The power of suggestion: boosting wine-by-the-bottle sales

“Americans Prefer It by the Glass” is the title of a recent New York Times column written by wine critic and renowned enologist Frank Prial, who commented on the wine drinking habits of Americans. We tend to drink wine as a cocktail, without food, he noted. Unlike Europeans, most of us have not grown up with a bottle of wine on the dinner table.

And so another well-regarded wine expert tells us that wine by the glass is popular with our customers. If you’ve been reading the Bar Management Insider, you saw the recent article by master sommelier Doug Frost, who touted the virtues of a well-rounded wine-by-the-glass program.

So why on earth are we running an article on the importance of selling wine-by-the-bottle? First, to succeed at wine sales, you need to be ready to serve by the glass and by the bottle, and know how to make both programs work well for your guests and your bottom line. Second, as Prial goes on to tell us, there are a number of good reasons – reasons that you might not have considered – why you will want to see bottles of wine on each and every table.

The Advantages of Selling Wine by the Bottle

Although a good wine-by-the-glass program can be profitable, selling by the bottle tends to drive up wine sales. Let’s look at a typical scenario as an illustration. If a party of four orders six glasses of wine at $7 a glass, that’s $42 in the till. If the same foursome orders a reasonably priced bottle for $30, and has a second bottle, your gross would be $60. Sure, your cost is typically lower on glass wine, but you tend to take more dollars to the bank with bottles.

Bottles also increase server and bartender interaction with guests, which can drive up check averages. While a server is opening and serving a bottle, he can interact with guests, make menu suggestions, and create opportunities for further sales. By freeing the bartender, you give him more time to spend with guests at the bar, which creates fatter drink tabs.

And while wine by the glass can be more profitable, in terms of direct cost, bottles can indirectly increase income by increasing server and bar efficiency. From a practical standpoint, bottles are a more efficient way to serve your guests. Wine-by-the-glass sales keep servers running to the bar, increase the number of glasses that have to be washed, and tax the bartender’s time. Bottles keep the server at his station rather than hanging out at the service bar.

But bottle sales please more than your accountant. Bottles can improve your guests’ wine experience, which, in turn, improves their dining experience. Emotionally speaking, a bottle of wine (or two) on the table emphasized the value of wine as a focal point of the communal experience, which is an important reason why folks gather around a restaurant table with friends and family. And, unless you have an ideal wine-by-the-glass program, bottled wine offers your guest a wider variety of choices of freshly opened wine. Particularly at restaurants where the selection of wines by the glass is extensive but wine sales aren’t brisk, your guests might find themselves drinking wine that has seen better days.

Bottle Sales Basics

The wine-by-the-glass program gives you a way to provide guests with a decent glass of wine when they don’t care for a whole bottle. Leverage your by-the-glass program to sell wine to tentative drinkers or to introduce diners to varieties that are unfamiliar to them. Just don’t lose sight of your goal to get a bottle on every table.

How do you get there? First, train your servers to be sellers rather than order takers. In the restaurant, the ability to sell separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. Hire your wait staff with this in mind; it will pay off handsomely over time. Seek servers not for their wine knowledge alone, but for their attitude toward promoting wine. You can teach almost anyone to become knowledgeable about wine; salesmanship is in large part an attitude.

Identify your salespeople and pair them with those who have not gotten the sales religion. If you’re lucky, selling will become infectious, and the laggards will begin to move your wine inventory. If your order takers just don’t get it, you might offer to help them explore alternative careers.

Another important point is to understand that the first table turn sets the pace for bottle sales the rest of the evening. I train servers to pay extra attention to getting a bottle on every table during the first seating. As diners are seated for subsequent turns, they will take note of the surroundings. Subconsciously, they say to themselves, “Everyone here is drinking wine by the bottle. I should do the same.” We like to think of ourselves as individualists, but most of us run with the herd at times. Make this aspect of human nature work for your business.

Overcome Obstacles to Success

Like almost everything in life, including restaurant wine sales, we can be our own worst enemies. What are some potential and obvious roadblocks that any restaurant may face when it comes to selling bottled wine? For instance, do you have enough copies of your wine list to go to every table, and do your servers always present it to guests? Do your servers lack confidence in their wine knowledge? The following are four common obstacles to successful wine bottle sales, with suggested methods for “breaking on through” to the profitable side.

Your servers are afraid of looking foolish. Who can blame them, when they’re struggling to open a bottle of wine? My motto: The first 1,000 bottles are the hardest! Servers need to be completely comfortable opening a bottle – in front of an audience – or they will shy away from even asking a guest about their wine selection. New servers should be opening all the wine by the glass for the bartender, and be called upon to demonstrate during lineup. (See “Wine Service 101″ below.)

And while we’re on the subject of looking foolish, servers are often afraid to show their ignorance about wine. Wine is complex. How often do you provide training on the subject to your staff? Ongoing training often means daily emphasis on wine. If you’re serious about selling wine, it has to be a topic of discussion in every lineup. Set up tasting classes with a distributor or winery on a regular basis. Wine training should be educational, enjoyable and motivational. If you see glazed looks on your servers’ faces during your training sessions, you haven’t found the right trainer.

Another scary proposition for many servers is being posed with the question, “What wine do you recommend with.?” Mastering the myriad directives of wine and food pairing can be mental gymnastics, particularly with the range of flavors offered on many menus. There is really only one immutable law: People should drink what they like. We may offer suggestions, as there are some stellar combinations (you should cover this in your wine training); however, paying too much attention to what goes with what is yet another hoop through which we make people jump, and that can complicate the experience. Learn about the best and worst combinations. It’s fun and useful, but don’t be a slave to rules.

You’ve chained your guest to a telephone book-sized list. Variety is the spice of life, they say, and you are the proud owner of several thousand bottles of wine in your cellar. But right now, as your guest, I have been forced to make far too many decisions today. Could you just give me the CliffNotesT version of your wine list? Many top restaurants offer abbreviated lists that appeal to those of us who have neither the time nor the inclination to read through three pages of Merlots.

You have a problem getting the right bottle to the right table right now. Do you have a system for ordering and retrieving a bottle in a timely manner? This is probably one of the most irritating things for a guest. The wine shows up after the food is served, or worse, it’s the wrong bottle. Does a server have to track down a member of management to obtain the intended bottle? Are the servers unaware that you are out of wines on your list? If you answered “yes” to these questions, you need to get organized.

Your servers prejudge the guests. Guests may surprise you. A casually dressed couple comes in early, and orders domestic beer, and the server pegs them as “no wine here.” Or, they order a couple of glasses of White Zinfandel, and the server swiftly removes the wine list along with the menus after taking their dinner order. He makes no mention of the wine list, just proceeds to a terminal to enter their order, rolling his eyes upward and mumbling, “White Zin!” Undue prejudice against pink wine aside, this assumption can cost you sales.

And on that note, I’ll end the article with a personal anecdote. One evening, nearly 20 years ago, as a wine steward, I recall a party of four, dressed casually, that ordered a carafe of the house Chablis from their server. The server remarked to me that I probably would not want to bother handling the order. After all it’s “just a house wine.” I told the server, that I’d be happy to attend to them.

The server had taken their food order, and as I had trained him to do, he left the wine list on the table. I served the Chablis, chatted with the guests for a bit, and let them know I’d just put some new wines on the list, and I’d be available if they would like any suggestions. The server ran back to me several minutes later, and exclaimed, “They want bin 318! Do you think they’re serious?” I smiled and went to the cellar for my decanter and a magnum of Chateau Lafite.

You never know.

Eight Ways to Maximize Wine Sales

  1. Speed is important. Once the order is taken (and this goes for cocktail orders, as well), get the bottle to the table as fast as you can.
  2. Make the word “wine” slip into every first approach to a table, whether it’s a single diner or a crowd. Practice this approach on friends and family. “We have several new wines on the list, my favorite is.,” or “I’ll be right back with your cocktails, and I will leave the wine list with you to select something for your dinner.”
  3. Always assume that your guests want wine. It’s only a matter of which one they want. “Would you like a red or a white this evening?” Or how about “.wine for this evening? I love this Sauvignon Blanc with our mussels,” or “the veggie pizza is great with this Zinfandel – would you like to try a bottle?”
  4. Up sell the two glasses to a bottle. “We offer the wines by the glass by the bottle as well, and they are a great value when you’re both having the same thing – shall I bring a bottle?”
  5. When emptying a bottle, (always to the host) ask “would you like another bottle of the same or would you like to see the list again?”
  6. Don’t spend too much time worrying about what goes with what. Everyone has their own taste, and while there are good choices and great choices, screwing it up entirely is rare.
  7. Be aware of any wines that may be unavailable, so that you may inform the guest at the moment they order it, and suggest an alternative. Again, avoid delays; they cripple your sales.
  8. Even if you don’t drink wine, you can sell it. Find some wines with which you are familiar. Selling is storytelling, and remarking to a guest that the owner loves a certain wine or that the winemaker recently visited the restaurant for dinner can sell a bottle. Don’t be afraid to be creative.

Wine Service 101

How to remove a cork intact, and a bunch of other basic rules of wine service that every server and manager should know, are listed below. Copy this list and hand it out to your staff at your next lineup.

  1. The bottle is presented to the host. The host is whoever ordered the wine. Pay attention to this – don’t present the bottle to the gentleman if the lady ordered it. Say the wine’s name and vintage, confirming their choice, before opening.
  2. The bottle may be set on the table or a geridon (a French term for a side table), or opened “in the air.” Make this determination based on your style of service and set a policy for consistency.
  3. The server must have a clean folded cloth napkin in hand. Cut the capsule (the lead foil covering many corks) cleanly below the second lip, and wipe the bottle with a napkin. The cut capsule goes into the server’s pocket, and never on the table or in an ice bucket.
  4. Insert the corkscrew, but not dead center, or the opener will spiral down to one side. Look at the top of the cork like the face of a clock and insert it between the center and 11 o’clock if you are a southpaw).
  5. Withdraw the cork using the action of the opener as a lever. Avoid pulling the cork to one side as it comes up. When the cork can easily be removed, twist the cork with your hand and remove it. Avoid popping the cork out. Place the cork on the table next to the host’s glass.
  6. Wipe the bottle top again.
  7. Pour 1 to 2 ounces for the host to taste.
  8. Upon acceptance, pour clockwise (label facing guest) all women first, and then gentlemen, and then the host last (male or female). One 750-ml bottle is 25 ounces, and serves four, with wine left over in the bottle. Do not try to empty on the first pour – it looks pushy. No matter what your glass capacity, serve no more than 4 or 5 ounces. You may have to stretch a bottle for 6, but do not short anyone on that initial pour.
  9. Wish the party well by saying “enjoy.” Never re-cork the bottle on the table.

Reprinted courtesy of Restaurant Startup & GrowthT magazine. ©2004 RS&G, LLC. All rights reserved. For more information visit

Contact: Dave Grimm
(720) 881-5477