Attention restaurateurs: Your customers want better wine service.
They aren't demanding encyclopedic wine lists; they're satisfied with 100 selections or so, if the selections are interesting and compatible with the cuisine. They like the way you're improving the quality of wines offered by the glass, and that you're offering more of them. However, a solid majority rates the overall wine service at most restaurants as fair or poor. And whatever you do, don't let the sommelier taste the wine before serving it.
These are just some of the revelations in a survey recently conducted by Wine Spectator regarding restaurants and how they select, present and serve wine. The 16-question survey was posted on WineSpectator.com for two weeks in April. Altogether, 18,528 people responded to the survey, with 18,192 answering all the questions, for an impressive completion rate of 98 percent.
The multiple-choice questionnaire broached a variety of topics, from wine prices to the value of a sommelier's advice. Space for detailed comments on some of the questions was also provided. The survey was not designed to produce a statistically significant population sample. Rather, it offers insight into the opinions and desires of serious wine lovers around the country.
The results should serve as a wake-up call to restaurateurs and sommeliers. Our respondents are serious about wine, but they are disappointed by the wine service they receive in restaurants. In their experience, sommeliers are too often under-educated and over-opinionated, pushing wines because of personal preference or high markups. Often wine-savvy themselves, these customers simply don't trust their server's advice. "The quality of sommeliers [and wine service in general] has improved in recent years," wrote one respondent, "but improvement is still much needed."
Wine is a key part of the restaurant experience for our respondents. An overwhelming 93 percent declared that the quality of a wine list was very (47 percent) or somewhat (46 percent) important when choosing a restaurant.
In selecting a restaurant, "the wine list is just as important as the food," noted one respondent. "Good food and good wine should go hand in hand." And many people regard wine lists as barometers of a restaurant's overall quality. "How seriously they take their wine is a great indicator of how seriously they take many other aspects of their establishment, [including] their food," one person stated.
For most respondents, however, quality is more important than quantity. While 52 percent prefer to see 100 or fewer selections on a list, just 3 percent want more than 500 selections. Diversity rather than size is key for many: "Sometimes a carefully selected list of less than 100 bottles is better than a random collection of 500 wines, of which 400 are lousy," commented one respondent. In fact, 63 percent said an interesting selection is the most important aspect of a good wine list, while only 10 percent specified low prices.
Still, a fair number of respondents indicated that the prices at some restaurants are too high. "At many restaurants, I'm appalled at the prices being charged for bottles of wine," wrote one person. "I am in the retail business, and I pretty much know how much a restaurant pays for wine. It is ludicrous to me to see wine being sold at three to four times the wholesale cost. I will not order wine when the prices are so exorbitant."
Perhaps reacting to high wine prices, a full one-third of respondents claim they take their own wine to restaurants 25 percent of the time or more. And 76 percent believe that $10 to $20 is a fair corkage fee.
When it comes to the organization of wine lists, the traditional approach—grouping wines by region of origin—is falling out of favor. Only 33 percent of respondents want a regional designation, while 50 percent prefer to see the wines organized by varietal. Just 15 percent want the selections grouped by wine style; 2 percent prefer categorization by price.
The biggest impediment to an enjoyable dining experience—and to greater profits for restaurateurs—may be inadequate attention to wine service. When asked to judge the "overall wine service at most restaurants," only 1 percent considered it excellent, while 52 percent rated it fair, and 7 percent poor.
Questions about the sommelier's role at a restaurant yielded more of a split decision. Only 43 percent believe it is important to have a sommelier or wine steward at a restaurant, but when a sommelier's advice was offered, 82 percent evaluated it as excellent or good. Yet, a resounding 84 percent do not want the sommelier to taste a wine before serving it.
The role of sommeliers sparked impassioned comments by many respondents. One wrote: "I like to hear what sommeliers have to say; their profession and passion is wine. But I want to discover things about wines for myself, and I don't want to be fed preconceived notions from a sommelier."
Another wrote: "Sommeliers are usually helpful. Most will listen to what you are looking for and try and select a wine to meet your wishes. Sommeliers who are pushy and act like the buyer doesn't have a clue should find another line of work."
And another: "It is nice to talk with someone who knows about the list, the hidden treasures. It is not nice to get a recommendation which is always one of the highest-priced wines on the list—we all know a Margaux or Diamond Creek will be excellent, but what is excellent at an affordable price?"
Regarding pricing, 45 percent indicated that the average price they pay for a bottle of wine is $50 to $75. Slightly more than a quarter spend less than $50, while 22 percent spend $76 to $100 on average. Just 7 percent purchase wines at $100 or more per bottle.
Those who regularly buy expensive wines have a significantly different perspective on many of these topics. Of the more than 1,200 respondents who said they usually spend $100 or more per bottle, 74 percent of them said the wine list is very important when they are selecting a restaurant. They want more choices on wine lists (67 percent said they want 100 to 500 selections; 14 percent want more than 500), and the majority prefers to have the list organized by region.
They are also more hospitable to sommeliers: 63 percent said it is important to them to have a sommelier available, while 78 percent rate the advice they received from sommeliers as good or excellent. "The sommelier is the most important person in the restaurant after the chef," wrote one big spender. "He or she is the person best equipped to steer novice or experienced diners through the complex landscape of the menu, the chef's style and unique food and wine affinity profile, as well as the current development of wines in the restaurant's cellar."
And when these well-heeled respondents receive a high level of service, they reward it. We asked how much they would tip for an excellent meal where the bill came to $600, of which $200 was for food and $400 for wine. A solid majority of those who spend $100 or more on a bottle of wine said 20 percent (47 percent) or more (7 percent). One respondent who would tip 20 percent on this hypothetical bill wrote, "The wine selection reflects risk. That the restaurant would make available something truly superb should be recognized. It is particularly gratifying to be offered older wine that has been properly aged at prices the restaurant paid at acquisition."
In summary, our survey is evidence that diners consider wine an important part of the restaurant experience. They pay attention to the selection and presentation of the wine list, and they reward restaurants that put serious effort into their wine programs by giving them return business and by being generous with servers. However, diners are frequently dissatisfied with the quality of the wine service they encounter. Restaurants that ignore this thirst risk alienating some of their most important potential customers.
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