Operators need to boost knowledge on combining food and drink
AS a nation, we’ve probably never been so interested in wine, or been so knowledgeable about it. The same goes for food.
But our understanding of how the two combine could be much better – even though drinking wine with food is a centuries-old tradition.
We contacted several wine experts and operators last week to gauge the level of know-how in the trade on food and wine matching.
And their report card delivered a ‘could do better’ verdict on our hospitality businesses.
“Fine dining restaurants will have the highest levels of wine and food matching skills as a sommelier is more likely to be employed and this is one of their key roles,” said Guy Chatfield, regional sales manager for Chilean wine firm Concha y Toro.
“In the majority of restaurants and bars, however, the public generally asks what a wine itself will taste like, rather than whether it is a good match for the food. For this reason I’d say that the general knowledge in the trade is poor as there is little demand for staff to recommend a match.”
Chatfield’s views were echoed by Donald Mavor, owner of the long-established Tex Mex II Mexican restaurant in Edinburgh. He described the understanding of food and wine matching in the on-trade as “patchy”.
“Some restaurants and bars have staff who have been there for many years and as a result they know the menu and wine list very well,” he said.
“Staff are much less likely to be knowledgeable in restaurants where staff turnover tends to be high.”
Tarquin de Burgh, sales director at wine merchant Inverarity Vaults (now part of Wm Morton), is equally convinced there is room for improvement, suggesting that only “30%” of the industry can claim to have good knowledge in this area.
But he told SLTN he is encouraged with how seriously some operators are now taking the subject.
“It’s getting better all the time, and most of our clients now realise the importance of wine training in improving their overall service and boosting profitability,” he said.
“One of the main issues in this industry is the high turnover of staff; when casual staff leave they take their knowledge with them and you have to star over again.
“So, it can be costly to invest in training when you have a mix of casual and full-time staff, but the benefits to the business – and this has been proven by a WSET [Wine & Spirit Education Trust] study – most definitely outweighs any expenditure.
“Judging by the repeat attendees on higher-level WSET courses, most full-time restaurant staff generally want to develop their knowledge.”
Acccording to Chatfield, more businesses would be persuaded to train staff in how food combines with wine if they stopped to weigh up the potential commercial benefits.
“If restaurant owners saw it for what it is, a key opportunity to sell better wine, then we would probably have more staff suggesting wines to go with specific dishes,” he said.
“Staff should have a good knowledge of the menu with a couple of different price points to suggest to the customer when a dish is selected.
“To suggest a good match for a dish takes a couple of seconds: at best, they’ll hopefully make a sale, at worst the customer has said ‘no thanks’!”
Should operators elect to place more emphasis on food and wine matching then it could well follow that awareness among consumers starts to rise.
So far, though, it’s not a subject too many consumers ponder as they order a wine to have with their meal, in Chatfield’s experience.
“I’d say the public have their favourite wines and they generally stick to them,” he said.
“The probability of an average punter trying something out of the ordinary is very low as there is a big fear of being stuck with something they don’t like.
“Restaurants with good and varied lists have to work to sell them, but I’d argue that they give their customers a better experience by doing so.”
Back at Inverarity, de Burgh offers a slightly different view, contending that restaurant customers are starting to think more about the wine they order. He said the approach taken by the operator shapes consumer behaviour as much as anything else.
“It all boils down to how much importance the owners of the property put on selling wine and training their staff,” he said.
“If none at all, the consumer will probably go with the obvious selection of classic varieties, wines they feel comfortable with, for example Sauvignon, Merlot, Rioja or Pinot Grigio. If [operators place] lots [of importance on it], then most consumers will be willing to try new wine when it’s recommended to them.”
The big match
TARQUIN DE BURGH raves about the combination of Chateau du Cros with spiced orange tart.
DONALD MAVOR reckons beef fajitas work well with Rioja and enchiladas suisa match Pinot Grigio
GUY CHAFIELD recommends Chianti with tomato-based meat sauces and Argentinian Malbec with steak.
Image: Suggesting wine to accompany a dish takes seconds and could boost sales, according to suppliers.