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#IndustryTalks: Beverage Programs!

So you think managing a beverage program is super glamorous? Well, it is. Even with all the navigation one must do when curating for an operation (hotel, restaurant bar, retail, etc.), the overarching task is truly a riveting time in a beverage professional's career. A beverage program is a curated selection of cocktails, beer, and wine (the main triumvirate, but other beverage classes may also apply depending on the concept) for a restaurant or bar operation. The individual(s) responsible for building these programs must find a healthy balance between concept identity, local market appeal, and personal flare to be successful. I'm going to take a look at beverage program curation from those different vantage points this month & I'm bringing along a few industry friends for the ride! You know I love picking the brains of other professionals in this field and connecting more with those in my city who share my passion for hospitality. Nikole Elkins (Wine Director of Del Frisco's Charlotte) is one of those industry friends that will be sharing her thoughts with you all in this post as well------she's AMAZING!

Identity is the first hot topic of conversation when curating a beverage program. You aren't going to walk into an Italian restaurant concept and expect to find a list of all French wine producers. You will, however, expect to find food driven wines from different regions and classic Italian selections as well. That combo would provide a sense of shared identity between the beverage program and the operation. We curate with a singular theme in mind. I should be able to taste through a few options by the glass or by the bottle, and immediately understand the tale you are telling through your wine list. The cuisine of a concept will often influence the placements more than anything else. Wine & food are an insufferable pair that one must always seek to marry in harmony. A steakhouse is likely to showcase the big California producers we know & love to tame the juicy prime cuts, but equally as appropriate juice can be found from other regions without sending the wine list into an identity crisis.

"Full bodied reds from classic regions for a steakhouse are a MUST. The majority of our wine sales at Del's goes to California Cabernet and blends, but we also do massive sales on Bordeaux and Super Tuscans. In addition, you need options from the Rhone Valley, Brunello di Montalcino, Barolo/Barbaresco, Ribero del Duero, Rioja and Priorat if you have space. If you want to offer new world cab at a value, Bordeaux blends from Stellenbosch and cab/shiraz out of Australia are amazing options. I tell people all the time to take the $150 they would spend on a mediocre bottle of Napa Cab and see what that will get you in South Africa, Australia, or Spain!

I think it’s also important to maintain a healthy balance of classic and traditional producers, as well as of the big names and small production wineries. All of your Cabernet doesn’t have to be massively tannic and extracted, with high levels of new oak and sugar *cough cough Caymus cough*. Have some more elegant options with less new oak, like Mayacamas, Corison, Heitz, and Dunn."

- Nikole Elkins, Wine Director of Del Frisco's CLT

She called out Caymus & I'm not mad at it. You shouldn't be either! Especially when she gave some alternatives that A) stay in line with style of the restaurant and B) are great juice, no matter the concept they are featured in. What happens when you want to maintain the identity of the operation AND cater to your target market while building a wine program? If you've ever been to Charlotte, then you know it's a finnicky market to curate for. Half the time, Charlotte is drinking stuff that us wine heads aren't super excited about, but we want you to spend your money at our operation. YES, we'll continue to bring in Caymus even though we could list forty other options you could be drinking that tick all the same boxes at half the price.

"Charlotte loves fruit, alcohol, and oak. It’s hard to get people out of the Caymus-Silver Oak-Prisoner box. You have to offer these regardless of how you feel about them, it’s what keeps the lights on at Del Frisco's. I navigate this by offering options that are similar in style as well. Once you show people that there are new wines they can enjoy and potentially save money on, then you’ve earned their trust and can broaden their horizons even more.

For example, when I have a guest that loooooves Caymus but is open to trying something new, I give them a bottle of Mark Herold. Same extracted, high octane style. If Silver Oak is their jam, try out Honig or ZD! These wines are all American oak as well. For Orin swift fans, I turn them on to Stanton Vineyards. Same winemaker, but with higher quality fruit from more specific areas.

As much as we all know the Charlotte market can be very narrow minded, it’s our responsibility as sommeliers to preach the gospel and open those doors! I try my best to make wine as approachable as possible for everyone. It’s just grape juice, all the pomp and circumstance is really unnecessary and what intimidates the consumer. Lastly, don’t get too hung up on pairings. Drink what you want to drink with what you want to eat. I’m just happy that out of everywhere you could go, you came to me to open this bottle for you."

- Nikole Elkins, Wine Director of Del Frisco's CLT

Sommeliers and beverage enthusiasts who find themselves in leadership roles relish the opportunity to flex not only their palate, but the palate of their guests. We seek to educate our guests on grapes they've never heard of and underrated producers from our personal fave regions. That's how we inject a beverage program with our own personal signature. We never want to run the risk of curating a list that is too esoteric for the clientele within our market. As Nikole mentioned, some of those more familiar producers and wine styles are what keep the lights on!

The first beverage program I ever got my hands on was for Omni Hotels....and I hated it. It wasn't because I was forced into it and definitely not because I didn't want to be the wine buyer. I was completely unaware that beverage mandates were a thing, rather, a HUGE thing for hotel beverage programs. One of the biggest hurdles in curation can be those dreaded mandates. It stifled my creativity and my ability to bring in product that I knew would sell well. I learned to better navigate those parameters later on in my career the second go round, but boy was I pulling my hair (and I already don't have a lot) in frustration constantly the first time.

Why do mandates exist? Typically, it's the result of a partnership that a hotel brand or restaurant group has built with a specific beverage brand. This provides exposure for their products and builds brand equity amongst your operation and theirs. For example, DIAGEO is beverage partner to a couple hotel brands that may require you have Ketel One as your bar's main well-vodka or be featured in a certain number of cocktails on your list if you are overseeing the beverage curation. Mandates aren't inherently bad, and depending on the company you work for, you may be given more freedom while still playing within the rules of the mandates. Nikole highlights how your by the glass program can allot you additional creative freedoms, generate additional revenue on slow moving product, and introduce your guests to something new.

"I’m fortunate that I have a lot of freedom within my wine program. Corporate mostly handles by the glass pours and stipulates some bottle placements, but otherwise I have liberty over the bottle list.

I find ways to keep BTG interesting. One way is to offer limited by the glass features. On nights when I know we’re busy enough to move it, I’ll open a large format or something with some nice age on it and offer it as a high end pour for the evening/weekend. Perhaps even a properly decanted vintage port. The coravin is also an amazing tool allowing me to offer certain selections that might not move quickly enough to pull the cork. Flights can be fun too! Offer a familiar option along with a couple of exciting and different pours for variety. This can help you pour off some slower movers, and put a couple extra dollars towards your sales.

It’s also important to offer alternatives that people might not know about! Due to corporate mandates we went 6 months without an off dry option by the glass at one point. Just dry wines and a Moscato as our only option with RS. While a nice kabinett riesling would be the obvious off dry option, we poured a demi-sec Chenin Blanc from Huet on the coravin during that period. People loved it! It just takes a little hand selling and consumer education on different options."

- Nikole Elkins, Wine Director of Del Frisco's CLT

Even when your company imposes certain rules on ya, you still have to find a way to cater to the wide range of palates walking through the door. I love that she mentioned offering a demi-sec by the glass as her sweeter option instead of something typical like a Moscato. No palate should feel alienated when browsing the by the glass list------that's where the party should start each evening before the guests jump into the bottle list.

I appreciate Nikole giving her thoughts on beverage curation from her unique perspective as a Wine Director of a steakhouse concept. Her vantage point obviously leaned heavily into the thought process behind putting a wine program together, but in future posts in this series, you will also see some Mixologists give their thoughts on cocktail programming. So stay tuned for some more insights and conversations later this month that are sure to make you look at beverage menus far more closely next time you are dining out!

Psssst....also if you're ever dining at Del Frisco's in Charlotte, tell Nikole that I sent ya! Cheers! <3

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