By Fiona Sims
ON A wet Monday morning in March, a 55-strong panel from Westin Hotels & Resorts slurped its way through a line-up of 700 wines, all tasted blind, at its headquarters in Seattle. It took a week.
The end product was a wine list boasting 50 wines that is available in all 91 of Westin's hotels across the globe.
This is the list's 10th anniversary and it is unique in several ways. First, the customers get to have a say. As well as the 20 Westin staff (chefs, food and beverage managers, general managers and sommeliers), 30 of the hotel group's favourite customers join in in the selection process.
Second, the list changes completely every year, after the results of the huge tasting are fed into the computer, securing prices and orders for the year from the winning wineries. And third, staff selling the list are involved in a comprehensive wine education programme.
The list generates some $50m (£30.4m) in revenue - "Not a tremendous amount," admits the list's creator, Westin's vice-president of food and beverage, Kurt Fischer, modestly, "but it's not a figure you handle lightly." And it still represents 7% of total food and beverage sales.
a 10-year test
Fischer joined Westin 10 years ago, from Hilton International. The list is his baby, and it's taken him 10 years to get it how he wants it. He knows now that Westin's customers aren't bothered about big names. "Four years ago the panel selection did not include a Mondavi wine - our sales weren't affected at all," he laughs.
Westin's customers are not connoisseurs and, to reflect this, neither are the members of the tasting panel. "People remember only what they like, not whether its oaky or buttery. The big expense accounts have long gone, they don't need flashy wines to impress their clients. Our customers just want wine to enjoy with their food."
This "dumbing down" applies to the wine descriptions - there aren't any. Neither is there a country of origin. But this is where the staff come in. Each hotel is sent a thick folder stuffed with amusing reading on the wines, the wine-makers and the vineyards.
Each food and beverage manager then channels this information into a smaller manual for each staff. Tastings are held to familiarise staff with the wines, and they are encouraged to pass on the patter to customers. "We have found that this is the way the customer today feels most comfortable," says Fischer.
less is more
After 10 years, Fischer has concluded that less is more. The list has finally been whittled down to 50 wines and he's selling more than ever before.
It is split into reds and whites, and layered into price "tiers". Whites still lead the way, and modestly priced whites at that, representing the fattest tier. The next tier - dominated this year by US Chardonnay - costs a little more. The pricier end of the list falls into the third category, and shows just four whites and five reds. Fisher doesn't sell much at this end of the list, so he keeps the selection small.
The biggest slice of overall sales is taken by the four "proprietary" labels, which are split into two price tiers. This year, Gallo's chief wine-maker, George Thoukis, has made a one-off blend for Westin's first-tier house selection, and the Buena Vista winery in Sonoma, California, makes Fischer's second-tier house wines. Most of the wines on the list are available by the glass. n