How do you push wine sales without being pushy? Fiona Sims gets the lowdown from some high-flyers
"Credit crunch? What credit crunch?" say the giggling drinkers at the Phoenix. The Geronimo Inns-owned pub near London's Victoria Station is heaving with customers, many knocking back Pinot Grigio and tucking into cider-battered haddock.
There's no sign of flagging consumer confidence here. This is, however, exactly the kind of operation consumers would head for if the going were to get a little tough, according to managing director Rupert Clevely, who is opening four more pubs over the next three months, including the Five Tuns at Heathrow's embattled Terminal 5 and a pub in Surrey, the Red Barn, with a farm shop attached. "People look for the best places to go in a recession, rather than trade down," he says.
What ranks Clevely's 17-strong chain of gastropubs among the best places to go is the wine offering. Wine sales here make up 38% of wet sales - not bad for a pub chain. The lists, devised by Clevely with help from his Master of Wine father, John, are packed full of interesting wines, presented in an accessible way - easy to understand for both the customer and the staff, say the Clevelys.
In fact, since they changed the way the lists were presented last year - organising them by wine style, rather than country or region - sales have improved significantly, they report. "Customers are now moving around the list, being more adventurous," Rupert adds.
To accompany my cider-battered haddock, I chose a luscious, minerally 2006 Sauvignon Semillon from Australia's Margaret River region (McHenry Hohnen) - on the list at £4.30 for 175ml and £16.80 a bottle, and selling well, apparently. Pinot Grigio still dominates white wine sales, with Rioja bagging the majority of red sales, but these house wines now represent 25% of sales, compared with 40% four years ago. "And," Clevely says, "people are spending more - £15 a bottle is the average these days. And they're looking more at wines from the New World."
As you might guess, the main tool for selling these wines is training. "Every week we sit down with staff and taste through bottles, working out which dishes work best so they can recommend them to customers," Clevely says. "We don't need to be Gerard Basset, we just need to be able to enthuse our staff."
At the Devonshire Arms in Bolton Abbey, North Yorkshire, Nigel Fairclough makes sure that as many of his staff as possible sit their Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) exams. As head sommelier and wine buyer, Fairclough has also devised his own wine training programme for those who don't want to go the whole hog. "Plus," he says, "I like to open bottles every week for staff to try."
The loss of a Michelin star in this year's guide isn't expected to affect Fairclough's particularly healthy wine sales, which have seen average spend on a bottle of wine hit £40. Winning the AA Wine List of the Year award last year helped in this regard, he admits. "Customers just trust us that bit more," he says.
But Fairclough reckons that keeping his prices reasonable is also a key to selling more wine. "People are pretty wine-savvy these days," he says. "The range being sold in supermarkets and high-street merchants has seen to that. You can't price yourself out of the market - people just wouldn't put up with it, especially around here."
At 2,500 bins, the Devonshire's list is huge - and a labour of love for Fairclough. "I believe it's a great marketing tool for the hotel," he explains. Fairclough wants diversity on his list, but he also wants balance. "I'm looking for unusual wines, but everyday wines need to be on there, too," he says.
France is strong, but his list also focuses on Italy and California - though not Australia nor New Zealand, oddly. "New Zealand wine is one of the easiest things to sell," Fairclough says. "It's no challenge for me."
While the Devonshire Arms is lucky enough to have a sommelier - and Fairclough - what about the majority of people in the industry who have to sell their wine lists without that know-how?
In South Wales, restaurant with rooms the Bell at Skenfrith doesn't have a sommelier, but it has won wine-list awards - loads of them. And it sells shed-loads of wine. How do they do it? Proprietor and wine buyer William Hutchings says: "It's about giving people a good selection of interesting wines, with some made by unusual grape varieties from unusual regions. Offering a good selection by the glass is essential. It entices people into areas where they might not normally feel comfortable." He therefore offers 16 of them. Price, too, is an issue, and the Bell is famed for its sensitive mark-ups.
At an average mark-up of 40% on each bottle, Hutchings has those in the know flocking to hoover up his well-chosen 300-bin list. The average spend might sound a tad low, at just over £20 a bottle, but these wines would be £30-plus elsewhere, Hutchings explains. He just sells more of them. The selection is from all over the globe, with short descriptions for each wine doing most of the selling - though Hutchings admits that having a wine-savvy, WSET-trained manager helps.
Perhaps surprisingly, Hutchings's house wines are not his cheapest, though they are his best sellers, and all are available by the glass. "An insipid house wine will just turn people off," he says.
Another Hutchings tip is to invest in decent stemware. "You wouldn't use paper plates for the food," he says. "Visually, it shows you mean business, and customers appreciate good glassware." He stocks Riedel. "If they trust you, and they have a good experience, they'll come back and spend more," says Hutchings.
And he will soon have another USP to raise his wine sales further: a dedicated wine room. In fact, two wine rooms - one for posh whites, and one for posh reds (the list peaks at £750 for a bottle of 1983 Margaux). He hopes that "it should be good for special dinners and for customers who just want to have a browse".
At the Harrow at Little Bedwyn in Wiltshire, the USP is that it sells many of the wines on its list off-trade, even using it as a marketing tool to sell more lunches - get a free glass of white or red with your meal and a great deal on the bottle to take home, if you like it - a ploy which is going down a storm. Not many could get away with that. But the Harrow, like the Bell, has won awards for its wine list - and a Michelin star for its restaurant - and the customers trust it. At last count there were 900 bins, bought from more than 22 suppliers - a passion for chef-proprietor Roger Jones, who looks after the list personally.
Most chefs, and many proprietors, reckon they haven't got time to wise up about wine, but they might want to rethink when they see what a difference it has made to Jones's business. Average spend here is huge: £48 a bottle, with half the revenue of the business coming from wine sales, and 10% of that from off-trade sales. However, the wines aren't expensive to start with - Jones has 200 wines under £30 to choose from.
The secret is, once more, low mark-ups. Jones isn't giving them away, either - though Krug at £95 a bottle is cheaper than in Threshers. "If you look after your supplier, you get a better price." By this he means paying them on time. "We do a standing order directly from our account," he explains. "That way we get slightly longer to pay." He recommends that you not be picky with delivery times either. "So many restaurants say, ‘Don't deliver between 12 and 2pm,' but that's a silly rule," he says. "It's not as if it's boxes of smelly fish."
Another way to upsell is to offer verticals from one particular grower, establishing some real interest - or, in Jones's case, 12 different growers, mostly Australian (the Harrow's speciality) but also from other countries, such as Germany (Ernie Loosen). "You could start with just one place and build it up from there," he suggests.
On food and wine matching another selling technique: pair each dish with a glass of wine from the menu. "Nearly every table will take a glass, but they'll all buy bottles as well," he says. You just need to work through the dishes, tasting as you go to find the best match. "Everyone has a different glass with a different dish," he says. "The days of ordering one bottle to suit all have gone."
Jones has no sommelier. He's too busy in the kitchen to sell the list himself, so he leaves that to his wife, Sue, or his general manager, Peter Hinchliffe, formerly of Northcote Manor, who knows his way around a wine list. But the list itself - and those keen prices - do most of the selling: short but lively descriptions of each wine reel them in.
Now do you think it might be time to reconsider your wine list?
Five top tips for improving wine sales
Train your staff
If staff know the list, they'll get behind it. Use your wine supplier for regular in-house training or contact an independent wine educator from the Association of Wine Educators (www.wineeducators.com) or a wine consultant. Many wine education courses are available. Your first stop should be the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (020 7089 3800, www.wset.co.uk), which organises courses around the country. If being there in person is tricky, try a distance-learning pack from the Academy of Food & Wine (020 8661 4646, www.afws.org).
Present a good list layout
If your list is difficult to read and confusing, with absolutely no hint as to the style of the wines, people will go for the cheaper, safer choices every time. With a bit of creativity you can provide reassuring information that makes it easier for customers to experiment.
Encourage sensible mark-ups
You know it makes sense - especially as customers are increasingly wising up to wine. The aim is to get maximum profit out of the wines at entry level on the list and from those that are bound to be popular, such as Chablis and Chilean Merlot - making sure they're good examples - and then to forgo a whopping profit margin in the interests of getting customers to spend more on expensive wines or to experiment with more esoteric bottles.
Offer a wine of the month
Promotions are a clever way to do some list engineering, either by encouraging greater spend - by offering an especially good price on a fairly expensive bottle - or by strengthening your profit margins by promoting something that's very strong in that department.
Lay on a wine dinner
Wine suppliers like these because their wines get exposure, and diners like them because they often get a discount on wines they've tasted. Customers are entertained and will invariably come back for more.
The UK's only dedicated on-trade wine event returns in February 2009. Wine+ will feature wines from around the world, selected by more than 80 of the UK's premier on-trade suppliers.
There will be vetted exhibitors showcasing wine, Champagne, spirits, water, stemware, accessories and equipment; experts offering free advice, guidance and insight on the latest consumer trends, pricing and adding value; the UK's largest and most comprehensive wine-food pairing opportunity; and 2,500 visitors, including more than 200 top sommeliers.
For full information call Graham Lock on 020 7886 3046.