Restaurant wine sales have more than doubled since 1980.1 In full-service, upscale restaurants, upselling wine is more than just a way to increase profits; it is also an essential element of quality customer service. In an elegant establishment, servers should be well-versed in wine upselling techniques as well as wine and food pairing.
It is a good idea to consider hiring servers with knowledge of wines, or to encourage your existing servers to receive sommelier training and certification. You can also hire one person to be the designated sommelier for customers who ask for wine recommendations.
How to Upsell Wine in 6 Steps
The key to upselling wine is to find the right wine to fulfill or exceed the customers’ expectations. If the customers already know which wine they want to order, do not try to upsell them on something else unless they seem hesitant or unsure. Remember, the best opportunity for upselling wine is when the customer asks for a suggestion. Follow these tips for successful upselling of wine:
Wine should be offered after customers have had a few minutes to look at the menu. That way, the patrons have enough time to think about their meal choice, which may guide them in their wine selection.
Ask about red or white.
If the customers want wine, often they will ask the server for a suggestion. If they do, first ask the customers if they have a preference of red or white wine. If they do not have a preference, you can freely suggest either kind of wine. If members of the party disagree on whether they want red or white, you can always suggest a rosé as a compromise.
Ask about grape type.
Ask the customers if they have a preference of wine- or grape-type. If they do, simply recommend a quality wine of that type, starting from the more expensive range and suggesting more economical options if they seem hesitant or mention the high price.
Match wine to food.
Ask the customers if they know what they are going to order for their meal (for example, steak, or a red-sauce pasta dish). If they have not decided what to order but are ready for wine, suggest Chianti, pinot noir, sparkling white, trebbiano or a good chardonnay, since these are some of the most versatile wines that pair well with a variety of foods. If the customers know what they are going to order, recommend a quality wine that would be a good pairing, using suggestions from our general guidelines or wine pairing chart.
Determine price range.
If the customer seems hesitant about your wine suggestion, it could be because they are looking for a lower price. Always start with the more expensive suggestions you might have, and move down from there while gauging the customers’ response.
Offer dessert wines.
When the customers are at the end of their meal, ask if they would like a half-bottle of dessert wine, which goes well with sweet foods. If the customers are too full for dessert, you can still upsell them on wine. A sweet wine can be its own dessert.
General Guidelines for Wine Pairing
Some people will try to tell you to adhere to very strict rules when pairing wines with food. This is simply not true. It is better to pair the wine with the customer than to pair it with the food. Palettes vary substantially from person to person. If the customer has a wine preference, do not try to tell them that it will not go well with their meal. What matters is what works for them. If the customers do not have a wine preference, then you can use these general guidelines for pairing wine with their meal:
Match red meat with red wine and white meat with white wine
This is probably the most classic guideline for pairing wine with food. Pair red meats and game meats with red wines, and white meats and fish with white wines. However, this rule can sometimes be broken. Even more important than the meat types are the preparation, spices and sauces. Depending on the flavors in the dish, a white wine might work best with red meat, as with spicy asian dishes, for example. Furthermore, grilled white meats can often pair well with a red wine. For example, grilled chicken might go better with a tempranillo or merlot than with a white wine.
Pair fish with low-tannin wines
In general, the best pairings for fish and shellfish are white wines. The high acidity and lack of tannins in most white wines will complement the oiliness and richness of the fish. However, the meatiest fish, like salmon, sturgeon, tuna or shark, can go well with red wines. If a customer is looking for a red wine to go with fish, offer low-tannin reds, like pinot noir, Chianti, Beaujolais, merlot or rosé. By no means should you suggest a cabernet sauvignon, shiraz or any other high-tannin wine to go with a fish dish.
For desserts, offer sweet wines
Dry wines usually have tannins that do not pair well with sweet desserts. Furthermore, the sweetness of the dessert will ruin the flavor of most dry wines. Play it safe, and recommend a half-bottle of port, sparkling white, Madeira or a late-harvest sauvignon blanc or Riesling. With chocolate, which is one of the most troublesome foods to pair with wine, always stick to recommending a red dessert wine, like port, or simply suggest a coffee drink, which tends to go well with chocolate.
Pair spicy and fried foods with white wines
In general, very spicy foods and salty, oily fried foods go best with a dry or semi-dry, white, acidic wine, like a pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, brut or sec champagne or chenin blanc. The crispness of high-acid, low-sugar wines like these will cut through the saltiness or oiliness of a dish. Often, a hint of sweetness or fruitiness in a wine can counteract the fiery capsaicin in a spicy dish. To cool down the spiciest dishes, recommend a blush, pinot gris, Riesling or sauvignon blanc.
Play it safe
If you do not know much about pairing wines, do not take a risk. Stick to the above rules and memorize some of the most traditional wine pairings, or use suggestions from our wine pairing tips.
Who Offers Sommelier Training?
The three most well-known programs for North America are:
When upselling wine, the most important thing is to satisfy the customer. It is important to seem knowledgeable and to be prepared to make good wine suggestions, but make sure servers do not condescend to customers. In the end, only two things matter: making the sale and making the customer happy.
1 Brent Sloan. “A Wine List Checklist: The Five Dimensions of a Successful Startup Wine List.” Restaurant Startup & Growth (January 2009).