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Beverage Trends: Insight from the Experts

November/December 2006

By Hope S. Philbrick

To identify current beverage trends at restaurants across Georgia, Restaurant Forum invited some of the state’s leading restaurant sommeliers and beverage directors to a roundtable discussion on Thursday, September 21 at Point of View, the bar atop the downtown Atlanta Hilton. (Experts residing outside of Atlanta were interviewed by phone.) Our panel of experts (pictured, left to right):

  • A.D. Allushi, Sommelier and Assistant General Manager at BluePointe
  • Daniel Rudiger, Sommelier of Bacchanalia and Quinones Room at Bacchanalia
  • David Dunlap, Manager and Wine Director at The Oceanaire Seafood Room
  • Hervé Pennequin, Dining Room Manager and Wine Director at Nikolai’s Roof, Atlanta Hilton
  • Chantelle Pabros, Sommelier at The Dining Room, Ritz-Carlton
  • Todd Rushing, Partner of Concentrics Hospitality Solutions
  • Doug Strickland, Managing Partner and Wine Director at Eno
  • Gregg Smith, Sommelier and Bar Manager at Silk
  • Tony Labatos, Director of Food and Beverage at Callaway Gardens
  • Heath Porter, Sommelier at The Cloister on Sea Island

Hervé Pennequin is Dining Room Manager and Wine Director at Nikolai’s Roof, Atlanta Hilton. A native of Lille, France, he was voted Best Young Sommelier of France at age 23 and has since achieved many awards including 2nd in the Best Sommelier of the U.S. competition in 2002 and 3rd in the Best Sommelier in the World competition in 2004. He has passed the Advanced Exam and is working to become the first “French Master Sommelier” in the U.S.Restaurant Forum: What wine trends have you observed in the last year?Heath: New World Pinot Noir is still very hot. I am seeing a trend toward Spain, Northern Italy and Southern France – I think due to price consciousness. There are some robust and full-bodied alternatives to high-dollar Californian wines. Greece is up-and-coming and so are some states like Virginia.

Tony: We devoted one of our “wine weekends” to the Southern Hemisphere and that’s the one that sold out. I think good marketing and the price/value relationship make Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa all hot right now. People are discovering Pinotage from South Africa.

Doug: Dollar for dollar, the quality to price ratio is very high for wines from Spain, certain areas of France and Italy. And these wines do go well with food.

Chantelle: With a lot of indigenous grape varieties that are unique to only Spain, it’s kind of this sleeping giant.

Doug: Isn’t that fun? I love to see all of these new indigenous varietals being explored.

A.D.: I think Greece is starting to improve the quality of the wines and do a much better job. There are some really good quality Greek wines right now out on the market and we’re trying to promote them.

Todd: There’s been a shift from Chardonnay to other white varietals. I see Riesling being the one varietal most recently that people are gravitating to.

David: I’ve also noticed that Rieslings are more popular and that guests are not just going for the residual sugar but for the essence of the varietal.

Daniel: Rieslings are a beautiful food wine and the grape is so versatile: You can have a very light delicate Riesling, a full-bodied rich one, a sparkling, icewine, dessert wine – the list just goes on.

Todd: I think the domestic market is realizing that acidity is a valuable part of making wines. California is slowly making a change; Washington and Oregon [winemakers] are ahead of [California] and are already making their wines that way.

Doug: Another trend is biodynamic wines, a greater apprecia­tion for the land and for the grape varietal with wines that have less oak, higher acid and are more food friendly.

Heath: I see people getting more experimental.

Todd: The public is increasingly educated [about wine]. People are more willing to experience new things [whereas] two to three years ago they only wanted to drink what they knew.

Hervé: Nine years ago pretty much half the dining room was full of guests drinking spirits along with their dinner; in the past two years, it’s more wine.

Chantelle: More people are asking for wine pairings than bottles.

Daniel: Wine pairings are an easy way for guests to expe­rience new wines without committing to a whole bottle of a variety or from a region that they’re totally unfamiliar with.

David: Half bottles are another way to introduce and match varietals with different courses. We’ve found it’s a way to help guests find something new – and we’ve had a lot of guests comment on how it’s refreshing to see a larger half-bottle list, especially if they’re dining alone or as a couple.

Chantelle: Two other trends that I’ve seen are a lot of vertical tastings, to get an in-depth view of how Chateaux perform over 20 or so different vintages. Also, I think collectors are starting to become more confident buying at auction, where it is exciting to find a lot of older mature wines that are ready to drink and also some good values.

Chantelle Pabros is Sommelier at The Dining Room, Ritz-Carlton. Now 24, she is the youngest person to have this role in the restaurant’s 22-year history. She won first place in the regional finals for “Best Young Sommelier in America” in January 2005 and will compete again in 2006. She is training for the Court of Master Sommelier.

Restaurant Forum: Any wine varietals or regions on the decline?

Gregg: Merlot.

Daniel: Overly-oaked Chardonnays.

Doug: Big expensive Napa Valley cabs.

Tony: We’ve seen a decrease in Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc taking over for Chardonnay.

Todd: Anything Australian. We struggle with anything Australian. I think part of that is lack of acidity.

Chantelle: Wines that are super high in alcohol and low in acidity.

Doug: We have to carry wines for the general public and not for our own palates. I’m really big on the varietal and terroir-driven wines, but people are still spending $70 on an over-extracted wine, so you have to have it for them.

Todd: I’m not saying we don’t all have those wines. But as we develop our wine programs we taper back on those. Hey, we all start someplace. There was a day when I was drinking Cold Duck at Thanksgiving – I’d never drink it now, but you start someplace.

Chantelle: I feel it’s my job to show those wines that are made for food and classics. Those guardians of tradition, great wines.

Doug: The ultimate thing is to please the guests, obviously. But at the same time we want to educate them and lead them in a direction [to help] their palates grow. It’s a balance. You have to lead them gradually along the way.

David: We didn’t grow up drinking wine in this country. We didn’t grow up learning how wine is meant to be enjoyed with food. I think balance is a great way of looking at it.

Doug: We splash people a lot. If you’re getting them outside of their [comfort zone], give them a [taste].

Todd: That is the education. You’re making friends. That is the goal.

 A.D. Allushi is Sommelier and Assistant General Manager at BluePointe. Originally from the Lake Lugano region of Northern Italy, he is a certified sommelier and is testing to become a Master Sommelier.

Restaurant Forum: How can a restaurant make the most of its wine list?

Daniel: Educate people, including wait staff. Recommend wines with certain foods. Keep a low inventory. Give people what they want. Do a fair markup.

Todd: Because there is so much wine out there, there are some great values. So as a restaurateur you can build a menu and get some great wine values in the $7 to $12 range.

Tony: Diversity. You can be all things to all people. Make sure you don’t have any gaps, feature all price points, all the flavors, all the heftiness from light- to full-bodied. Wine sales are up. We’ve seen increased revenue; it’s substan­tial. We don’t attribute this only to trends but also to action plans we’ve put in place like our expanded wine list.

Todd Rushing is a partner of Concentrics Hospitality Solutions, which includes ONE. midtown kitchen, TWO. urban licks, Piebar and others. He is responsible for creating the wine programs at the restaurants and has received numerous awards and critical recognition for his efforts.

Restaurant Forum: Do you allow guests to bring wine into your restaurants?

Todd: I don’t have a corkage fee in any of my restaurants. Bring in your own bottle if you want. My feeling is that you spent the money to buy this bottle of wine and now you chose to dine with me.

Hervé: Different way to look at that for me. Some restaurants have a few hundred thousand dollars in wine inventory. Why bring your wine? Can’t we supply you with some other great wine to discover?

Todd: I find people will drink something of yours first Рmaybe a bottle of Champagne or a white to sip until they get to their bottle for their entr̩e.

Daniel: I’d like them to not bring something that I have on the list. Something more unique or esoteric is perfectly acceptable. It’s even nicer when they purchase a couple glasses or a bottle of wine before they go into theirs.

Todd: I think nine out of ten times you’ll find [what they bring in] is something older or more obscure.

Gregg: What does everybody think about screw caps versus corks? What customer response are you getting?

Todd: I don’t think they care anymore.

Daniel: It serves the purpose of eliminating cork taint.

David Dunlap (left) is Manager and Wine Director at The Oceanaire Seafood Room. Previously, he was Kitchen and Bar Manager for Rare Hospitality Company and has over 20 years of experience working in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Daniel Rudiger (right) is Sommelier of Bacchanalia and Quinones Room at Bacchanalia. A largely self-taught oenophile, he has read extensively about wine and mentored with Yves Durand of The Sommelier Society of America, Inc. He has won bronze, silver and gold medals from the Atlanta International Wine Festival and an Entry Level Master Sommelier Certification.

Restaurant Forum: What obstacles are unique to Georgia?

A.D.: Finding a wine that a customer asks for that’s not dis­tributed here. You always want to give the customer what they want, but sometimes you just can’t get it.

Gregg: When you ask a distributor to bring something [new] in [to Georgia] it takes weeks, sometimes months, to get through the registration process.

Chantelle: While 34 states allow you to take wine home out of a restaurant, Georgia is not one of them.

David: If guests have a beautiful bottle of wine with remnants in it, it is unfortunate that they cannot take it with them.

Todd: Georgia law does hinder our ability to buy from somebody’s cellar. For us to [source] some hard-to-find or exceptional wines that just aren’t around anymore, we can’t go and find them because our hands are tied.

Chantelle: The people who dine in this city dine all over the world – London, Paris, New York, everywhere – where they get to experience great wines. They come here and it’s an obstacle when you have to pay enormously crazy prices for older vintages that come through distributor. Or you have to write endless letters begging people to send their wines to Georgia.

Doug: I was in a small town in Italy. A small producer says, ‘I won’t go to Georgia.’ We’re famous! A lot of producers won’t come into our state because of franchise laws; it does tie our hands in a lot of ways.

On a more pleasant note: Something unique to Georgia are Georgia’s wineries. I have found the quality is getting a bit better. People are more receptive to Georgia wines. People who aren’t from Georgia come here and they’re willing to try Georgia wine. A couple of Georgia wineries are achieving decent acidity and with food these wines work.

Todd: All 50 states produce wine.

Heath Porter is Sommelier at The Cloister on Sea Island. Previously he worked as General Manager and Wine Director for Diamond Head Grill at the W Hotel, Wine Steward at Ruths’ Chris Steakhouse and Wine Director and Assistant General Manager at Sunset Grill, all in Honolulu, HI. He won Best Young Sommelier Hawaii 2004 and holds an Introductory Certificate in the Court of Master Sommeliers 2004.

Restaurant Forum: Not always from grapes….

Todd: And not always good. But I think that leads back to the idea that wine has become more of a focus, a part of life. We can educate consumers. There’s a particular wine from New Mexico that I love to put in front of people.

Chantelle: I tasted something from Shenandoah Valley, Virginia and if I would have tasted it blind I would have had no idea that it was from Virginia. It was a great wine.

Gregg Smith is Sommelier and Bar Manager at Silk. He received top honors in the field of wine and completed Level One of London-based Guild of Master Sommeliers in September 2005; he is currently preparing for Level Two in the winter of 2007 and will continue his studies to complete his Master Sommelier certification.

Restaurant Forum: What advice would you offer to restaurateurs with­out sommeliers?

Heath: Keep prices down to keep the wines rotating. If the chef changes the menu quarterly, keep the wine list chang­ing at the same rate to give people an opportunity to try new things. Everyone can buy the stuff from the “Top 100” list, but that’s no fun. Make a decision based on what works best with your food and clientele.

Doug: Educate yourself and your staff. Get people from the trade to come in and help train.

David: Be broad with the wine list, [include] half bottles, have something from every major region as well as up-and-coming areas, have labels that are recognizable and some harder-to-find boutique-style wines.

A.D.: If you don’t have a wine professional it is so important to have a skeleton of what wines you really need to carry to support your restaurant concept. It’s not about personal taste; it’s really about whether customers are going to enjoy the wine.

Daniel: The wine should definitely match the food.

Tony: Besides being a sommelier, I’m a businessman. Sommeliers don’t work everywhere, but having one does give you a return on investment. People want to be educated about wine; they’re not intimidated by it anymore.

Doug Strickland (right) is Managing Partner and Wine Director at Eno. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, he holds a Certificate of Higher Training from the Wine & Spirit Trust in London, England and Basic Level Certification by The Court of Master Sommelier (and is a candidate for Advanced Certification).

Restaurant Forum: How about trends in other beverage areas other than wine?

Daniel: I find specialty cocktails have become more and more popular. Vodka keeps getting stronger.

Gregg: I still see vodka very strong and rum is on the rise. I’m starting to see more Cachaça, a traditional Brazilian [liquor made from sugarcane juice].

Todd: I see more rums available and people are choosing bet­ter rum. Tequila had its run but I think rum is the newest. The trend is more creative, more natural flavorings and natural mix­ers; real fruit juice as opposed to something that’s processed.

Heath: The super big trend has been all the flavored vodkas, and that got into rums and gins. What I’m seeing and am excited about is going back to classics with the highest degree of purity, more natural ingredients.

Tony: There’s a vodka flavor for everything in the world and it’s gone to tequilas. People are going to premiums. What used to be top shelf is pretty much well brand now.

Tony Labatos is Director of Food and Beverage at Callaway Gardens. Previously, he was general manager of Atlanta’s Ambassador Restaurant, owned and operated a chain of full-service restaurants, and was Food and Beverage Director for Georgia’s nine state park resort properties.

Restaurant Forum: Do you think consumers are willing to pay more for cocktails than they were in the past?

Todd: I think there’s still a ceiling. I’ve studied this because I’ve got a new restaurant coming and $14 seems to be the top tolerance here in Atlanta.

There is an education side to make sure that your clients un­derstand Dom Perignon costs what it costs – it’s an ingredient that we work with. A high-end 30-year-old scotch or the top-of-the-line oak-aged rum all have their price.

A.D.: I think people are getting more knowledgeable and re­ally know what quality is. People are calling more for a brand.

Restaurant Forum: What about beer?

Heath: It’s more about purity, there’s more consciousness of type and style. Belgian beers are popular. It’s more about food-friendly beer than sitting back and drinking three to four of them.

A.D.: I’m seeing more high-gravity beers from Europe. People are demanding more good quality beers with their meal.

Tony: People are looking for premiums now – whether it’s a microbrew or “Budweiser Select.” People’s palates have been more refined.

Restaurant Forum: What beverage category is most in­novative?

Chantelle: Bottled waters. There’s water coming from Scotland, Japan, South Africa, all over. It’s crazy. Also non-al­coholic beverage pairings. I get clients that come in who don’t drink and so they’ll try chilled teas, infused waters, infused juices, infused milks.

Restaurant Forum: Which beverages are on the decline?

Todd: Brown spirits: bourbons and scotches.

Daniel: You don’t see single malts as hot as they used to be.

Tony: We don’t see the amber liquors like whiskeys and bourbons really doing well. It’s seasonal in some cases. For us, single malt scotches are still very popular and we’re growing our list there.

Restaurant Forum: Are people changing their drinking habits?

Heath: I think people are getting to the point where they’re maybe not taking the big critics of the world as seriously as they once did. I think people are starting to experiment more and are going off their own tastebuds.

David: As far as having spirits before dinner, it’s generational. It’s interesting. I do see younger people choosing trendy cocktails like mojitos, martinis and reborn classics.

Doug: As we’ve evolved to a wine-friendly society, there’s still that generation that wants their scotch with a splash, and they want it about the time they open their menu. Younger people go to wine.

Hervé: If you start with something high proof, you lose your appetite and we’re out of business. Any wine can please a palate.

Atlanta is probably 10 to 15 years behind New York, but we are working very fast at becoming probably one of the largest – if not the largest after Vegas and New York – cities that is wine driven.


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