Balancing inventory is a critical yet largely unseen job of a wine buyer. You never quite know if that certain rosé might languish on your list well past summer, or whether your own passion for Xinomavro will translate to your staff and thus your guests. While almost anyone can add an inexpensive wine to a by-the-glass list and eventually unload it, figuring out creative and profitable solutions for moving stock, especially more expensive offerings, is a hallmark of skilled wine buyers and wine directors.
Katelyn Peil is the wine director at Purple Café and The Commons in Woodinville, Washington. With her relatively sizeable inventory, creative solutions are a must. “With a list of almost 400 bottles,” she says, “I have to take off some vintages on a reprint [wine list] before I’ve actually sold through them all. Depending on style and price point and quantity of inventory, I do a few different things. Primarily, I will use them for a half-off wine promotion. We offer a smaller, curated 50 percent–off bottle list every Monday at the restaurant, and this is a great way to move through certain bottles and leftover vintages.”
Targeting key service staff can also be crucial. For Amy Racine, the wine director at John Fraser Restaurants in New York City, bartenders are an important asset. “Depending on the cost and number of bottles [to be moved],” Racine says, “we might ask the bar specifically to hand-sell particular bottles. They have much more face-to-face time with their patrons than a server does. On busy nights they can also usually run us out of options by the end of the day.” For Peil, leftover bottles can also provide a useful educational component for staff; she says that “we have weekly required classes, and these bottles are often used to showcase a style of wine which offers another tool in the staff’s tool belt.”
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Justin King, the owner of the Michigan establishments Bar Mitena in Lansing and Bridge Street Social in DeWitt, sees these precise challenges as opportunities to foster connections. “The best way to sell languishing bottles,” he says, “is to prep servers and bartenders to understand basic food pairings and sell the bottles to guests who are feeling adventurous—it’s really as simple as that for us. Wine suggestions that come from the server and land safely for our diners always help build relationships between our staff and our guests.”
Special events are also a great opportunity to close out inventory. Peil’s restaurant group offers occasional “garage sales” to the public, where, she says, “we will move through inventory such as previous vintages. We often do this company-wide and have a good array of styles, price points, and vintages to offer.” In states where restaurants are not able to sell wine at retail, holidays offer another possible outlet. Lingering bottles in Racine’s company get stashed away. “Often we will collect them and save them for a special event or holiday,” she says. “For example, at The Loyal, we will collect odds-and-ends bottles for a clip-on to our wine list, perhaps at a discount, on Bastille Day, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, et cetera. These lists are usually 5 to 10 bottles, depending, and a fun opportunity to pair with the menu for those holidays.”
In restaurants that offer them, coursed wine pairings represent an additional good outlet. Racine enlists the help of the kitchen when needed. “In our more fine dining restaurants,” she says, “like 701 West, we will approach Chef and say, ‘Hey, we really want to work with this wine, and here is the flavor profile,’ and he will tweak a menu item or create a new midcourse. We then use it to pour for our guests who have ordered pairings, which is a fun surprise for them!”
While stubborn inventory can cause headaches and frustration for many wine buyers, it can also create extremely positive guest and staff experiences, if properly managed. Creativity and ingenuity are rewarded, but so too is persistence at staff education and strong working relationships with the whole of the restaurant team.
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Zach Geballe is the sommelier at Seattle’s iconic Dahlia Lounge, the flagship of Tom Douglas Restaurants. He is also the wine educator for the Tom Douglas group, a freelance wine and spirits writer, and the host of the wine-focused podcast Disgorged.