Fall in Love with Pennsylvania all Over Again: Perspectives on the Local Wines in Local Restaurants by a Sommelier

By: Denise M. Gardner

Scott Zoccolillo, sommelier at Nectar restaurant in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, had the same experience with Pennsylvania wines that we hear too often.  New to the area, he attempted to taste a local wine, found it overly sweet, with little character or complexity, and wrote off the wines in the surrounding area for years.  Later he was given a bottle of Pennsylvania wine as a gift, and admitted that the wine sat in his wine cabinet for years before opening it.  He finally gave the wine a try, seeing that it was the last bottle in his cabinet.  To his amazement, he truly enjoyed the wine.  A lost customer to this local market was forever changed into a devoted connoisseur.

Scott Zoccolillo talks with local winemakers about marketing wines in the Philadelphia restaurant sector

Scott Zoccolillo talks with local winemakers about marketing wines in the Philadelphia restaurant sector

This story will likely sound familiar to you, as it is a story that most people in the Pennsylvania industry hear in their tasting rooms.  It was one that Scott found quite challenging from a sommelier perspective. “Local residents have a bad taste in their mouths,” says Scott regarding the perspective of Pennsylvania residents and their hesitation to try Pennsylvania wines.  “It’s much easier to sell local wines to tourists.  They want to experience the local cuisine when they are visiting, and fall in love with Pennsylvania all over again.”  Many wineries agreed with Scott, indicating that a bulk of their visitors was coming from metropolitan New York or suburban Maryland.  One wine trail actually spent several thousand dollars annually to advertise in states outside of Pennsylvania.

Scott took an initiative to start working with the local industry and discover his taste of Pennsylvania.  Nectar, known for their wine tasting list, features a variety of locally produced wines and Scott spends regular time with his staff educating them about wines.  “Pennsylvania wines have to be pushed.  They do not sell themselves like popular wines such as Plumpjack or Kendall Jackson.”  Additionally, in an effort to improve the promotion of local wines, Scott organized The Judgement of Pennsylvania wine competition, which was featured in June 2014, which placed California Chardonnay and Cabernet blends against the same varieties produced with Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania wines took 3 of the top 4 placements in the Chardonnay category, and placed 4th in the Cabernet category.

Today, Scott wins the hearts of consumers by blind tasting local wines.  He readily admitted to introducing a flight tasting – by the glass – in which consumers could try a local wine, a California wine, and a French wine all of the same variety.  This technique magically changes the perception of local wines, and is one I also used at the recent City Lights presentation in Washington D.C.  It forces people to taste outside the box.

At the regional meeting at Blair Vineyards on June 30th, 2015, wineries pressed the sommelier.  How do they succeed in restaurants?  How to local wineries compete with large distributors to get into restaurants?  The answers to these questions were quite thoughtful from Scott’s perspective:

  • Scott pressed that in order for Pennsylvania wines to improve their reputation – and to receive validation for their quality – they should start aiming to get in the Philadelphia city restaurants. He recommended getting the list of Top 50 restaurants in Philadelphia and making sure each carries at least 1 Pennsylvania wine.  “If consumers suddenly see Pennsylvania wines in each of those restaurants, it will eventually validate the industry.”
  • Scott admitted that is probably easier for many local wineries to get their wines in suburban restaurants. “Use your simpler, less complex, or sweeter wines for these restaurants where the wines can sell themselves or at places where there is no tasting staff.”  Today’s city restaurant visitors are more wine savvy and they are looking for quality, uniqueness, or an experience.  Scott encouraged wineries to engage in city restaurants simply to push the bar forward in quality and reputation.
  • Wineries argued that many fine restaurant establishments are not large sellers, and therefore, unprofitable for many local wineries. A solution to this was to find restaurants that push product well, and retain higher end restaurants for validation and progression.
  • Local wineries are competing with large distributors that offer hundreds of wines at various price points. Many wineries have had the habit of dropping off a bottle of wine for Scott, and he admitted that in the middle of a busy day, that wine was forgotten for weeks.  “Wineries need to make appointments and taste the wines with sommeliers,” and indicated that the best times to do this were before and after the lunch hours.
  • Be prepared to answer questions and sell your wine. “Sommeliers want to geek out about wines with you.  We want to hear about the land and spray schedules; give us technical details.”  This is key for wineries that plan on meeting with trained professionals like sommeliers and chefs.  They are going to want to know the wine’s story and how that wine is unique compared to your neighbor’s wine (or against the thousands of wines produced around the world).  Come prepared with basic data (pH, TA, and perhaps residual sugar), but also know how that wine is produced.  Sommeliers spend a lot of time learning technical details about viticulture and enology, so the focus should be on those things that will be of interest to them.  If you need some perspective on what sommeliers learn, consider taking an entry level professional certification course through organizations like the Society of Wine Educators (SWE) or Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET). You will see that a sommelier’s perspective on wine differs from that of a trained enologist or winemaker.  Taking the initiative to learn a sommelier’s perspective will ultimately help you see the world of wine in a different light, in addition to improving communication with other wine professions.  Ultimately this should lead to selling more wine.
  • Scott recommend following Dr. Kathy Kelley’s list of tips regarding strategies for getting your wines into local restaurants (http://bit.ly/WinesInPARestaurants), which was reviewed at the meeting. Everything she discussed in that article is key when trying to market your wines to restaurants.
  • It is a challenge for sommeliers or restaurants to manage all of their customers. Scott recommended that wineries need to follow-up and touch base with them twice a month.
  • Another challenge in our local industry is actually getting the wines to the restaurant. Make it easy for the restaurant.  Most wineries that Scott buys from will take him about an hour to drive to.  To get to the winery, pick up the wine, and get back to the restaurant, which totals over a two hour round trip in a very busy schedule.  Have the winery deliver the wine.  Better yet, make weekly trips to deliver to restaurants that source your wine or work with neighbor wineries to deliver wines together.  Other wineries have made agreements with restaurants to ship the wines and pick up shipping fees so that shipping does not impact the per bottle price at the restaurant.
  • Good personalities go a long way for the local wineries. If your sales person is kind, many in the restaurant will feel more willing to work with you.  Good personalities add a personal touch to your brand, and will allow the sommelier to feel more confident in recommending your brand to others.
  • Price competition is important for emerging regions like Pennsylvania, especially in restaurants. In general, restaurant customers feel more comfortable paying more for a glass or bottle of wine that they already know is of the quality or taste they prefer.  Scott highlight many of the local red wines of being a harder sell for restaurants, as their starting price goes into $40+ per bottle.  “I can work with that bottle better [in a restaurant] if it’s around $30.”  Scott highlighted that this is where the consistency – in quality and price – of the local white wines have been so successful at restaurants.  [This shouldn’t hinder quality red producers from searching in other markets or restaurant opportunities.  Washington D.C. restaurants, for example, highlight several local red wines that fall above the $40 per bottle price.  Perhaps these are wines that should be reserved for higher end restaurants.  The key is finding the market that works best for your business.]
  • Remember that local restaurants are a gateway to marketing your wine by “word-of-mouth” sales. If customers enjoy the wine, and especially if that customer is a tourist, the restaurant staff can encourage them to visit the winery.  Have marketing material available for the restaurants so that tourists can use that to visit you.  Perhaps they will enjoy their experience at the winery and buy more wine!
  • Form relationships with the restaurants you source wine to and remember that marketing goes both ways. Just as the restaurant can recommend customers to your winery, recommend winery customers to their restaurant!  Have marketing material in the tasting room to provide to customers who may be looking for a local cuisine experience.
  • Consider asking restaurants to host wine dinners or “dinners with the winemaker” as promotional events. Some wineries have found success by inviting restaurant staff members to the winery, but Scott emphasized that if the restaurant can’t come to the winery, bring the winery to the restaurant.  These extra touches set local wineries a part of the large brand competition.
  • Staff incentives go a long way, and if a winery can contribute something – discounts on bottles or cases, tours of the facilities, etc. – to the restaurant staff for selling their wine, then staff have a reason to talk more about the local wines to customers. Work with the sommelier or chef to determine staff incentives that will work for that restaurant.
  • For hybrid wines, Scott recommended finding a niche restaurant or wine bar that is looking to sell unique wines. Remember that many customers are unfamiliar with hybrid wine variety names, and they can be a very tough sell for restaurants.  However, for those establishments that focus on “funky, new things” hybrid wines could be quite successful.  Always remember that the wine has to be a fit for the restaurant in some way, so it could take a few tries before someone picks up a wine produced at your winery.
  • Many tourists will focus on websites like Open Table or Zagat to find restaurants to go to. “Find a way to get your wines mentioned on those websites,” Scott recommended.  “That will help capture the tourist market.”
  • If you are dealing with a stubborn sommelier or chef that will not try your wine, be persistent. “If worse comes to worse, blind taste him or her.”  Pair your wine against another wine of similar style (that will make your wine taste better, obviously) and pour them for that individual.
  • Understand that sometimes the sommelier or chef may not like your wine. A professional will be encouraging, but honest.  Scott said that there are plenty of times where he can appreciate the wine style, but he does not like the wine or does not see a place for it on the wine list.  Be ready to take criticism and try again.

The meeting ended on a very positive note, and hearing the perspectives of a local sommelier was thought provoking for many in attendance.

While there is a lot of potential for the local wine industry, it was obvious that there were also a lot of hurdles.  Don’t get discouraged, and if you read through this list thinking you may need a sales or marketing professional, that may be true!  Selling wine to restaurants and managing those relationships is a full time job.  Be realistic regarding your winery’s business structure and set goals specific to your business plan.  You never know where such effort could lead.

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3 responses to “Fall in Love with Pennsylvania all Over Again: Perspectives on the Local Wines in Local Restaurants by a Sommelier”

  1. Marc Supsic says :

    Thanks for featuring my video in the article! Events like this and the Judgment are key to promoting our state’s great wines to the general public. There’s really no question in my mind whether Pennsylvania wines can compete on a national/international level. It’s now just a matter of spreading the world.

    I’ve been a supporter of PA wines for over ten years now and I’ve seen them rise to such high quality in the past few years. They’re ready for a larger audience, and I’m more than happy to share the news.

    If you’re interested in seeing more of my videos about Pennsylvania and its wines, including tasting notes and food & wine pairings, please visit my YouTube channel:

    • psuenology says :

      Hi Marc, I can’t thank you enough for creating such a wonderful promotional video that features some of the great wines of PA. I’m hoping more readers will take advantage of your YouTube channel. And thank you for staying tuned with PSU’s “Wine & Grapes U.” blog. Denise

      • Marc Supsic says :

        It was my pleasure, I’m only sorry I didn’t get a chance to talk with you. If you ever want to set up an interview or do a video, let me know. Thanks for sharing.

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