You might not love Kiwi Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio, but you can bet that your accountant does. Rebecca Gibb MW takes a look at our conflicted attitude towards the high-volume earners of the wine list
It was a damning phrase uttered at the Sommelier Wine Awards that did it. ‘New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc sells commercially and I would sell the cheapest, biggest one I could get,’ said the sommelier. ‘It would sell and sell all day.’
Diligent producers of Kiwi Sauvignon could be excused for blinking away a tear and wondering just how on earth all their efforts had come to this?
Listening to the judges, other populist styles weren’t spared: it’s clear certain wines are seen only as cash cows that pay the rent, with customers who order them often snubbed by those who sell them.
In the majority of venues around England, especially those that don’t have the services of a somm to guide customers, you’re likely to find the familiar friendly faces of Pinot Grigio, Rioja, Sancerre, Chablis, Argentinian Malbec et al.
You could argue that these lists are answering customer demand, so is that really a bad thing?
Of course, on one level, no it isn’t. But the danger comes when venues start listing these stalwarts and selling the cheapest possible irrespective of quality because they know it will sell and they can achieve massive margins. Customers buying them, they probably think to themselves, aren’t discerning anyway, so no harm is done.
You may say such a cynical viewpoint has no place in the on-trade, and you’d be right. But it’s a view that more than a few somms have openly expressed.
Neil Bruce, buyer for Fuller’s, which has 400 pubs, including a Michelin-starred venue, says: ‘Whenever I hear somms say this sort of thing, it makes me shudder. Whether consumers can actually taste the difference or not – and many can – every professional involved in the supply side has a responsibility to do the right thing by the consumer when it comes to wine selection.’
For wine professionals, it can be understandably difficult to get excited about these wine-list workhorses.
‘It’s hard to get romantic about Pinot Grigio. It doesn’t taste of anything,’ says Alex Burke of Cambridge Wine Merchants. ‘They [restaurateurs]almost resent having one. It is propping up the business, but it doesn’t give them a warm fuzzy feeling.
‘What we found was people were listing it through gritted teeth and if they had to would list a Pinot Gris or a premium Pinot Grigio, as if to say that if they’re coming into my restaurant and are not going to look at the menu, let’s buy an expensive one and charge more,’ he concludes.
Forget gritted teeth at Terroirs in London. Bar manager Steve Major pours one of the most left-of-centre wine lists in the country. Yes, it has a Chablis but he says, ‘it’s an area that deserves respect and I do not, and would never, list the cheapest, rubbish Chablis around.’
In his time working in restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne he had no qualms about charging people who didn’t want to leave the comfort of their wine safety net.
‘This is probably going to sound really shit but I don’t mind saying it. In my opinion if people want to come into a wine bar, and they don’t want to experiment and are not open minded – if all you want to drink is Sauvignon or Provence rosé – you will pay for it,’ he argues. ‘Where you are getting the best value for money is when you are spending over £50 a bottle – those wines aren’t marked up like the £6 Sauv or £6 rosé that you’ll end up paying £35 for. This is the way of the world.’
The crux of the matter comes down to one question:‘Who do you put in charge of the wine list?’ asks Miriam Spiers, sales director of Alliance Wine. ‘Are you in charge or do you just fulfil demand? These are different approaches.’
Who’s in charge?
For wine-focused venues with sommeliers and well-trained staff, it’s clear who’s in charge. Vinoteca’s director Charlie Young, explains: ‘We tend not to put Mendoza Malbec, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc or Rioja by the glass so they [our customers]are not given the choice to go for the safe option. People put their trust in you and become more willing to try things they have not had before.’
The typical customer and the style and strategy of the venue, it seems, is crucial in determining whether or not you can live without workhorses.
‘Our regular clientele who have been coming to Terroirs for years do know what they’re coming in for,’ explains Major, ‘but if someone does walk in the door and they say “you don’t have any wines I know,” that’s common. It’s an unconventional wine list with unconventional wine producers and varieties.’
With Mauzac, Poulsard and Ribolla Gialla on the menu – and no Oyster Bay in sight – this is a venue that requires a guiding hand, even for the cognoscenti. Major explains both he and his staff spend a lot of time keeping up-to-date and making sure they know their list.
There are recognisable varieties such as Chenin Blanc and Syrah providing a bit of comfort, and there is even an Argentine Malbec, albeit one that has undergone carbonic maceration.
‘If people walk in and ask “Have you got a Malbec from Argentina?” I’ll say yes and they take it and are generally happy with it,’ says Major. ‘We sell about a case a week.’
But once you leave the cosmopolitan, experimental realms of London behind such hip, minimal intervention wines often elicit a quizzical look from most customers.
At five-star hotel Rockcliffe Hall, on the outskirts of Darlington in North East England, Swedish-born sommelier Daniel Jonberger in his distinctive Scandi-Durham accent explains that his well-heeled customers still expect the classics.
With three different venues on site, the lists reflect the dining experience: the venue’s brasserie list is varietally led, including an Australian Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc by the glass. But when it comes to fine dining in The Orangery restaurant, out goes the Grigio in favour of a Friulano/Ribolla Gialla blend and some other sommelier-driven wines to add to the usual stalwarts of a fine-dining list: champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux.
The classic Old World regions are a must-have for traditional white tablecloth establishments, where diners expect to see great examples of the ‘stalwarts’, notes Bibendum’s insights team.
Tasting a flight of classic Chablis at the Sommelier Wine Awards, team leader Jade Koch, described the flight as being ‘true to its category. There were no surprises and perhaps that’s what the customer wants. They don’t want to go off-piste. That’s what they are buying into.’
Not that the list of classics is set in stone. There is always room for new workhorses to emerge. Prosecco is a relative newcomer to the list but is a huge profit driver for all styles of venue up and down the country, while Albariño listings have expanded to rural gastropubs beyond the M25.
Success for wine regions or styles brings its own set of issues, however. Francesco Vanoli of prosecco brand Ombra di Pantera, laments: ‘People will walk into a bar and say “I will have a prosecco.” It’s like saying I will have a white wine – usually, there’s a follow up with white wine [a customer will specify a variety, brand or style]but with prosecco, there’s no follow up.’
However, workhorses also produce thoroughbreds and for high-involvement consumers, the appetite to find gems within these stables seems to be insatiable.
At Cambridge Wine Merchants, Burke believes the conflict for restaurateurs and sommeliers trying to balance consumer demand with lesser-known, potentially more interesting styles, reflects the dilemma faced by many chefs.
‘You can make a fantastically interesting menu and then you can spend a lot of time banging out fish and chips or burgers,’ he says. ‘Chefs don’t like making chips so what do you do? You can either go your own way or give your customers what they want and demand.’
There’s no silver bullet solution but giving consumers what they want, while ever so gently encouraging them to move out of their comfort zone seems to be the ideal compromise.
Bruce says: ‘It would be foolhardy not to cater for customer demand, but it’s also important to encourage demand in new varieties, regions and styles.’
Bibendum’s on-trade analysis suggests that there might be some new stalwarts on the horizon: Loire listings have diversified beyond Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé and Muscadet while Saumur and Chinon are also seeing an upswing. Austrian reds and Portuguese wines are also increasingly on the rise.
Pause for a second
For those who think that the likes of Touriga Nacional and Blaufränkisch will always be niche, just spend a moment to remember where prosecco and Pinot Grigio were 20 years ago…
Ultimately, wine list workhorses are comfort and reassurance for customers. Take away that blanket, by all means and make the craziest wine list you want, but if you’re going to do that, ensure you have the best-trained staff and an open-minded clientele who are more than happy to drink and spend their hard-earned money on a venue-led wine list.
If you really can’t do that, then keep some of those trusty workhorses in your stable so that your customers don’t bolt.
Lucky for Some Fullers’ Neil Bruce picks out his 13 classic wine list workhorse styles
Blush Zinfandel, Chablis; Chenin Blanc, South Africa; Malbec, Argentina; Merlot, Picpoul, Pinot Grigio Pinot Noir, premium Burgundy, premium Bordeaux, prosecco, Sancerre, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc