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A Server's Perspective:
Selling Wine in a Recession

I'm sure it will shock you to find out that the country is in somewhat of a recession. "Egads! A recession you say?"

OK, enough sarcasm. People are scaling back on the luxuries in life, such as traveling, entertainment, and dining out. The people that still are dining out are cutting back as well. Where a table may have traditionally ordered a $40-$60 bottle of wine with dinner, they are now content with ordering one cocktail, glass of wine or a couple of beers for the evening.

While a bottle of wine with dinner might seem essential to you or me, this may not be the case with your diners. Below are some surefire strategies that will convince your diners that they need not skip the vino in order to stay within their budget.

- Half bottles- Repeat after me: "The 375 ml is your friend." The average half bottle will generally cost as much as two high end martini drinks, so let your diners know what you have available. Do you think your customers would rather be drinking a nice Oregon Pinot with their medium-rare Ahi tuna or an espresso martini?

Don't be afraid to talk about a wine's value: Some servers and sommeliers think that guests will be turned off if any comment is made about the cost, but I assure you 99 percent of your diners will not care, especially if you phrase it the correct way. Something like, "The Rosenblum Zinfandel should compliment your pan-roasted pork chop nicely, and at $35 it represents one of the better values on our list."

Refrain from using words like 'cheap' or 'low-end' for wines at the low end of your list's spectrum; rather, you will want to use adjectives like 'value', 'bargain' and 'drinking above its price point' to make the diners think they are getting more than their money's worth. Try not to come off like a used-car salesman. Your goal as a server should be to be your guests' advocate, so let them know you are looking out for their best interest by recommending a wine that represents great value.

Offer a taste: Sometimes it will take a lot for a guest to commit to ordering a wine by the glass, especially one that is priced over $10. When I was a server and recommended a glass of wine, I would always ask unsure guests if they would like to taste the wine before committing to it.

Not only will they feel like you are looking out for their enjoyment of the evening, they also get to sample what they are considering buying before pulling the trigger. If they like it, great; If not, ask if they would like to try any other wines you offer by the glass. Before you do this, make sure it is okay with the manager, but they shouldn't have a problem with this considering this is going to the potential sale of a product.

Choose your varieties more carefully: We all know that there is some great Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on just about every wine list in the country. This is why people order them as their default wines. The problem is that most of these wines do not represent great value, so the customer may end up feeling ripped off in the end.

Instead of pushing that Jordan Cab or Chehalem Pinot, why not angle your guest to something they would enjoy equally as much but at a lower price point? Right now, you can find great Malbec, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat and Chenin Blanc that represent much better value than the standard mass-produced high end offerings non wine-savvy diners continually order.

Sure it is counter-intuitive to "down-sell" your guests, but a diner is much more likely to tip well on their wine if you had a hand in choosing it. You also will gain more regulars this way who will continue to come back and tip you well.

The mistake many in the restaurant industry make when it is a little slow is that they try to maximize the expenditure of every guest to make up for the lack in overall sales.

What you should be doing at a time like this is doing everything in your power to turn each and every guest into a regular who will come in as long as their budget allows. Over the past few months, I have noticed restaurants around my town actually raise their menu prices to try and overcome their lack of clientele, which is completely crazy to me. The economy will rebound at some point, but you will never be able to regain the customers you lost while times were tough and you jacked up the prices on them.

The same is true for servers - you might feel the need to try and sell every table a $75 bottle of Cabernet because you are only getting four tables for the evening, but I guarantee you most of those customers will be lost forever because many of them will feel they were being gouged at your establishment.

Read the online reviews of your restaurant. See what people are saying - if it is related to high prices, you could be in trouble. Make them feel comfortable regardless of how much they are spending and help them get the most for what they can afford. If you hang on, follow my advice and provide the best service possible, I'd be willing to bet your section will be full of regulars for months and years to come.

Jorge Eduardo Castillo is a representative of Vino 101, which provides on-line server wine training. Visit for more details.

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