Posted on | August 25, 2014
Written by | Jim Clarke
Selling sweet wines with dessert demands effort, but brings reward
Is coffee really a pairing for dessert? Or do servers, having landed the “big fish” of wine sales by putting a bottle on the table, just give up on alcohol by the end of the meal? Whatever the reason, dessert wines lag behind their dry counterparts in sales.
“If it’s an afterthought for you, it’s an afterthought for the guest,” says John Ragan, MS and wine director at Union Square Hospitality in New York. Instead, he argues, it should be the capstone of a guest’s experience.
To that end, he suggests pricing dessert wines less assertively than other wines on the list: “Dessert wines tend to be more expensive already, and if you apply a standard markup that gets even more pricey.” Focus instead on providing a special experience at the end of the meal that will stay with the guests when they go out the door.
There’s also affordability beyond the classics. “The legendary sweeties—Sauternes, Tokaji, rare vintage Ports—are all expensive,” says Christie Dufault, wine instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley. “How can we let the world know that there is plenty of value in fruity and sweet wines? My latest favorites are Moscato d’Asti, Jurançon and my long-time love, Muscat de Beaume de Venise—all extremely good values.”
Even when the prices are right, guests still need guidance. “If you just say to a guest ‘Would you care for a glass of dessert wine,’ they’re not going to respond,” says Ragan. However, by the end of the meal, servers should have gained the guests’ trust, and what might have seemed like a hard sell earlier can come across as smooth and playful. Dufault, for example, remembers bringing guests a small taste of one of those reasonably priced sweets even after the guest had said they weren’t interested: “I’d say, ‘Have a taste of a liquid dessert.’ They’d take one sip, smile, and order a round or a half bottle for the table.”
Pairings, of course, are an effective tool. But “Pairing sweet wine with dessert is trickier than red wine with beef,” says Ragan. “Whenever we do a new dessert we taste it with four or five dessert wines and find what works. Once the team has that experience, look out.” He says the cheese course, before dessert, can also be a good place to introduce sweet wines. “There’s always a little bit of discovery as they’re already picking and choosing; the spirit of that course is already more open.” Sometimes he reverse-engineers the pairing, starting with the wine and matching cheeses to it. It’s also a good place to introduce bottles of dessert wine, which can be harder to move otherwise unless you have a large party. “Sell it with the cheese course and then roll into dessert; that can be a lot of fun,” he notes.
The two Finale restaurants, in Boston and Cambridge, MA, are all about dessert, so sweet wines are a big part of their program. Company President Chris Kane says pairings and flights are key for developing sales. “For the vast majority of our guests that’s the vehicle by which sweet wines are introduced. The pairing gets them interested in the category,” says Kane. That starts the conversation. “With red wines people know which grapes or regions they like; with dessert wines they’re not as experienced, and they don’t know why it’s so much more expensive.” Staff has to be ready to answer those questions. On the other hand, be ready for the aficionado. “It’s easy to tell the people who’ve had experience from those who have not,” says Kane. “The people who know go right in for the high-end stuff.” And they aren’t afraid of ordering full bottles.
Finale, as a dessert-only experience, has more opportunity than most to sell a second round of sweet wine. “We find very few people will order more than one glass of expensive icewine. We often suggest a Riesling, Moscato, or something like that” as a second glass. Even a downsell within a style can work; Kane says he recently recommended the Jackson-Triggs icewine to a woman after her first glass of the more expensive Inniskillin, to her delight.
Sweet With Savory
For that matter, the term “dessert wine” is a misnomer. “I believe there are myriad pairing applications with sweet wines and savory foods,” says Dufault. For example, she says moderately sweet Madeira can go well with bisques. “I also think that some of the more unusual ‘mistelles’ like Pineau de Charentes have a broad application when paired with starters. Imagine a shrimp wrapped in bacon grilled on a skewer, the sweet-salty food enhanced by a flavorful sweet-sour wine.”
“We offer an SGN by the glass and also a Sauternes by the glass,” says Barbara Werley, MS and Wine Director at Pappas Brothers Steakhouses, “and the servers will offer these with the foie gras,” a classic sweet wine pairing. Bringing sweet wines into the conversation during the appetizer course makes it that much easier to bring them back into play at the end of the meal. The subject can even precede the food. Dufault says, “Training staff to promote a glass of a glass of Sherry—dry, off-dry or sweet, depending on guest preferences—can be a great way to turn guests on to something new, and it’s a fine alternative to a cocktail or a more common aperitif.”
Werley offers a wide selection of fortified wines and noble rot—classic steakhouse offerings; at Finale, Kane says their big sellers are Ports and icewines. Whatever the category, both agree in the importance of teaching servers and sommeliers about the wines themselves, but also how to read the guest and put the best suggestion forward. That can get both staff and guests past a lingering notion that sweet wines are a lesser sort of wine. As Dufault puts it, “I think that many people assume we are all dry wine lovers. Nowadays great sommeliers everywhere see the beauty in sweet and off-dry wines.”