Wine and Food are forever intertwined. The evolution of the food culture has evolved hand in hand with the evolution of the wine culture in the United States.
Since more people eat than drink wine, wine still lags behind food. Just check out the amount of food shows on TV. They range from celebrity chefs to cooking contests. Wine…zero. I wonder if someday there will be a reality TV show about the wine business. Given all the characters and historical conflicts in the wine business it seems like all you would have to do is film, edit and add dramatic music for a “reality” show. You could probably make pruning vineyards seem like a life and death event…dramatic voice over with appropriate background music, “Will they decide to prune block 75 today? There’s lots riding on this decision for the winery”. If the Kardashian dribble can work, why not wine?
Nonetheless, all of us in the wine business spend a good amount of time with chefs and sommeliers in restaurants trying to get their approval and hopefully onto their wine list. Wine retailers don’t share this opinion of chefs and sommeliers. In fact, they are usually at odds with one another. Some of this is based on the fact that restaurants mark up the wine about 3-4 times from the retail shelf price. This sets up a natural conflict with the customer. They wonder why they are paying so much more for wine in the restaurant compared to the retailer. Ironically, the customer doesn’t seem to mind that they are paying a greater markup on the alcohol in a cocktail.
Restaurants typically want “unique” wines that are not readily accessible at retailers and certainly are not advertised by the retailer. This is difficult for folks who want to build wine brands. If your brand becomes too big, restaurants don’t want to carry the wine. One of the first questions you get asked by a restaurant is, “do you sell your wine to chain retailers?”. I understand the concerns, but wish the wine could be judged on the price to quality ratio, regardless of where it is being sold at retail.
This love/hate relationship between retailer and restaurant was never more evident to me than 25 years ago when I opened BevMo! store #2 in San Rafael, California. We had set up a celebrity chef for the Grand Opening to perform a cooking demonstration and sign a cookbook he had just written. Well, about half way through the celebrity chef’s cooking demonstration, the Vice President of Stores came up to me very agitated and red in the face. He told me that the chef was not cooking and was simply hawking his cookbook. In fact, his exact words were, “Dennis, that damn chef isn’t cooking anything. He’s just selling his cookbook. I thought he was a cooker.”
I thought that was pretty funny at the time. There was not much I could do to make this guy “cook.” Twenty five years later it strikes me as the perfect example of the strange marriage between food, wine, restaurants and retail stores. Little did I know then that I would be caught up in that vortex for most of the next 25 years.