Serve or Die: The Importance of Wine Service in Today’s Economy

Vinted on March 4, 2009 binned in commentary

The economy is in the toilet.

Not exactly a news flash, right?

So why does it seem to be such a revelation to wine bars, restaurants, an wine tasting rooms that they are in a battle for their very survival in this economic crisis?  I say revelation because so few of the ones that I run into seem to get it, in terms of understanding that raising the bar on their service might be an important survival tactic in today’s economy.

Poor wine-related service has been the focus of a few recent posts in the blog-o-world (e.g., see Wine Diver Girl’s “Hospitality Fail”), and I myself had a recent misadventure at a local wine bar / restaurant (which shall remain nameless but not anonymous) whose wine service has been on the skids since the departure of their wine director some months ago.

Certainly these days if you are in the wine service industry, then you are in a battle of survival for the fittest.  And what’s the evolutionary genetic mutation that will give you superiority to weather this economic storm over your rivals?

In a word: Better Service.

Crap.  That’s two words.

Anyway,  that’s the message that I took away from the excellent February issue of Sommelier Journal, which should absolutely be your field guide for any journey deep into the wine geek forest.  Not about “better service” being two words (I didn’t need the magazine to tellme that one), but about raising the bar on service being the equivalent to holding the high position on the ebenemy in this war for the ever-shrinking  dollars of customers’ disposable incomes. Ah, you know what I mean…

The February issue of SJ is dedicated entirely to the topic of bettering wine-related service – and not a moment too soon.  There are a number of standout articles offered up in February’s release, but the items that resonated the most with me were penned by former Roy’s wine director (and now consultant) Randy Caparoso:

The old approach of accumulating the biggest, most all-encompassing wine list possible has grown, well, old, and, in times like these, is about as useful as burning money… The battle for survival in 2009 may well hinge on improving the experience of our guests.

Sage advice.  It’s not rocket science, but it needs to be said loud and clear because it’s never been more true than in the economic downturn of 2009.

Randy should know – he’s been in the service business for, well, for about forever:

“When I started at 18, 19 years old, I was working with 40-, 50-, sometimes 60-year-old people who had been doing it since before I was born. That doesn’t exist any more, so in this day and age, service has to be well defined.”

Bingo.  This is NOT difficult to do – it’s only difficult to do consistently.  But your establishment’s life just might depend on it.

Getting a leg up on your competition might be as simple as offering better and more friendly service than your competition, even if you change nothing else about how you do business.  And it costs essentially nothing to get that started.

Back to Randy:

In a recession, improving service is the most cost-efficient path to success. You can kill ’em day and night on the floor, but service begins long before the guests walk in; in terms of a wine program, it means a list that not only enhances the cuisine, but is also readable and friendly. If you’re too lazy to offer descriptions of your best selections, or so naive as to think the majority of your guests actually enjoy wading through page after page of phone-book-like listings, you have only yourself to blame if you succumb to this battle that’s rattling our windows.”

Having a staff that’s not only friendly, they’re also knowledgeable about the wines on the menu and how they pair with your restaurant’s cuisine?  Sweet!  If I were in the service biz, I wouldn’t be considering that a luxury.

I’m well aware that these ideas are conceptually simple but sometimes difficult to deliver consistently well in practice.

Sure, it takes time and effort to train the staff, and to keep them educated, but your guests are now expecting this level of service – and if you don’t deliver it, your competition just might.

And then, well… you’re S.O.L.

Survival of the fittest.

Anyone in the wine service industry would do well to check out that February edition of Sommelier Journal.   Just don’t say you weren’t warned.







  • mydailywine

    No doubt that great service engenders loyalty amongst your customers. Look at Zappos!
    Awesome that you extensively quoted randy Caparoso, that man is a legend.
    But I think part of the equation is the actual wine list. Long and esoteric is old school.
    But so is the short but extremely commercial and safe list (KJ Chard is your only whote BTG option?).

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks – and totally agree with you. I don't mind "safe" picks on a wine list, but I do like to see *some* offerings that show the staff cared about the selection, and didn't leave it up to the distributor / reps / etc. Cheers!

  • 1WineDude

    Hey WDG – I agree that the BS detectors are on hair triggers these days for most restaurant-goers.

  • 1WineDude

    Great point, Dirty. But I am not sure the calculation is that simple – wouldn't it also include goodwill, as well as not losing customers to your competition (as opposed to increased tips,etc.)?

    I *am* sure that it's difficult and time consuming to keep staff educated on a wine list in a field that has relatively high turnover.

    And your awesome comment has me already thinking about a followup post – I could certainly interview some local restaurant staff to get more insight on this topic and go a bit deeper…

  • Phil

    I think you are absolutely right: you have to want and enjoy performing service in order to do it well night after night. It's really a state of mind more than a skill set. Bobby Stuckey says in the roundtable that one of his servers says "Service is partly your mistress, partly your life partner, and partly your business partner, if you're going to be a professional. You need to be "in love" and you have to be "in lust" with service."

  • 1WineDude

    Thanks, Phil. Great point about the bad experiences spreading quickly via the Internet – just look at the recent example from Wine Diver Girl above.

  • WineDiverGirl

    Interestingly, though, there are still people in hospitality that do take great umbrage at their coworkers laziness or lack of interest or whatever it is. The turn around for me recently after a BAD winery visit was NOT the Hospitality Director's apology e-mail (just doing her job), but was that the winemaker saw my post and reached out to me "offline" …he was concerned about the bad service, etc…he was heart-felt and, well, if you saw this e-mail, he really GETS it…and he's not even directly involved in the tasting room! So, YES, I totally agree, Phil…you make it sound so ….juicy! And yes, 1WineDude, when everything else is bring trimmed back, it is amazing how far smiles, personal interaction, and heart can go in creating a better experience!

    • 1WineDude

      Awesome to hear about the positive followup.

  • 1WineDude

    Update: another service FAIL, this time from a winery wine club, reported over at Wannabe Wino:

  • Gary "Iron" Chevsky

    What do people think about service in wine retail shops — how do you see their service differentiating one from another. What elements of service would make YOU shop in a wine store in this economy?

  • 1WineDude

    *Great* questions.

    I live in PA, so the standard I have in terms of service in wine shops is probably very low due to the PLCB controlling them through their state-sponsored monopoly, with no incentive whatsoever to improve service. My experience has been that 60% of the time, the staff is pleasant, and either ambivalent or downright rude the other 40% of the time. Maybe 5% of the staff I've spoken to have any wine knowledge – and that's a generous percentage.

    Take a short trip south, across the state border, and I've got access to Moore Bros., which has a fantastic shop full of knowledgeable people who are passionate about wine, among them fellow wine blogger Dave McDuff (

    The key for a wine shop, for me, is that combo. of passion and knowledge. If they have that, then they can recommend almost anything to suit your mood and budget.


  • ronmcfarland

    You are right about Sommelier Journal – great magazine – eveyone should check it out – not for the geek factor but a different approach to wine than the major magazines – a little bit like The Discovery Channel vs. ……..

    • 1WineDude

      Thanks, Ron – gotta admit, it's the geek factor that brings me back to SJ…

  • RonMcFarland

    There is the geek factor minus the pages and pages of flavor notes and a score, which I like

  • Fesperman

    Only came across your blog by accident and I am happy I did. Nice blog and informative posts. I will check back here often. Thank you

  • Richardson

    Thanks for the great post. I had added a link to your site to share this information around.

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