Better with age

Here’s to giving customers something they can’t get at home—a really flash old wine.

Here’s to giving customers something they can’t get at home—a really flash old wine.

Offering cellared, or bottle-aged, wines can broaden your wine list and impress your customers. Yet creating and maintaining a cellar can be a challenge

Offering customers something they cannot get at home is the reason most hospitality businesses exist. Your menu, your levels of service, your premises’ ambience—these are all things that attract customers. Your range of beverages also has pulling power, particularly if you can develop a reputation for stocking good quality and attractively obscure wines, beers, and spirits.

This approach has—in recent times—worked well with regard to boutique and imported premium beers (particularly delivered via twin-tap set-ups), and also with single malt whiskies. Service of such beverages has helped to bring some dynamism to what has otherwise been a fairly static drinks market.

Yet is there room for some lateral movement on your wine list?

Boutique and imported wines have demonstrated this is possible, to good effect. Trendy organic wine might yet be still to find its on-premise, profitable feet. And low-alcohol wine, we keep being told, is in demand with consumers, yet just not the ones that seem to dine or drink out. Funny, that…

There’s another area, of course. Cellared, or bottle-aged wine. This sort of wine is a goods and service that certainly ticks our first box: it is invariably something that your customers cannot get at home. It also brings a higher level of wine seriousness to your wine list, which—depending on the nature of your business and clientele—might have a positive effect. Yet how to establish and maintain such an inventory, and how to sell it, brings some other challenges that need to be carefully considered.

Stocking wines to cellar on-premise (should you have such a cellaring facility) is not quite the sneakily clever investment it might seem. Your business has to carry the capital expense and wait for a day, five or 10 years down the track, when it can finally realise the profit. Or, if things don’t quite go to plan, the cost price, or, even worse, the clearance price. And much depends on what wines you invest in. Punting on an unknown cellar performer is risky business; whilst buying recently released wines with that essential cellaring track record and pedigree is expensive.

So too can be the practise of buying well-regarded bottle-aged wines at auction. A ten year old Penfold’s Bin 389, to choose one very obvious and still popular red wine, can fetch $50 on the secondary market. If you have customers that want to pay up to $150 for it on your wine list, then perhaps you should invest; but I’d suggest that such customers—like so many wine-price savvy patrons nowadays—seem to know the cost of every bottle of wine you offer them, from LUCs to Dan Murphy’s discount rates to online auction prices…

Should the customer not care about such base thoughts there’s still a problem of provenance. Too many aged wines bought at auction have a cloud of query about their kept conditions. Have they been properly cellared in a climate-controlled environment, or have they been in the hallway cupboard of a second-story, north-facing flat? In my experience, the latter is often the case. This point has been brought home recently—and powerfully—with the arrival of screw-capped, bottle-aged wines appearing on some wine lists. The screw cap might eliminate any cork taint concerns, but it does not prevent the wine from the damaging torture of poor cellaring or storage. These wines might not be ‘corked’, but they can be terribly ‘stored’, losing their freshness and vitality, and tasting like old, tired wines. Ambient temperature spikes are to blame.

The screw cap might eliminate any cork taint concerns, but it does not prevent the wine from the damaging torture of poor cellaring or storage.

Of course, should all of these inventory and establishment problems be overcome, cellared wines are, by default, going to be towards the bottom (or expensive) part of your wine list. To sell such wines you may well need other promotional and marketing ploys to bring in the right sort of customers. Offering such bottle-aged wines as part of a degustation menu might be one way, or offering older wines—in obviously very limited numbers—by the glass. Many owner/operators, however, have found out that the best way to sell such wines is very much by hand.

Given these hurdles it is worth noting that in the latest Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine (which it needs be remembered is, in part, a guide to a wine’s cellarability), the number of wines in the top classification, ‘Exceptional”, now amounts to seventeen. In 1990, when the classification was first published, only one wine was thus listed—Grange. If this reflects a growing market and demand for such collectable wines, then there could be a flow-on effect, with more and more diners wanting to try aged wine. Or this growing list of posh wines might simply reflect the growth in wine companies in Australia, which has increased fourfold since 1990. There is wine in abundance and not all of it current release. Be careful establishing or expanding an aged-wine inventory, and be sure you can sell it before you take the plunge.

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