That's the Spirit!

Foodservice and Hospitality, October 2004

Get sampling and stay competitive, it's wine-tasting season

Here's a fun way to boost your margins: spend an afternoon sampling wines and enjoy a buffet spread while chatting with colleagues at a "trade tasting". Not only will you improve your wine list, you'll be doing smaller wine producers a favour too. In cities across the country, another season of trade tastings has begun - and restaurateurs and their staff are favoured on the guest lists.

The key appeal of a trade tasting is the chance to find good, moderately priced wines that are not available on the "general list" of the provincial liquor boards or other retail outlets. Put simply, the consumer does not know that your terrific California cab at $6.95 a glass costs only $11.25 a bottle because it's only available on consignment. And many smaller producers are keen to have you sample their products because, if they are not on the liquor board lists, they can only sell through agents outside of free-market Alberta. But even in Alberta, they want you to attend.

Agreeable afternoons
Virtually all of the trade tastings take place between 2 and 5 p.m. on weekdays, and many are themed: a French or Italian region, Niagara or Okanagan, California, South Africa, and more. At most tastings there are hundreds of wines available and admission is free to trade. Sometimes there is a consumer event and the same wines and cheeses that you taste for free as an industry insider can cost up to $50 per person for the public. Peter Bodnar-Rod is the manager of Trade Development and Wine Education for BC's Mission Hill Family Estate, and he is based in Mississauga, Ont. He was a sommelier for several years before joining Mission Hill and he continues to teach about wine. "Tasting is really the single greatest teacher there is," he says. "The more you taste, the more styles and regions that you expose yourself to, ultimately making you better-equipped to make buying decisions. It helps you to make recommendations in the dining room if you're a sommelier or waiter, and to make wine and food matches if you're a chef."

The Keg's $10 million wine man enjoys trade tastings
Vancouver-based Craig Davies is the director of purchasing for The Keg, Canada's biggest "casual upscale" restaurant chain. Buying for around 70 branches across the country, Davies builds in regional variation by ordering more Niagara wines for Ontario outlets and more Okanagan product for the West, for example. Not surprisingly, his $10 million annual wine budget ensures a steady stream of wine agents eager to sell to him. "The agents do a very good job of keeping us up to date," Davies said, "but I still enjoy going to the trade shows. It's not necessarily to seek new products, but more like reaffirming where we're at. It's a really nice recap of what's out there." A typical Keg wine list features about 45 products. "Wine is the second biggest sales category in our restaurants," said Davies. Andrew Cieszkowski is the director of wine and sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. "I try to go to as many tastings as I can," he said, "One of the main reasons being that you can find plenty of off-list [consignment] wines." Cieszkowski also sees the tastings as an educational opportunity and regularly invites staff to attend with him. Cieszkowski benefits from their input too: "the staff have front-line contact with the customers, and this gives them a feel for what's popular and what will sell."

Owner-operators too
At the owner-operator level, the trade tastings are essential to maintaining a good list. Shamez Almani is co-owner and general manager of La Palette, in Toronto's Kensington Market, and he has around 200 wines on his list. "I like going to the tastings to find something before it becomes famous and popular and goes up in price. That's where you get value. Right now we're doing really well with a lot of Chilean and Argentinean wines. They're low on the price scale and high on the quality scale." Almani says the process is important for both his and his staff's wine education: "When you first start getting into wine and taking courses, you soon learn it's all about taste, taste, taste. There's only so much reading you can do. If you want to learn about wine, you've got to taste a lot of wine." There's a payoff for all this tasting at the bottom line because, says Almani, "you can spot a bargain right away, or an exceptionally well-made wine that's a little more expensive." A good and dynamic wine list also pays off with repeat business: a number of La Palette's regular customers come back specifically to see what new wines are available. On the other side of the table, the trade tastings are a key part of many winemakers' marketing strategies.

Italians do it best (and the French are good too)
Piero Titone of the Italian Trade Commission says, "when promoting new wines, it's hard to go and knock on two or three hundred restaurants' doors. So these events allow for an agent or producer to meet many potential customers at the same time." Italy is very committed to wine marketing and, as Canada bought $218 million worth of Italian wines last year, this country is a very important market. "Every November, we hold the Italian Wine Tasting in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. In Alberta, we alternate between Edmonton and Calgary." France is Canada's number one source of imported wines and the French shows are generally based around regions. Caroline Allene is a project manager at Sopexa, the marketing agency that runs the shows. "We are often presenting wines that are not yet on the market, and also agents present wines that are available only on consignment. Not only is it something special or new, but also it's good because if the consumer does not know the price of the product, you can sell it for a bit more!" Allene has noticed that lately the lines between "trade" and "consumer" are blurring: Toronto's Gourmet Food and Wine show each November is consumer oriented, but Allene said that "more and more trade people are going to the Food and Wine Shows." Ottawa has a similar show, also in November, and France is the featured country this year.

California comes to you
Rick Slomka is the Canadian representative for the Wine Institute of California, which organizes the annual California Wine Fair. "It's the largest of its kind in Canada," said Slomka. "We visit between 9 and 11 cities across the country, starting in February in the West, and mid-April in the East. Next year will be the 25th anniversary of our tour. This Fall, we're also doing a small tour on behalf of the Sonoma County Wineries Association. In early October, we will visit Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver."

Agent's secret
The wine agents themselves are keen to encourage attendance at the wine tastings. Steven Campbell is the owner and manager of Lifford Wine Agency in Toronto and he has some strong words for restaurateurs: "an unfortunate statistic for this industry is that the average [owner-operated] restaurant lasts less than a year. It has the highest bankruptcy rate of any business. So you as an independent operator had better be doing your damnedest to differentiate yourself from the competition. Anything that you can do, whether it's service, décor, food, or an outstanding wine list, to distinguish yourself is an advantage. And if you're not paying attention to wine, you sure as hell better be."

Forget retail
In Ontario, the 6,813 products available on consignment (which include spirits but which are mainly wines) dwarf the general list total of 3,476 products. Even adding in the high-end Vintages division's 3,117 listings, more than half the total number of alcohol brands available in Ontario can only be purchased through agents. Campbell says exclusivity is a great selling point for a wine list: "Go to the top restaurants in Toronto and just try to find a general list product. It's extremely hard." But it's extremely easy - and enjoyable - to find good-value, off-list wines at the various trade tastings around the country. So get on a guest list or two and get tasting: your customers will thank you and your accountant will smile.

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