Interest in wine is in the ascendant, yippy it seen to be cool again to drink wine again by those below 35 years old and not just an ‘old farts’ drink. Hipsters are exploring beyond shots and craft beer.
There has been long term history of interest and love of wine not only by those in the booze industry but people who simply like drinking it and there are millions of bars, bistros/ brasseries and restaurants worldwide. Never has the choice and diversity been greater. Competition is intense in international wine consumption centres of the world like London and New York.
In my home country, Bulgaria, creative and knowledgeable wine bar owners are in short supply. Why, I ask myself, when we produce such delicious wines to taste and drink, have great food, beautiful countryside and cities?
For me wine bars, restaurants are not just about profit margins, bums on seats and covers sold. It is much, much more. It is about sharing experiences, knowledge and ideas enabling guests to have a great time. It is essential in my view that the owner, manager of the bar and their staff love the product they sell and know the wines they are offering. A few years ago, earlier in my career, I opened a small bar and that is where I began to understand what was needed to take the general wine experience to another level. Not just simply plonking a bottle of wine on the table, taking the money and walking off.
So, to learn more I packed my bags, left my beloved home country, Bulgaria, and embarked on a wine journey. On my travels, I began to understand the basics of the hospitality industry. Location, so important, a busy town centre position with loads of passing tra c in contrast to a destination venue set out in the countryside. What type of ambiance, luxurious and possibly imposing in contrast to more comfortable and relaxed? Music or no music, that is a question, I dreamt of a ‘snug’ bar with the walls lined with shelves where people could dip in and out of ction, biographies and, of course, books on wine and food.
However, for me the most important consideration is the team, what do you think? I feel that a sommelier should be passionate, love and know well the wines they serve along with their team. For me wine is a living entity, a life form created by people, grape farmers, wine makers, the land on which the vineyard stands, the loves and trials of the wine being drunk in the glass and how that is re ected in its taste, smell and mouthfeel.
Sta training is paramount where they are knowledgeable, keeping up-to-date on latest trends and fashions, the ebb and ow of di erent grape varieties, regions and countries in addi- tion to a good basic grasp of the history of a wine and how it was made influencing its taste.
We, in Bulgaria, have a diverse and historic wine story to tell and share the bonus of our local grape varieties like the charismatic ancient Mavrud and famous Melnik which was one of Winston Churchill’s favourite wines. There are the deep ruby Rubin wines, a modern variety created by crossing French Syrah with Italian Nebbiolo and many more including Dimiat and Tamianka renowned for its luscious dessert wines. Bulgaria has the right product and we can promote it, increase public awareness through restaurants and bars.
A wine bar can be a centre for local wine culture, ‘gossip’ and, as I once read, “find the wine bar, restaurant where the wine growers and makers dine”, which is where you will glean the most of what is going on. I have still not tracked down the bar described in the book where wine legends Dominique Lafon, Christophe Roumier and Alain Graillot eat in Burgundy! What do they drink with what food? Oh to be a fly on the wall.
That takes me on to the alchemy of wine and food, in short, the more guests eat, the more they tend to drink and, hopefully, enjoy themselves: win, win and win all round. For me, I love light bites, nger nibbling food like olives, cheeses and charcuterie. When matching food and wine please don’t have the boring mass-produced cheeses that anyone can buy in a supermarket, made from homogenised, pasteurised milk but instead fabulous tasty artisanal creations from raw milk made with as much care as the wine they accompany. I will never forget the magic of a wine and cheese pairing, a lifetime experience when I visited Santa Rosa, California. There was not a hint of a flabby tasteless unripe Brie, Camembert and harsh blue cheeses there and it is these pairings that can encourage guests to try different wines with different foods or debunk false restrictions, such as the myth that red wine can only go with hard cheeses and beef or lamb. What about lighter reds with sh then?
These tastings can increase business during o peak quieter times in a restaurant and wine bar. Do not forget that the rent paid and running costs are for seven days a week and not just the peak times of Friday and Saturday evenings as way as Sunday lunch. Furthermore, an enjoyable wine and food matching evening will help to cement an ongoing relation- ship between the wine bar team and their customers. Personally, I have no problems with charging corkage on wines brought in by guests. Is there really a loss of pro t? We have not had to store the wine, service the capital invested in the cellar and it is a fabulous opportunity on occasions to taste new wines from di erent unknown producers shared by clients. Obviously not all wine sold can be on the basis of a “corkage fee” as then there would be no point in having a cellar but it can further enhance the breadth and balance of a venue.
Choice and variety help to keep a wine bar fresh and up-to- date, just don’t keep to the same wines year in year out just for the sake of it. A wine needs to earn its keep and justify being on a wine list. What is the point of offering a wine that was delicious one year and then lacked lustre from a di erent vintage? Guests will be disappointed and feel short changed. In contrast where it does help is when o ering tastings of the same grape variety such as Pinot Noir from di erent parts of the world with those of rigour from Burgundy with New World Oregon, Central Otago and across the Rhine in Germany Baden Baden.
Also, tasting a choice of wines is made easier with different selling formats, at the central London club where I work, we offer a wide range of wines by the glass of varying measures including 25ml, 50ml and 125 ml as well as 350 ml carafes. This is especially popular with the younger wine consumer, where they can sample a greater range of wines without initially buying a whole or half bottle.
It is easy to remember the public aspect of any wine bar but forget the unglamorous ones such as correct cellarage and storage, let alone serving temperature. Without these being covered the right way, it is like playing football blindfolded. Don’t be mean with the storage if your main product is the wine, look after it otherwise it will not look after you. Remember it is a living organism! I always make sure my team knows the correct storage and serving temperatures and if a guest finds a wine not right for them, then offer them a glass of something different as an alternative, while their chosen wine is brought to the desired drinking temperature.
I stand by the quality of the entry point wines I serve; I do not look down my nose at those who wish to buy the cheapest bottle on a list. If it is no good then why sell it in the rst place? A wine list and a menu have to start and nish somewhere and if your basic product is wrong, then diners are less likely to return. Therefore, on this basis I am not a great lover of deliberate “upselling”. When a more expensive recommendation is made, then to me it should be as a result of personal conviction and belief, not simply achieving a higher spending per head for that shift.
The romance of wine, running a bar/restaurant is to be balanced with the business practicalities leases, rent, cash ow and tax, yet a key to creating a pro t is having a good sommelier leading a good team. I prefer not to think of my visitors as customers and clients but more importantly as my guests who wish to explore the world of wine together with me and my colleagues, so that they feel comfortable with our thoughts and recommendations regularly returning to drink wine and taste food.