As frequent fixtures of high-end, tasting menu-driven restaurants across the U.S., coursed wine pairings can be tricky to manage. Though they offer an easy way to get wine in guests’ glasses, preselected pairings can become rote, create waste, and even be financially unsuccessful if a beverage director isn’t careful—considerations that are now more important than ever.
When done well, however, coursed wine pairings can benefit both restaurant operators and guests. The team at Portland, Oregon’s Le Pigeon eliminated their à la carte menu and moved entirely to a tasting menu in 2020, which allows the restaurant to seat fewer guests amidst COVID-19 precautions and ensure that each table will meet a certain revenue minimum—something that wine pairings factor into as well.
“It allows you to figure out your pricing, cost, and expenses based on a series of wines, not one particular bottling,” says Andy Fortgang, Le Pigeon’s co-owner and wine director, noting that it also allows him to optimize inventory. “For our reserve pairings, it lets us go into the cellar and say, ‘We have three or four bottles of this, let’s pour this wine for two or three nights.’”
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SevenFifty Daily asked six sommeliers and beverage directors how they manage the logistics and profitability of coursed wine pairings, with the goal of determining best practices for operating a set wine-pairing menu while keeping selections interesting and cost-effective.
Stick with a set price.
Fixed-price pairings—rather than name-your-price pairings—are often easier to manage, from the operations side, and easier to understand, from the guest’s perspective. “Fixed prices help to manage expectations for the guest,” says Leslie Hartman, formerly the sommelier at The French Room at the Adolphus Hotel and now the general manager at Clay Pigeon in Dallas. However, offering a premium pairing in addition to the standard pairing creates more opportunities for the sommelier to introduce special wines to guests. Le Pigeon offers a standard wine pairing for $50 and a reserve pairing for $75.
Seek balance to achieve profitability.
Fortgang approaches fixed-price pairing menus with an average bottle cost in mind, typically balancing higher-end pours with more value-oriented ones. “We can take a bigger margin on one and a smaller margin on another,” he says, “and we are still at that same ideal percentage.”
Having a target cost average is also helpful if a sommelier is substituting a specific pairing for a particular guest. Jennifer Wagoner, the group wine director at Zuma Restaurants, which has locations around the world, notes that it’s important to view cost as a moving target. “It may increase and decrease over the course of a month,” she says. “It’s important to understand that variation so that you are maintaining a workable cost.”
By-the-glass wines minimize waste and offer value—when priced correctly.
While Pinch Chinese in New York City has a sliding-scale pairing called “Somm’s Choice,” most of the pairings sold fall under one of their fixed-price pairing options: House ($25) and Short ($35). For both, general manager and wine director Miguel de Leon leans on his by-the-glass list but works with suppliers to deliver great value to guests. “The bottles are usually at their deepest case breaks, or in the case of our partnership wines, at a price we’ve negotiated prior,” he says.
For Fortgang, moving to a pairing menu at Le Pigeon has improved the quality of the by-the-glass list, since the standard pairings all come from the by-the-glass list. “We’re pouring slightly more expensive wines than we had been before,” he says. “But it’s important to be aware of what you’re charging for the pairings. If they are on the by-the-glass menu, someone’s going to do the math.”
Add value with offbeat selections.
When charging a set price for wine pairings, it’s important that wine directors seek out wines that overdeliver for their price points. “This is where really interesting, esoteric wines can help you out,” says Alisha Blackwell-Calvert, a fine wine consultant and former sommelier at Elaia in St. Louis, who looks to bottles from Croatia, Greece, and Portugal for this reason. “The weird, creative stuff is usually cheaper.”
Lesser-known wines also add value by showcasing new discoveries or knowledge to guests, and they can help ensure that a restaurant’s wine pairings are in line with its overall wine program ethos. “The most important thing for us to strike the balance of underpromise and overdeliver, so a fair bit of homework goes into seeking underrepresented grape varieties, non-traditional winemaking methods (like must-mixing, co-ferments, or piquettes), undervalued regions, and making sure we are a place that is for access while maintaining curiosity,” says de Leon.
Communicate with the kitchen.
Because fixed-price pairings go hand in hand with the dishes on a tasting menu, it’s essential to consistently communicate with the kitchen about the menu. “There are wines that may bring out different facets of the dishes,” says Wagoner. “The options are limitless, and it’s fun to mix it up.”
Not only will this allow the beverage director to curate more successful pairings, but it can save inventory headaches; Stefan Davis, the general manager of Barley Swine in Austin, Texas, recalls reordering a wine that was paired with a tasting dish only to learn that the chef had taken the dish off the menu that day. “My advice to anyone thinking about executing a pairing menu,” he says, “is to join the kitchen meeting so that you have an up-to-date projection on what dishes are changing and when.”
Avoid waste by getting creative.
If a restaurant has a reliable number of guests who opt for fixed-price, preselected pairings, waste shouldn’t be an issue. But if a sommelier swaps out a pairing for a particular guest, or reservations happen to lag for a few days, it’s time to get creative. Hartman would avoid opening up a full bottle if the restaurant was closed the next day by opening a half bottle or using a Coravin to serve a pairing late on a Saturday night; she recommends keeping a chart of all pairings in progress to anticipate how much of the pairing wines will be poured each night.
More often, beverage directors will attempt to sell a one-off open bottle by the glass. “[When I was at Sepia and Proxi in Chicago], if we opened a bottle for a special pairing, we often would run a glass special for that night until it was gone,” says Wagoner. When Blackwell-Calvert was at Elaia, she had the benefit of having a second operation at her disposal; at the more casual Olio, which is connected to Elaia, she sold leftover pairing-menu wines as by-the-glass selections. Hartman suggests hosting an informal staff training to use an unsold open bottle as an educational opportunity.
Be flexible to accommodate guests.
While having set pairings for a menu can make both budget and inventory more manageable, it’s important to stay flexible. Hartman has curated pairings of all white wines or all American wines when asked to, for instance, while Blackwell-Calvert once paired a shellfish-heavy menu entirely with red wines, at a guest’s request. Davis will often customize the set pairings if the kitchen must substitute a dish for a guest’s allergy, since he wants the pairing to work well with the food.
Sometimes, though, the success of a pairing comes down to hospitality. “Occasionally there are guests who taste a wine and don’t care for it,” says Hartman, “but I will explain why the wine was chosen to complement the dish, and upon tasting the two together, they’re usually satisfied.” She can recall only two times when a guest truly didn’t like the wine, and she happily poured the person something else.
Use wine pairings to enhance the guest experience.
When done well, wine pairings create a special hospitality experience for guests because the sommelier or server is highly engaged with the table, each glass is selected to complement the flavor of each dish, and guests come away with new wine knowledge. “It allows for a more immersive experience of hospitality: we’re taking care of everything, and we mean it,” says de Leon.
“The guests are getting a better value, and it’s great for our bottom line,” adds Fortgang. He notes, however, that in order to deliver on that excellent guest experience, there must be enough wine team members to pour each pairing as the new course arrives, or every team member needs to know the wines in-depth.
Courtney Schiessl Magrini is the executive editor for SevenFifty Daily and the Beverage Media Group publications. Based in Brooklyn, she has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, GuildSomm, Forbes.com, VinePair, EatingWell Magazine, and more. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Follow her on Instagram at @takeittocourt.