Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Hail to Olive Garden, Wine Marketer Extraordinaire!

Olive Garden.jpg

The hugely popular Italian-themed restaurant chain Olive Garden is not just good with breadsticks, but it's also the top wine seller among restaurants in the country. With nearly 600 locations, the chain goes through over half a million cases a year according to recent reports. Okay, they don't exactly sell classified-growth Bordeaux or Napa cults, but their wine program is a smashing success and, therefore, remarkable considering that the chain targets middle America, not upscale gourmands who are usually regarded as the main wine consumers in this country.

How does Olive Garden entice their customers to drink wine? It starts with an easy to understand, one-page wine list dominated by wines selling in the range of $20-$30 per bottle. The list is classified not by price, grape varietal, or geography, but by flavor profile: something more understandable and friendly to their customers. They have "Slight Sweet" (white Zinfandel, Riesling, Asti), "Light & Fruity" (Pinot Grigio), "Full & Smooth" (Chardonnay), "Smooth & Fruity" (Pinot Noir, Valpolicella), "Soft Berry Flavors" (Merlot, Chianti), and "Robust & Rich" (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Barolo, Amarone). Mark-ups are 2X-3X retail. Brands are well-known mass market, large-volume producers such as Sutter Home, Robert Mondavi, Penfolds, Cavit, Yellow Tail, and Kendall-Jackson.

But the restaurant also hooks customers by having a staff member go around offering free tastes of some of their wines. Though white Zinfandel still accounts for 40% of wine sales, customers are increasingly moving on to Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir.

This is a welcome exception to the wine establishements' dependence on wine critics' scores to promote wines. It's good to see restaurants like the Olive Garden tackle the marketing successfully with, shall we say, a more user-friendly approach.

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