Before arriving at the Hyatt Regency Calgary, general manager Amy Johnson spent 10 years building Hyatt’s corporate wine program. “We see the wine program as an extension of our food-and-beverage brand story: ‘Thoughtfully sourced, carefully served,’” she says.

Part of this means knowing where the wines come from, so it makes sense to partner with local producers. “I brought that knowledge to Calgary and said we need to be focused first on Canadian wines; the majority of our customers are Canadian and looking to support Canadian products,” says Johnson.

With groups and conventions comprising 65 per cent of the hotel’s business, it’s important to stock a selection of moderately priced French, Italian and Canadian wines; however, in the lounge, she notes, “a $70 bottle of wine with dinner is probably quite standard across Canada.”

“People are looking for the story: the restaurant story, the hotel story,” she says. Therefore, any investment in staff training adds value to the entire wine program. “We partner with the largest group in Calgary, Willow Park Wines and Spirits. They do education with our sales and service teams, because when it gets to the table, being able to share the story of the wine adds to the experience of your dinner.” Johnson also recommends giving top servers the chance to visit the vineyards, if possible. “Three of our people were hosted in the Okanagan and they were absolutely blown away,” she says.

Being ready to take chances can be good for business, too: “When Calgary was going into a terrible recession, we only offered a 5-oz. glass. I went to 6-oz. and 9-oz. glasses — beautiful Riedel glasses — and our wine program went absolutely gangbusters. People commented on the glassware; it’s part of the experience, [along with] telling the story of Canadian wines.”

“Our wine program is a representation of our restaurant, which aims to represent the local community,” says Theresa Finn, assistant restaurant manager at Andaz Ottawa Byward Market. “We use a lot of local products; we’ve moved recently to try to represent Canadian wines.”

Andaz Ottawa offers about 40 wines, of which roughly half are Canadian, including several selections from British Columbia and Nova Scotia. “Adding the Nova-Scotia wine was a big thing for me — Nova-Scotia wine has been under-represented in the Canadian wine scene,” says Finn. “We’re lucky to have Benjamin Bridge here. I recently did a tour out there; they use varietals that we don’t really see in the rest of Canada.”

In essence, Finn is running two different wine programs, because “one of the first pieces of advice someone gave me was that you have to think of what your guest wants and not necessarily what you want to drink,” she says.

“Some of the hotel guests want something new, but we always make sure we have those recognizable varietals — the cabernet sauvignons from California, the sauvignon blancs from New Zealand — so if people are hungry and tired and just want something they know, we have something there for them.”

On the other hand, she says, “our local guests don’t want something they could buy at the LCBO. They’re more adventurous; they’ll try new varietals and new wines they’ve never heard of.” To satisfy their curiosity, Finn works with various wine agents, as well as vineyards, in an effort to source the new, the fresh and the unusual — since savvy guests know how to check LCBO prices on their phone. “But, with the agencies and vineyards,” says Finn, “it’s not quite as accessible.”

“A few years back, it was all California and Australia. Now, my clientele is really into Italian and French, a lot of sparkling wines and Spanish reds. The northern region of Spain is very close to the southern region of France, so for a fraction of the price, they get a similar product,” says Dave Han, director of Food & Beverage at Toronto’s Omni King Edward Hotel.

His selection is designed for different segments: bar clientele, Sunday brunches, an assortment of sparkling selections for the hotel’s popular afternoon-tea program and a shorter list for catering and banquet events.

“This list needs to be high-volume, so I can go to LCBO and my distributors and order large quantities, and they need to be good quality,” he says. “We make sure we have Canadian offerings and at the right price points. Reif Estate Winery is our preferred wine and, for our sparkling, we want to make sure we have Henry of Pelham.”

Han points out that guests from different parts of the world have distinct tastes. “Visitors from the U.K. like to see our Canadian offerings. Our American visitors try everything, but they’re very patriotic, so they drink a lot of Californian wines.”

Asian visitors gravitate towards old-world wines, but perceive value in certain local products, such as icewines. “I worked in Hong Kong and, when I was creating a wine list, I needed to find wineries with names that were easily pronounceable, like Grace Vineyards, Latour and Pétrus. Otherwise my clientele — and my service staff — were not comfortable ordering or even selling it,” he adds.

“Even with our catering menu, we do a lot of custom orders,” Han says. “We pride ourselves on sourcing different wines that [guests] probably would never have thought of.”

For the past 40 years, George Schwarz has co-owned the Post Hotel & Spa in Lake Louise, Alta. For most of that time, he’s been collecting and aging international wines in his 2,600-label cellar.

“My program is a work in progress,” he says. “We started collecting wine in 1980 and I would say 98 per cent of our wine in our cellar has been bought at release, so these wines have never travelled other than into our cellar.”

Schwarz shops internationally on a large scale. “We buy, for example, Bordeaux, in futures,” he explains. “For instance, the 2017 Bordeaux wines: they pressed them and put them in barrels last fall and by April, May, June this year, these wines are offered in futures. I would get offers early in the morning and I would have to decide by 11 or 12 o’clock what I would like to take. I buy these wines before they’re even in the bottle. You have a full selection, but you have to prepay these wines and you take delivery two years later.”

He says wine tastes have developed over the years, from German whites such as Liebfraumilch in the 1970s, to the full gamut of world wines. Lately, Schwartz sees great enthusiasm for rosé. “It took a while for people to find that rosé doesn’t have to be sweet.”

Above all, even with a modest wine program, “the most important point is that you have wines on your list that go with the menu,” says Schwarz. “If you have more of a theme to your restaurant, then you don’t want to have every wine in the world. You can buy good wines for $10 or $12 — it is going through the exercise of tasting it yourself.”

Written by Sarah B. Hood


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