Posted on | March 25, 2015
Written by | Jim Clarke
With pairing menus, wine makes culinary artistry more profitable.
There are wine pairings, and there are Wine Pairings. Selecting a wine to accompany a steak is one thing, but what about pairing all three, seven or 26 courses of a meal? “Our menu ends up being 20 to 30 courses,” says Scott Cameron, Beverage Director at Atera in New York. “The pairing is the best option to accommodate the guest and provide the best experience.” Guests seem to agree; Cameron says a third to a half of Atera guests opt for the pairing, up from one quarter a year and a half ago.
The Umstead Hotel in Cary, NC, offers a three-course prix-fixe and a seven-course tasting menu, and Head Sommelier Hai Tran says sales of pairings have quadrupled in the past year.
Creating a successful pairing menu doesn’t come easy. To start with, there’s a need for variety. Tran says a good menu will inherently call for different types of wines in the first place, but he still makes an effort to draw on wines from different parts of the world. One need not stop at wine, either. “I use beer, cocktails, saké, non-alcoholic drinks…” says Cameron. Tran does the same, though he usually steers away from cocktails to make it easier to control the overall amount of alcohol being served.
Logistics are another imperative. During service, Tran says communication is key to make sure the pairings go smoothly; the kitchen’s timing needs to align with that of the server and sommelier, both of whom need to know which wine goes with which course in case the sommelier is stuck at another table. “We always have two glasses staged, the bottle on display and the next beverage,” says Cameron. He’s also careful about glass placement, so “the guest doesn’t feel obligated to pound leftovers, and the table’s not getting cluttered.”
Portions & Pricing
Portion size can be an issue when serving so many courses. Some guests will balk at ordering “20 glasses of wine” while others will look askance at a 2oz pour, so it’s important to set expectations. “I make sure they have enough to enjoy with what’s on the plate,” says Tran, “so as plates get bigger the pours get bigger. I may start off with two ounces and move up to three or four. They drink a total 3–3 ½ glasses by the end of experience. I’m not averse to topping them off if needed.” With a longer menu, some wines may do double duty. “Our menu has a span of snack courses which I pour a really great Alsatian Riesling with,” says Cameron. “One bite snacks—all smoky, rich, and fatty; all great with a bit more savory style of Riesling.”
Portion control can also mean price control. “An equilibrium can be reached,” says James Tidwell, MS, Beverage Manager at the Las Colinas Four Seasons Resort in Dallas. “You put together the pairing as a grouping, but based on individual pricing. The highest expense wines are balanced by unexpected, cool, fun wines that are still inexpensive.”
Having multiple wines open for a pairing can lead to waste, but the more popular the pairing, the easier that is to control, since turnover is faster. “We are lucky that the majority of our wine sales are from the wine pairing, so we rarely end up with wine that is open more than one day,” says Brooklyn Delmont, Wine Director at Forage in Salt Lake City. The Forage tasting menu may change daily; if a wine can’t be used with a new menu, Delmont temporarily offers the remainder of the wine by-the-glass.
But why dwell on negatives like waste? Tidwell says pairings can be a plus in managing other aspects of one’s product mix. “Pairings offer opportunities for inventory control, especially where you have excellent wines that people don’t know about. It introduces people to those wines, and then they enjoy them on return visits,” says Cameron.
Turning Expectations into Opportunity
Guest expectations for pairings may go beyond the interplay of fats and tannins. “People who ask for the pairings are people who want more engagement with the service staff,” says Tidwell. “That added enjoyment is a PR and marketing opportunity.” But don’t assume they’re studying for an MS exam. “Unless a guest shows an increased interest in wine we do not elaborate too much on it,” says Delmont, “since we are already at their table often and would still like to allow them some private time. Typically, it is after the wine is served and eaten with the food that I receive questions about it because it is a wine that either surprised them or they really enjoyed.”
Sometimes one goes to all that trouble to create a pairing menu, and the guest asks you to change it. “The pairing is set,” says Cameron. “That’s what we do. It doesn’t do justice to the food to just throw another beverage in there. I steer guests who ask for changes toward the by-the-glass wines or a bottle.”
Delmont often does much the same, but also encourages guest to try the pairing as is. “We have a lot of people, at the end of the pairing, say they were not big fans of white wine but have enjoyed seeing how the wine is very different when it is put with food. This is what I believe the point is to a wine pairing. The wine and the food changing each other into something greater.”
£ The Prix-Fixe. This old-standby is a three-course seat-filler, often only offered at certain times of day: (lunch or Pre-Theater most typically). If the guest feels they’re saving money on the set menu, the wine-pairing option becomes an affordable indulgence. Since guests have options for each course, pairings can either be broad—a wine that suits the course, more-or-less, regardless of choice—or a wine paired with each potential choice.
£ The Chef or Tasting Menu. These are longer menus—seven or nine courses, perhaps—meant to highlight the range and quality of the kitchen. They give a beverage director a chance to show off the wine program’s range and quality.
£ The Seasonal Menu. Often focusing on seasonal ingredients; when those ingredients are pricey—white truffle season, for example—you’re attracting guests who are ready to spend. If it’s built around a single ingredient, like truffles, just as the kitchen needs to find variations on that ingredient, so will the pairing, to ensure a progression that’s interesting enough but stays true to that component.
£ The Holiday Menu. Valentine’s Day, New Years Eve…whatever it may be, people are looking for a special experience. The pairing needs to be highlighted and special, though; for many people, a special occasion means a bottle, so you may find yourself working against that mentality.