Whether it’s with sparking champagne at a wine dinner or punchy pinot noir at a tasting, Gainesville’s restaurants, shops and grocery stores are taking advantage of wine’s powerful draw to keep current customers coming and to bring new ones in.
“Alcohol is somewhat recession-proof,” says Marjorie Speer, a wine distributor with OPICI wines. “I think with the economy the way it is people still want to drink, but they’re drinking less expensively.”
For many, that means going to the grocery store to buy wine instead of going out to enjoy a meal with drinks, explains Bob Smith, a wine distributor with Stacole Fine Wines. To reverse that trend, restaurant and shop owners are using tastings and wine dinners that make an evening out both entertaining and educational. “It’s more to get people back in the doors and in the restaurants to spend money,” he says.
These dinners and tastings range in price from free to $75 or more (including food) and have several special features to lure clients. First, you can try-top notch wines for a much lower price than buying a bottle for yourself. In many cases—and especially with wine dinners—the wines are expertly paired with up to five courses at some restaurants.
Bert Gill, chef and owner of Mildred’s Big City Food, Ti Amo! and New Deal Cafe in Gainesville, offers wine dinners regularly at Ti Amo! He says the meals are planned to complement the wines. “With the wine being the prominent flavor profile, we manipulate the food secondarily,” he says. “The idea is to create a buzz about what we’re doing and who we are and what our price points are.”
In addition, many of the merchants who offer tastings and dinners feature an educational component that gives customers a chance to learn more about wine, its history or winemaking. At wine tastings, wine suppliers or wine makers bring wines for customers to try and they explain a bit about the product in the hopes that customers will gain a greater understanding and will become more loyal, Smith says.
“This gives the prospective buyer an opportunity to hear from the ‘horse’s mouth’ why the maker thinks his wines are better, or special, or whatever,” explained Frank Stagl, a long-time and frequent customer at the Wine and Cheese Gallery’s wine tastings.
TV Helps Drive Interest
Right now, Smith says he sees a real craving in customers to beef up their knowledge due to increased cultural interest in food and wine. This stems from the all the around-the-clock cooking shows like Top Chef and the organic movement.
“It is a cultural phenomenon,” he says. “All those things have really made wine and food more accessible to John Q. Public, who was never really involved in wine before.”
Stagl says he saw this increased interest reflected in the fact that he had to be put on the waiting list for a recent tasting of Californian cabernets. He says many of the events are now sold out.
Speer also says she sees people from all kinds of economic and social backgrounds at her tastings. “It’s no longer elitist,” she explains.
Growing Interest among Students
One new group of people trying to find their footing in the world of wine is students, says Daniel Eddy, a local wine expert who has worked at local institutes like Gator Spirits and Dorn’s, writes the Gainesville Wine Pairing column on examiner.com and is the instructor of University of Florida’s wine classes. In fact, so many students are interested that Eddy has expanded his wine tasting courses from one each semester to two.
“I’ve always wanted to learn more about wine,” says Madison Hill, a UF undergrad who is considering a career in the wine industry. “They say the best way to learn is to try.”
Hill says her favorites are the “big reds”: bordeauxs, cabernets and malbecs. Hill’s tastes reflect those of Gainesville, with Speer saying that cabernet and malbec grab the top wine picks in the city these days.
With more than 30 years of experience tracing the trends in alcohol consumption in Gainesville, Wade Tyler, the owner of the Wine and Cheese Gallery, explains that this widespread love of red is part of a longer-term movement in how people drink. It actually follows a color spectrum, he says. Fifty years ago, people drank brown stuff: scotch and rum. Then came the time for clear liquor with vodka and gin. In the ‘90s, you started to see white and blush wines in the social scene, he explains. And now, reds have gained predominance.
Speer says people’s attitudes toward drinking have changed along with what they drink, with scientists telling us wine in moderation can be healthy. In addition, wine has become a more social and enjoyable part of our everyday lives, She says.
A Full-Bodied Experience
It’s more than just health and education that are drawing customers to wine dinners and tastings. Many are coming for the social experience. At Embers Wood Grill, sommelier and co-owner Ryan Todd says wine dinners start off with a reception and champagne where guests can mingle. Then, guests sit together for five courses each accompanied by a different half- glass of wine.
“By the time you’re done, you’ve had a lot,” Todd says.
This past summer, Clif Nelson, the chef and owner of Paramount Grill, added wine dinners and they’ve proven successful. In a mutually beneficial arrangement, Tyler of the Wine and Cheese Gallery uses his e-mail list to promote Paramount’s dinners and then Nelson sends customers who want to buy the wine they’ve tried at the wine dinners over to the gallery to purchase it.
In the local area, restaurants and stores have a great mix of loyal customers, new people moving to Gainesville and new students turning 21 all “wanting to explore the world of wine,” Speer says. Now Leonardo’s 706 is looking to do wine tastings with Speer because they’ve witnessed how customers will come out to have someone to explain the wine to them and to enjoy a great social atmosphere and prices, she says.
“Every one I do, I see someone new,” Speer says. “It’s really a great value and an experience you really couldn’t have so much at home,” Speer says.