Editorial: The Future of Restaurants and Wine?

Posted on: December 25th, 2011 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Today we discuss the role of the sommelier in modern fine dining and anticipate a greater opportunity for their participation in the success of a restaurant in the future.

The sommelier may be the diner’s best friend or worst enemy.  The average mark-up in fine dining restaurants lies between 300% and 400% of retail (See December News).  The continuously expanding choice available to the consumer outside of restaurant dining is spellbinding:  British supermarkets are unique in offering residents an unparalleled choice of wines.  Waitrose, for example, are believed to hire at least two masters of wine in their wine-buying department.  Most other European countries shops’ are more closed, understandably so where they are major wine producers, in that they stock wines exclusively of their domestic origin.

The fate of the Euro is something of a sideshow, as quality world–wide wines are now available in Britain’s local shops, many of which a map might need to be consulted to confirm the whereabouts of provenance.  Yet, in many cases, the consumer may be honestly unaware as to whether the purchase is a treat or a mistake.  There’s some limited help on the internet, in magazines or in books, but really the truth of the matter is close to the statement that “if you like it, its a good wine.

Still, some help, guidance and education in making choices is always welcome:  To understand better the boons and bargains from the misfortunes.  It has been noted (in usually American sitcoms like Friends and Frasier) the benefits of personal shoppers or wine clubs in expanding knowledge and quality of experience.  The combination of the two would be an unaffordable luxury for most in simply navigating the burgeoning supermarket wine shelves.  But what an asset that would be – to have a voice over the shoulder – who knew tastes, and explained the pros- and cons- of a particular choice!  This would be true no matter what the budget, from £4 to £40 to £400 a bottle – there are always hidden gems that go beyond possible understanding or equally poor value choices that could not be appreciated.

The review will come back to this, but for now, discuss the role of the Sommelier in fine dining restaurants.  In recent times it has been noted that upon presentation of the food, the associated descriptions from waiters have been muted.  Instead the volume has been turned up on the sommelier’s role and their introductions of the accompanying wine:  Where once the food would be given almost a minute of detailed introduction this is now obviated or replaced with a brief description:  The wine on the other hand has gone from a cork opening to around ninety seconds of detailed analytical review; including grape variety, producer, origin and description. Perhaps a more balanced approach to the end products consumed would be a happy compromise for all customers.

It is, however, still the case that at least 50% of gross profit for a restaurant comes from wine.  Something that may be enjoyed occasionally at home, diners may feel somewhat obligated to enjoy in restaurants, in spite of the glaring average of 350% mark up above retail.  Even with the internet offering fingertip advice on retail price (including the more obscure wines), or Andy Hayler’s Wine Searcher iPhone App (the latter remains somewhat cumbersome and possibly socially inappropriate to be tapping away for fifteen minutes while in the restaurant), consumers are still relatively helpless while sitting at the table reviewing the wine list.  Or are they?

This is where a quality Sommelier is worth his or her salt.  To glean your tastes and advise and guide expertly to wines that will suit your food, your taste and your pocket.  To an extent though, how possible can this be in the actual restaurant environment?

Ideally, an open and honest conversation that went along the lines of “I don’t want to spend more than £x on the wine and I like Burgundy reds, let me have something that will work well and offer value for money.”  Indeed, having this conversation would be recommended; whether you’d actually end up with something that offered value for money outside of the restaurant is another matter.  This is of course grossly understating the value of the sommelier to the dining experience:  A significant part of their job is to understand the nuances of the food ordered and be able to match a wine that will optimize the enjoyment as one overall product.  This is where the trend of wine by the glass to match each course is a venerable one and likely to play a larger role in fine dining restaurants in the future.

However, what opportunities may be afforded to the wine drinker at home?  Importantly, this is separated from the fine wine investor or collector who would seek advice, for example, from a consultant working with, say,  Berry Bros & Rudd.  How might fine dining restaurants carve a new niche from potential demand to match their supply-side capabilities?  Some forward thinking establishments have realized that there’s a hole in the market.  To link the knowledge, experience and purchasing power of their restaurant with the personal shopper and wine club ideas previously discussed.  Why not have sommeliers use their skill and expertise to buy wines at a decent price that they can match to your tastes and budget?

In unseen work, the sommelier will sift through endless suppliers (in this country), going to tastings, being visited by reps, attending courses, expanding their knowledge to the potential benefit of the end consumer.  Surely, the typical restaurant sommelier has accrued knowledge of wines far beyond our expected level of attainment.  Why not pay a small premium – say 25% – above the price they pay for a wine, that they can vouch for, and even better (if they know us well enough) match to our tastes?

This is where certain establishments may score heavily:  Restaurant wine made available via an assisted personal shopper (sommelier), for a regular customer (club), at high street prices (or slightly above):  Your typical fine dining restaurant becoming a kind of value-added boutique wine merchant.

Thierry Tomasin’s Angelus, Alexis Gauthier’s soho restaurant and the soon to open Alan Murchison’s 10-in-8 Group Les Caveaux have all seized the nettle (or grasped the grape).  They appreciate that there exists a marriage between restaurant customers, the like of fine wines, and their supply side strengths.  We’ve yet to see how this market will develop but there is logic behind it as well as economic sense, so perhaps these early adopters will reap the harvest of their efforts. Any move forward for restaurants in this country would be sure to be welcomed…