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Whining and Dining ...complaints, considerations and solutions...

It is quite likely that a restaurant dining experience may be the most common introductory portal consumers enter to the pleasures of fine wine. Once one's preference for wine has been established and knowledge of wine begins to accumulate, however, the bloom is off the rosé and attempting to enjoy wine in restaurants can be exasperatingly thorny.

Wine consumers regularly complain about wine service in restaurants, more often than not. They complain about being gouged by highly inflated wine prices. They object to wine lists with limited selection choices or that have incomplete information, are poorly organized, use small type, or are otherwise difficult to read. They complain about poor wine service, specifically about servers without wine knowledge, who can neither recommend wine nor even answer simple questions about what brand of Chardonnay is offered by-the-glass or what wine from the list is driest. They object to glassware that seems selected primarily to endure rough handling, rather than to enhance the wine. They complain when reds are served tepid and whites icy. Do these complaints and objections have legitimacy? Does anyone listen?

Owning a restaurant is a high-risk, often low-margin venture and operating one is a constantly demanding, intermittently frantic-paced, and frequently unforgiving pursuit. Restaurants come and go with regularity in most cities and resort areas.

Restaurateurs must carry a substantial inventory of perishable goods that are highly susceptible to waste and theft. They spend many hours of preparation and cleanup for each hour they serve meals. Employee turnover is among the highest of any industry.

Diners can be impatient, rude and demanding and tend to have short, silent memories when it comes to pleasant surprises in food and service, but long, loud, and unforgiving ones when expectations, even minor ones, are not met.

Customers may take offense at "rules" enacted to prevent abuses, such as a minimum charge per table, gratuities calculated automatically for large parties, charges to credit cards for "no show" reservations, or a "plating" charge for splitting an entrée. These tariffs are all results of real costs to the establishment caused by a very few inept, discourteous diners that must otherwise be covered by higher overall prices to every customer. Some restaurants depend upon high customer turnover to make profit and may even resort to decorating shemes that ensure no diner lingers too long, such as bright lighting or uncomfortable and crowded seating.

On the other hand, most Restaurateurs love their work. They are a breed that is part artist, part businessman, and part performer. They often reap as much satisfaction from the act of creating as they do from earning profit and praise. The trick is in managing to produce a blend of all three that can attract a steady supply of customers. The successful among them recognize that a memorable fine dining experience includes quality food and beverage enhanced by ambiance provided by flattering lighting, soothing music, comfortable chairs, etc.

"Professional" dining critics may extol a dining establishment's virtues as well as expose weaknesses ... in public, in print, and without warning! Even a favorable review can turn out badly for the establishment caught off guard and unprepared, without enough food and staff to handle a curious public response. How often does a newspaper review a furniture store, a medical office, a supermarket, or a stock brokerage? It is certainly not a possibility that threatens these businesses weekly.

The number one consumer complaint about wine in restaurants is price gouging. This is a problem that is half perception and half reality.

Think about it: whether the marquee says McDonald's or Maxim's, the beverages offered have high markup. Although diners complain about wine prices, soda pop, coffee, and iced tea are far more inflated. A McDonald's 24-ounce Coke sells for US$1.49 -- the entire ingredients, cup, lid, and straw cost under US25¢ -- that's very nearly a 600% markup.

Wine consumers are spoiled by the relatively low markup on retail wine, such that, outside major cities, independent shops exclusively dealing wine are practically nonexistent, unable to profit enough to sustain their owners. A bottle that wholesales for US$10, for example, might be found selling for US$14 retail. If that same wine is offered at US$30 on a winelist, it would probably raise some hackles. But if that same wine were served at McDonald's, using their beverage economics, it would be US$60!!!

Some restaurateurs lack a personal appreciation for wine, take a cynical view of those who do and have a "sucker born every minute" attitude toward quality and profit. It is easy to spot their symptoms by their wine lists: domination by only two or three brands; lack of any familiar brand names; failure to list vintages and appellations; "house wines" listed only by type with no mention of producer. Regular fine wine consumers simply avoid these places.

A far more pervasive problem is that even honest restaurateurs fail to comprehend that profits are measured in dollars, not percentages. Hospitality School theories of keeping Pouring Costs under 20% are ancient history. Restaurateurs using this theory fail to realize that high wine prices have contrary effect to making profit, because high prices retard overall sales.

All restaurant profits are not created equally. Wine requires the least preparation of any commodity of fine dining. There is very little spoilage or waste, since distributors or producers will normally take care of replacing off-condition bottles.

Surveys strongly suggest that, as a category, wine drinkers are the most frequent diners and also the most generous tippers. Logic follows that the most frequent diners would also be the most likely group to talk about and recommend dining establishments.

There are always those dinner hosts who are most interested in making an impression on their guests and willing to pay the toll for the highest-price cabernet or chardonnay in the house, rather than learn enough about wine to search the list for the best-tasting wine for the food ordered. It is easy enough to accommodate show-off diners by stocking a few bottles of trophy wine.

Instead of trying to make $100 by selling wine to 10% of the tables, why not make $100 by selling wine to 50% of the tables and earn the tangible bonuses of a word-of-mouth "buzz" from the customers and a well-compensated staff? Smart owners know this and consequently are busy filling tables and selling wine to a high percentage of those tables.

Besides learning that reasonable profits will lead to strong sales volume, the other area where restaurants most often need improvement is staff training. It is very disconcerting and time-wasting for the server to have to leave the patrons and find a manager or bartender in order to answer simple questions about the selections.

At minimum, the servers should be familiar with the wines offered by the glass, the types and brands and be able to provide a basic description of how they taste. It also helps a great deal if the servers enjoy wine themselves; there no requirement for them to be expert, just enthusiastic.

A reasonable frequency for training would be regular monthly sessions. Each meeting should include a basic lesson on a particular appellation and grape variety and include wines to sample and compatible menu items to suggest each wine with.

Much like the food menu, the winelist is a convenience, a stock catalog so the dinner host isn't required to browse the actual inventory in the pantry or the cellar (although this can be great fun for those of us so inclined). Common wine list problems are listed a few paragraphs back. To be successful, a wine list has some basic considerations beside selections and prices.

An ideal winelist should be listed in an organized way to make choosing simple, rather than a research project. There are many schemes, but the most sensible is to divide by color, then style -- light, heavy, off-dry, etc. -- and, within those categories, in price order.

Considering the ambient light in the dining room, the type font selected should be easy to read and the point size large enough not to cause customers to compromise their vanity by reaching for reading glasses or asking for a flashlight. Readability is especially important to keep in mind since more than half the U.S. population turned 45 by 2007.

Public surveys of diners indicate that wine lists should not include food suggestions (this demeans knowledgable wine customers). However, the great majority of diners only enjoy wine occasionally and these folks very much appreciate one wine suggestion with each item on the food menu.

Jim LaMar


Washington Post wine columnist Ben Giliberti has some additional thoughts in his article "
$15 at Home, $30 Out: Why?"

Regarding that occasional awkward situation, Jim Gordon makes good sense and good suggestions in How to...Send a Bottle Back, his article on the site.

Restaurateurs, maitre d's, sommeliers, dining captains, waitstaff, bartenders and other wine server-sellers can benefit by subscribing to Restaurant Wine, a bi-monthly newsletter that profiles successful wine programs, reports cutting-edge trends and recommends wines by price category. Author Ronn Weigand is the first person ever to hold the titles of both Master of Wine and Master Sommelier.





Article written October, 2001; updated May 10, 2018
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All rights reserved under the DMCA of 1998. © by Jim LaMar.