Creating Wine Promotions That Pay Off

People think the role of today's sommelier is solely to lovingly develop a wine list and to enlighten customers to its wonders during service. Ask any somm—after they're done laughing, they'll tell you nothing could be further from the truth. As the role of the sommelier continues to evolve, not only have managerial responsibilities become de rigueur, but also frequently include developing and implementing wine promotions that move bodies, bottles and dollars through the restaurant. 

The usual promotions range from as simple as half-priced glass pours, to as elaborate as a $300-per-plate wine dinner with a visiting winemaker. But what effect do promotions like these really bring to the bottom line of a restaurant? In the case of discounts, a Cornell University study showed between 69 and 87 percent of sales from wine promotions came from patrons would have ordered wine regardless of the discount.

But with a bit of creativity, sommeliers and restaurateurs can develop dynamic and profitable wine promotions that bring guests in and keep them coming back. Here are two creative, successful wine promotions that paid off.

Terroir Tuesdays at Table, Donkey and Stick

Terroir Tuesdays are the draw at Table, Donkey and Stick, a 50-seat restaurant in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood. “Terroir Tuesdays is a weekly series featuring wine that I find interesting, often hard-to-find wines or older vintages,” explains Managing Partner/Sommelier Matthew Sussman. “What we do is we bring these wines in for a Tuesday feature and we pour them by the glass for more or less our cost. I try to pour the wine for cheaper than if you found the bottle at retail.” 

A recent Terroir Tuesday featured a vertical of Diamond Creek, the historic Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon producer, highlighting vintages from the 80's and 90's for $12 per four-ounce glass—an almost unbelievable price for these collectible wines. Although the restaurant made virtually no profit on those glass pours, it did three turns that evening, on a night when Table, Donkey and Stick had previously not been open.

“We were talking about starting Tuesday dinner service, and I knew I wanted to do something that would be focused on wine,” Sussman says. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to promote our wine program and give our customers a chance to try really cool wines every week.” 

The promotion has become so successful that Tuesdays have become the restaurant's strongest nights outside of weekends, with the added draw of attracting influential industry guests and serious wine enthusiasts to the restaurant.

Photo: Nathan Michael


Wine Classes at Corkbuzz

Wine classes were part of the original business plan for Corkbuzz, Master Sommelier Laura Maniec’s wine bar, which has locations in New York City and Charlotte, N.C., but they've transformed guests into regulars. Each Corkbuzz location holds 15 to 20 wine classes per month on topics ranging from Wine 101 to more intensive classes, such as a Burgundy masters class. 

“Classes at Corkbuzz were the primary business model initially,” Maniec says. “We thought it would be great if guests stayed after class and could use their knowledge to enjoy wines at Corkbuzz. We didn't want to teach them and then just close the doors and have them drink elsewhere.”

Classes run between $50 and $100, and each is typically attended by 20 to 30 students, mostly young professionals and industry guests. But, unlike junior high, when class lets out, students don't rush for the door. “Many people meet in class and then have dinner or drinks and continue to use what they have learned to enjoy food and wine in our place,” Maniec says, adding, “Many of our best regulars started coming to Corkbuzz when they attended a wine class.” 

The Payoff

You might look at these promotions and say, “Yeah sure, they're owners and have the latitude to do promotions like this. My owner would not want to sacrifice the margin.” 

But as Sussman notes, “The profit loss on the wine that we buy for Terroir Tuesdays comes from our marketing budget. So the question is, is it paying off as a marketing expense? If a somm makes a strong case for what the marketing value is, most owners will listen. But it does require more work for the sommelier and whoever does the marketing for the restaurant, because it's not the regular operating procedure for most establishments. So yes, it means more work for everyone.”

But that work can pay off—whether you're turning a normally closed night into one of your restaurant's most profitable or developing a loyal, regular customer base, creative promotions can help build awareness for your wine program both inside and outside the industry. 

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