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Any pub can stock wine. Selling it is the hard part, especially as drinkers are now starting to opt for quality over quantity, says Kelly Smith...

Any pub can stock wine. Selling it is the hard part, especially as drinkers are now starting to opt for quality over quantity, says Kelly Smith

According to winemaker E&J Gallo, the wine-drinking habits of pub-goers have changed. Gone are the high-volume consumers of old — replaced by more discerning wine customers.

"We are now working in a tough market, so don't assume your wines will sell just because they always have in the past," warns E&J Gallo's on-trade specialist Helen Moore.

And stats from Nielsen back this up — figures for the year to December 2007 show the wine market is down 4% in volume, but up 2% in value. In other words, pub-goers are drinking less wine, but paying more for it.

You don't need to be a wine buff to let customers know you're serious about the category. But you might need a supplier who can help fill in the gaps — starting with the wine list.

The first step is to decide on what's right for the venue — the more food a pub sells, the bigger the list should be, says Antony Rixon, business development manager for wine specialist Bibendum. "You'll get a good representation of the world's production areas by having between eight to 12 each of red and white, and two or three rosé, so there's something for everyone," he suggests.

Rixon says cover the popular countries and varietals — Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and Shiraz for instance — but also offer something that's up-and-coming as people are starting to try different wines. "Maybe Viognier because it can be produced reasonably inexpensively from all regions of the world," he adds.

In a tough market, choose wines that will deliver more value for the customer and a better margin for you. "Look for areas of value rather than always going for the traditional regions," says Rixon. "There are lots of areas in Spain producing wine, but people generally think of Rioja. In France there's incredible value to be offered from Corbières and Cahors."

As people's knowledge increases they'll be more interested in the regional aspect — so pubs should push the provenance of wine as they do with cask ale. Also, selling brands not readily available in the off-trade can provide a point of difference — and the chance to make a higher return.

The Butcher's Hook in Fulham changes its wine list up to four times a year. Out of the 62 wines it stocks, about 30 are offered by the glass, which keeps the choice interesting, says joint licensee Mark Winstone.

"We have four or five different wine suppliers, which means we can buy quite competitively and offer pub, rather than restaurant, prices," says the Greene King lessee.

But a good range is useless if it's not visible to the customer. Rather than being listed by price, wines at the Butcher's Hook are listed under tongue-in-cheek headings, making them more accessible — there are "regional and rustic", "precocious pinots" "juicy fruit" and "meditation wines: to be sipped reverently". The headings can also be persuasive. Under magnums runs the suggestion "no special occasions required".

Lists are supported by blackboards, which also carry regular tips helping customers choose at the bar.

The pub, which has won awards for wine and food matching, reprints its lunch and dinner menus daily to allow for wine suggestions with changing dishes. "It works really well in getting customers on-board. We seem to have quite a good reputation for that and it definitely helps sell the wine," says Winstone.

Short, simple tasting notes on wine lists are essential, although a verbal recommendation provides more opportunity to upsell. "Make it easier for customers to buy wine," says Greene King marketing controller James Rowe. "The power of recommendation is strong: if you like something, chances are your customer will trust your judgment."

Not everyone is comfortable "talking up" wine, as Rixon at Bibendum recognises: "I've worked with so many licensees who are scared to talk to their customers about wine, whether it's being worried about pronouncing a certain region, knowing exactly what the grape is or being able to give a description of the flavours when really what they can taste is red, white or rosé."

Good wine merchants will provide training and tutored tastings on-site for licensees and their staff, and may even offer sales incentives such as trips to Europe to find out more about the wines they're selling.

Pubcos are also doing their bit and confidence-building courses, such as Greene King's Wine Workshop, are becoming more widely available.

Suppliers should also be able to organise tasting events, which can help demystify wine and get drinkers interested in your offer.

Top tips to maximise your wine sales

n Antony Rixon, business development manager, Bibendum: If you find it difficult to get customers to try new or different wines, try suggesting them alongside the best-selling meals or compare them to something similar you know customers already like

n Alison Levett, chief executive, Enotria: Ask your supplier for advice on designing your list. The way wine is treated by a venue immediately influences its wider reputation. One improvement could be using down-to-earth language to describe wines.

n Helen Moore, on-trade wine specialist, E&J Gallo: Be creative with your back bar — two-thirds of purchase decisions are made here, so let your customers see those great wines you've listed.

n James Rowe, marketing controller, Greene King: Upsell. Put higher margin wines at the top of your list and don't categorise by price. Also, suggest a more expensive wine (the quality will be worth the higher price) when giving a recommendation and always offer a large glass rather than a standard one.

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