Perfect match

They put in extra effort: you reap the rewards.

They put in extra effort: you reap the rewards.

It’s not always easy dealing with boutique wineries, but get the relationship right, and they can be a very useful partner in your business

Symbiotic relationships are the best. That permanent and reliable union between two organisms which guarantees a beneficial and lucrative mutual existence. It is a wonderful thing. So if it can exist in nature, can such a relationship exist within the Hospitality Industry? To anyone running a restaurant or a bar, the answer might be ‘no’. Such businesses often feel the exact opposite, as if they are the beast being set upon and consumed: taxes, wages, compliance costs… Isn’t there some aspect of the hospitality industry that can be more symbiotic towards your needs? Yes. Small wineries. Boutique wineries. They can be your friend, and a good partner in business, too; yet there are some tricks to getting the relationship right.

For a start, small wineries can often lend you the sort of wine list chic that bigger, often franchised restaurants cannot be bothered with. For far too many licensed premises, the easy way out is to hand all the wine and drinks needs to one rep from one company. It means you’ve got one point of contact and just one account. Indeed, put so simply, it almost sounds attractive. In reality it makes for same-same wine lists with mark-ups invariably exposed by the all-too familiar retail prices many customers can quote chapter and verse. You are left with no room to manoeuvre, and it is all down to the fact you’ve got a bog standard wine list.

Where things can be levered to everyone’s advantage is in the boutique department. If you are running a small business selling food and wine, and if you can develop relationships with small wineries, then there’s a good chance that both businesses can be winners.

Ian Marks, from the Yarra Valley vineyard and winery Gembrook Hill, thinks this approach works.

“We’ve been here since 1983, and over that time—but particularly more so during the last ten years—that happy link between restaurants and ‘boutique’ wineries, which I guess is what we are—has been very healthy. A good relationship has certainly been our experience.”

Marks points to some key areas in this profitable relationship between boutique wineries and smaller, hands-on restaurants. One involves restaurant staff.

“It is great to see wait staff from various restaurants come up to our place.” (Gembrook Hill is about 50 kilometres south-east from Melbourne, in the lower, southerly reaches of the Yarra Valley.) “Our climate here is a little different to that of the greater part of the Yarra Valley, and we put a big emphasis on viticulture. We put a fair bit of trouble too, I suppose, into tastings and barrel tastings and so on, but I feel that’s part of a successful connection between a restaurant’s wine list and a small wine maker like ourselves.”

The rise of the sommelier over the last decade has also been an important link in the relationship. Marks thinks this growth in restaurant staff expertise really helps bond the two businesses together. “The [restaurant] staff are very knowledgeable about wine,” he says.
“It is amazing knowledge, really—even down to winery applications…”

Marks’s comments suggest that if a restaurant or bar operator is serious about wine, then there’s certainly support from smaller wineries regarding winery visits and some incidental professional development. If that makes your staff happier about their job, then it can only lead to a happier floor and happier service. In such an environment surely customers will make more generous purchasing decisions?

Marks’s one proviso about the successful nature of a restaurant and boutique winery relationship is the wine. “I think if we put in the effort with sommeliers and restaurant staff, they put a similar effort into selling the wine. But this only works if you’ve got good wine! The wine has to sell itself on its own merits of quality too.”

Boutique wines can fill a part of your wine list that allows for individualism and discovery—for your customers, that is.

Given Gembrook Hill’s reputation for elegant and stylish wines—such as chardonnay, pinot noir, and even a sauvignon blanc that is refined and, well, un-sauvignon blanc-like, it is the sort of boutique winery that makes the perfect fit
for a wine list. And what is that fit? What should you be looking for in a boutique wine to run on your list? Two key points here:

′ It needs to be a niche producer with a niche reputation. This means wine devotees know and love the wine, but for the more general customer, the wine can be a discovery product—if sold the right way by staff.

′ It also needs to be a wine that has a relatively low-profile when it comes to retail land. This makes for a better pricing model for your wine list. Boutique wines, in this sense, are always going to have a higher LUC than other unknown brands, as evidenced by some of the very low-LUC prices for some average-quality imported wines of late. But this is yet another advantage for boutique wines: landing in the mid-$20s, these wines might not be your entry level products, but they do have a story, a vineyard, and a sense of place. They’ve got their own personality. And unless your sommelier was formerly a dodgy used-car salesman, then that sort of information is hard to invent… at least, in a believable manner.

Using boutique wines to your advantage can be a profitable and reputable practise; but the notion of symbiosis is a two-way street, one has to remember. And Chief Executive of the Association of Australian Boutique Winemakers, Judith Kennedy, points out that some aspects of the relationship between boutique wineries and restaurants can, in tough economic times, become a little strained. “Restaurants can take a long time to pay,” Kennedy comments. “And when the squeeze is on, I think a lot of restaurants find it easier maybe to get one invoice [from a wine distribution company] than fifty.”

Yet Kennedy also recognises the importance of boutique wines’ presence on wine lists. “It really is a great path to market, particularly through sommeliers,” she says. Yet that reputation a small winery might garner has to be balanced against the relatively small number of cases of wine that might be sold through one restaurant. Compare that even further with total winery sales through on-premise accounts and it is clear the restaurant is actually in a position to profit more easily from boutique wines than one might originally have thought.

“It’s anecdotal,” remarks Kennedy, “but maybe 10 per cent of boutique wineries’ sales are through restaurant listings? No wonder wineries try to keep cellar door sales strong.”

For restaurateurs, however, the message is pretty clear: boutique wines can fill a part of your wine list that allows for individualism and discovery—for your customers, that is. Yet if your wine-obsessed floor staff like the boutique wine angle too, maybe everyone can be happy.

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