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Raising a Glass To American-Made Wines

SAVOR THE FLAVOR: Pair spicy cuisines with fuller-bodied white wines.

GLASS ACTION: Offer food-friendly wines to keep guests coming back to your restaurant.

Rock stars, Hollywood idols, celebrity chefs and reality TV participants are more than icons of pop culture. They're largerthan-life phenomena that represent all that is American. Our wine tastes have evolved in the same way: Big, bold and in-your-face.

It's easy to understand why many restaurant guests opt for big Napa names. Uncorking full-flavored wines that have scored well with the critics is as American as apple pie, and it guides bottle-buying trends across the country. No one understands this more than Brad Dixon, one of three busy sommeliers at Bern's Steakhouse in Tampa. With more than 2,500 American wines on his list (90% from California), Dixon believes that selling California wines is easier than selling wines from lesser-known regions.

"Consumers are more familiar with Napa producers and tend to order what they know," Dixon says. The same holds true for the haute-cuisine crowd at Cafè Boulud in Palm Beach. Boulud's intrepid sommelier Jenny Benzie keeps serious restaurant wines such as Opus One, Cain 5, Jordan, Insignia and Caymus on her list as guests ask for them by name. "They want California reds and love anything from Napa–just because it is from Napa," Benzie says.

But thanks to the popularity of televised food shows and movies such as "Sideways" and " Mondovino," wine-buying habits are slowly changing, both behind the bar and at the table. While more Americans are learning to sip and swirl like a pro, savvy restaurant managers create memorable dining experiences by tempting guests with food-friendly wines from outside of Northern California. Back at Bern's Steakhouse, that means including vinous gems such as Ken Wright Cellars Pinot Noir from Oregon, L'Ecole No. 41 Columbia Valley Merlot from Washington and spicy Rhone-styled blends such as Tablas Creek Vineyard from California's Central Coast on the list. How do these wines differ from their Northern California counterparts? Simply put, wines crafted in these regions benefit from cooler climates, making them excellent food wines with lip-smacking acidity and slightly less alcohol.

Adam Rieger, Wine Director at Bobby Flay's latest New York City addition, Bar American, likes to pair cool climate wines with Flay's signature dishes. Armed with the basic principles of food and wine pairing, Rieger sometimes steers guests away from California selections to avoid high alcohol that turns up the heat on spicy foods. Instead, Rieger tackles spiciness with cool-climate Rieslings or fuller-bodied whites such as Lorca Pinot Gris from Monterey County. The wine's flavor profile of ripe pear, nectarine and hints of dry flowers perfectly partners with Flay's Southwestern spices. For price sensitive guests, these wines also represent a better dollar-to-quality ratio, while simultaneously providing varietal identity and regional integrity.

Determined to boost wine sales along with customer loyalty, Sommelier Michael Tomaselli of Vue Restaurant in Hudson, OH, has replaced house "red and whites" with an affordable wine-by-the-glass program. Tomaselli beats the competition by offering a good selection of interesting American wines such as Willakenzie Estate Pinot Noir from Oregon, Barnard Griffin Merlot from Washington and Harpersfield Pinot Gris from Ohio as glass pours. In each case, the wine offers lots of fruit and crisp acidity to make them partner well with Vue's eclectic menu.

In Detroit, Michelle DeHayes, deputy wine director and sommelier for Matt Prentice Restaurant Group, takes the business of looking out for her guests at No.VI Chop House one step further by putting American "upandcomers" on her list. In addition to featuring Washington State-produced Bordeaux-style blends from Matthews Cellars and Andrew Will Winery, DeHayes' list includes two bubble-worthy American sparklers; L. Mawby from Michigan's quality Leelanau Peninsula and Gruet Winery from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Fondly promoted as "wines that deliver at their price point," these are the bottles De-Hayes loves to sell. "Today's customers are more wine savvy than they were five years ago. Having a diverse wine list shows your customers that you are working to create a memorable experience instead of simply building a list based on ratings." DeHayes believes the strategy keeps her guests coming back.

Although American wines from Napa and Sonoma rule, it's a big country. Focusing your wine list on American-made wines does not mean it has to be routine or predictable. Whether you credit the hoards of information on the internet or the recent attention from Hollywood, the American wine consumer is ready to try new labels. A few are even ready to take their first sips outside of California. Cheers.

—Marianne Frantz
Marianne Frantz, CWE is founder and president of The Cleveland Wine School.

Top Ten Wine Service Tips

Whether your establishment is formal or casual, knowing how to serve a bottle of wine properly is a must. Here are a few tricks of the trade that will score big points with your wine-loving guests.

  1. The bottle should never touch the table or tablecloth. Instead, place a b&b plate or coaster under the bottle.
  2. Open the bottle in full view of the guests and always have a white cloth and a waiter's corkscrew in hand. Present the bottle to the host and state the name and vintage on the label.
  3. Next, angle the knife of the corkscrew just under the last neck ring and cut the capsule. Wipe the neck with the cloth and place the capsule in your pocket.
  4. Remove the cork using a corkscrew. This can be done tableside using a coaster to the right of the host or at a side table/wine bucket. Opening a bottle mid-air should be avoided if possible.
  5. The cork should not touch the table. Instead, place the cork on a coaster or b&b plate alongside the bottle.
  6. Wipe the top of the bottle one more time and pour a small amount for the host to sample.
  7. Once accepted, wine service begins with the guest to the right of the host and continues clockwise topping off the host's glass last.
  8. Prevent drips by giving the bottle a slight twist as it is tilted upward from the glass. Use a white cloth to clear drips from the neck before pouring the next glass.
  9. Only fill the glasses 2/3 full. This enables the guests to swirl their wine and enjoy the full bouquet as it develops in the glass.
  10. Keep service flowing. Ask the host if he/she would like a repeat bottle before the first bottle is empty. If so, formal service dictates new glassware be placed on the table. But nowadays it is common to let the host sample the wine and then top off the guest's glasses once it is accepted. Changing wines will, of course, always require new glassware.

The Art of Selling Wine

So what does America's thirst for wine knowledge mean for restaurant lists across the country? Plenty. For starters, many restaurant managers are realizing that a bit of staff training goes a long way to promote customer service and higher check averages. Master Sommelier Matthew Citriglia shares a few tips that can make a real difference in your beverage program:

  1. Communication sells. Try replacing questions like, "Would you like something to drink?" with a mouthwatering drink suggestion such as a sparkling wine aperitif. It's the perfect beverage to melt away the stresses of the day.
  2. Keep water and wine glasses full. Doing so focuses the server attention to the table and to the other needs of their guests.
  3. There is no substitute for hands-on learning. Providing staff with printed information on wine and spirits is great, but in today's competitive environment education can make or break a dining experience. Conduct tasting workshops to give servers an opportunity to sample food and wine specials, possible pairings and new glass pours.
  4. Don't use ratings to sell wine. Touting ratings limits table talk, suggests the server has little wine knowledge and places the check average in the hands of a stranger.
  5. Do look for a break in the conversation to suggest after dinner drinks. Assuming that the guest does not want to sip a beverage after dinner leads to lower check averages.
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