235 a bottle, only the name, the region, the vintage and the price are on the list. Schoenfeld leaves responsibility for providing advice to the server.
“The last thing a server wants is to give someone a wine they don’t like.”
Plae Bistro’s Bassett believes in printed menus and wine lists – no servers rattling off lists of specials or describing wines verbally for her restaurant.
“Customers can’t follow a server reeling off a list of specials, especially if there is a group. In big groups, no one is listening to you anyway.”
With its 500-plus wines, The Immigrant at Kohler offers the name, region, vintage and the numerical ratings from the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate – it doesn’t offer wines that haven’t been rated at least 88 by one of those two leading wine publications.
Only for the grand tasting menu does it offer a wine pairing explained for each course on the menu.
Door Peninsula Winery in Carlsville, part of a group which includes the Cooper’s Corner restaurant in Fish Creek, decided last year to suggest wine and food pairings on its menu, even if that looked a little like Olive Garden.
“Duh! Why not before?” asks Jaime Forest, director of marketing at the winery. They also train their servers in how to suggest wines which will go well with the meal customers are ordering. The printed suggestions help compensate for staff turnover during the season.
Servers are the link – and often a weak one – between customers and wine sales. The good wine restaurants put a lot of effort into educating servers, tasting with them, and reminding them that wine sales can add $50 to $100 to their tips over the course of a week.
At Plae Bistro in Green Bay, Bassett thinks education is critical.
“If the servers don’t know anything about the wine, they are not going to sell it.” She offers information on two fronts: a description on the wine list and informed wait staff.
“If someone from Green Bay is going to spend $9 on a glass of wine, they want to know more about it – oak, fruit, wood – before they spend that kind of money. The more you describe the wine, the more it sells.”
She also offers flights of wines – four two-ounce pours so customers can sample before they spend $8 or $9 on a glass.
“It never fails, we sell at least one of those glasses.”
Judd Adelman, district manager for Wirtz Beverage Wisconsin, says servers don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge.
“When I train, I tell servers they don’t need to know everything about the wine, but if they know two things they can put the customer at ease. If you can tell customers that the Chardonnay is great, has a nice hint of oak and comes from the Russian River Valley, you are reaffirming that they made a good choice.”
In the absence of deep knowledge, charm often works, Adelman adds. At one restaurant he supplies to, the servers are not terribly knowledgeable about wine. “But the enthusiasm they bring to the table makes customers want to buy whatever they are showing. They often have sold large format bottles – magnums. If you take that $40 sale up to an $80 sale a few times a night, you can make an extra $20 or $30.”
As a salesman for the Madison-based distributor Left Bank, John Verbeten makes education part of his job.
“My company is very big on sampling. I pour for people at the restaurant, tell them the story, let them taste and talk to them about the wine so they turn around and talk knowledgeably about it.”
“People who are wine-interested, life-interested, will make more money because they are interested to talk about it.”
Shel Kidd, a wine consultant in Sheboygan who does restaurant training, says it is vital to show servers how to present a bottle of wine, open it smoothly and pour.
At Appleton’s Red & White wine bar, which serves a modest food menu, servers aren’t allowed to serve wine until they have been certified. Scott Roekle, director of operations for the group which runs the wine bar and the Fratellos restaurants, says the group’s restaurants hold shift meetings before each service to review menu and wine options.
He thinks serving a bottle of wine to a table should lend a combination of elegance and sexiness to the evening.
‘It needs a little pizzazz, a little dance that comes with extracting the cork, presenting it and pouring it appropriately.”