June 23, 2014 |

Wine & Dine

By Jeremy White

wine and pizzaTwo decades ago, America was largely intimidated by wine. Snobs drank it. Even worse, they swished it around, spit it into a bucket and then talked about it in unappealing and difficult-to-understand terms like “flinty” or “grassy.” What normal, everyday Joe wanted to drink grass?

Since wine was an unknown and perceived as expensive, it was feared. Forget that it is grape juice at its heart — it was just too, well, sophisticated for the pizza crowd.

Times changed, however, as times always do. A number of factors worked in unison to broaden wine’s appeal: the industry’s marketers, for example, realized the need to make the product more accessible; food-centric shows on television encouraged people to expand their palates and restaurants identified the value in the additional revenue stream.

Fast forward to today and there are tens-of-thousands of pizzerias across the country that menu wine. In fact, our most recent research shows that 38 percent of American pizzerias — more than 26,000 pizza restaurants — serve vino. How can they all be wrong when it comes to wine’s appeal? They can’t, says Taylor McNeely, a pizzeria bar manager in Indianapolis.

“Wine is a profit driver for us,” she says. “We sell a lot of it and it is one of our biggest money-maker items.”

McNeely offers wine by the bottle and by the glass, but also has found success with flights.

“They’re good because it encourages people to try new things. It helps them branch out a little,” she explains. “A customer may come in with a pre-conceived notion that, ‘I don’t like chardonnay or I don’t like big, bold reds. But just because you may not like Chianti does not mean you won’t like another red, like a Barbera or something else. One red might be spicy, while another might be fruity. There are just so many variances from each variety and even within the same variety from different labels. You have to open yourself up to trying new things, and the flights help that out a little bit. You’re not putting all your eggs into one basket, so to speak. You aren’t spending $18 on a bottle or $7 on a glass of something only to discover that you don’t like it. It’s a very non-commital way of learning, of discovering what you might like.”

At Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria in Seattle, a well-established wine program is one of the hallmark’s of the company’s success. Tutta Bella was named our 2010 Independent of the year. Owner Joe Fugere likes to keep offerings fresh and examines the wine list with a critical eye at least twice a year. Typically, the company’s wine offerings experience a facelift every six months. With wine representing close to 20 percent of overall sales at Tutta Bella, Fugere must be on to something.

Jenny Fleece, a longtime spirits manager who is working to open her first pizzeria in Bethesda, Maryland this summer, says she plans to follow a similar strategy.

“I like to turn wines over in late spring, just before summer, and again in late autumn, just before winter,” she says. “Sometimes, like during the hot months, people may gravitate to some lighter, more refreshing whites. They tend to opt for some heavier reds later in the year. While you seek balance, you want to turn the list over when necessary to make sure you’re offering what will sell the best at any given time.”

Often, what sells is largely dependent on the service staff. A knowledgeable crew that has been well-trained on wine and food pairings can make helpful suggestions to customers, translating into better wine sales. It doesn’t take a full-time sommelier, either. Today’s educational opportunities are abundant. Jason Crum, a bartender at Joey’s in Houston, says vendors can be excellent resources.

“Your wine reps are more than just sales people,” he says. “A good one cares about your business, because your success is his success. A good one is knowledgeable about the products he sells and can be a great point of contact when it comes to learning more about wines and how to best pair them with pizza or Italian food.”

Crum says his wine distributor makes it a point to keep him up to date on the latest trends and pairings.

“He comes in periodically and gives the bar staff and wait staff crash courses on the different wine options we carry,” explains Crum. “He talks about the grapes, the region they’re grown in, what the climate and soil is like. He talks about the process and how that relates to what you taste when you lift the glass and the juice hits your taste buds.”

Sometimes, it’s about story telling. The details of the story enrich the customer experience and make the customer-server connection a more meaningful one.

“After you tell the story,” says Crum, “the sale is easier. It’s not a transaction; it’s an experience.”

If you are looking for some good wine and pizza pairings, let us help you get started. While many people think Chianti when they think of Italian food, there’s no reason to paint yourself into a corner. Let’s face it, a bottle of Chianti in a wicker basket next to a plate of spaghetti and meatballs is about as cliché as it gets. Don’t limit your selection to Italian labels. Quality wines from America, France, Australia and South America, to name a few, will get the job done as well.

Take a German Riesling, for instance: its sweetness and mellow attitude makes an excellent accompaniment to a spicy sausage and pepper pizza. If you’re looking for an across-the-board all-star to pair with red-sauce pizza in general, then look to a Barbera. A Moscato can be tapped for desserts, while the properly balanced Red Zinfindel is exquisite with a meatlover’s pie.

“A wine list should express some diversity,” says McNeely. “Variety is the spice of life.”

Jeremy White is Editor-in-Chief at Pizza Today.