Vista Awards Highlight Two Leading Wine Programs

Winners of the 2012 VIBE Vista Awards were announced at the 2012 VIBE Conference, held March 13-14 in Las Vegas. Over the next few issues of VIBE, we’ll profile the leaders behind the award-winning programs in a series of VIBE Spotlights.

Out of a competitive field, two companies emerged as the winners of the wine categories. Morton’s The Steakhouse took home the top spot in the Chain Restaurant and Multi-unit Operator segment, sponsored by Constellation Wines U.S. The Chain Hotel, Casino and Cruise Line Operator segment award, sponsored by E. & J. Gallo Winery, went to Walt Disney Parks & Resorts.

Congratulations to all of the winners!

Walt Disney Parks & Resorts

The name “Disney” is synonymous with so many things — forward-thinking movies, unforgettable characters, successful ‘tween pop stars and, of course, magical parks and world-class resorts. So it may be unsurprising that Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, headquartered in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., is leading the way yet again — although this time, it’s in wine.

Disney’s expansive, well-thought-out wine program, led by beverage manager Jason Cha-Kim, features more than 1,000 wines. That may sound like a lotDisney — and it is — but consider the fact that these wine selections are found throughout Disney’s 130 domestic restaurants, six domestic theme parks, 20 resorts and more than 80 hotel lounges and outdoor bars, and that each of these locations has its own theme and its own distinct customer base. The company’s wine program must fit the needs of both.

Take, for example, Victoria & Albert’s Restaurant at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. It’s a five-diamond restaurant that offers more than 700 selections and 4,200 bottles of wine in the cellar, including rare and valuable vintages selected for the rarity of the wine, winemaker and vintage. The list’s extravagance is only matched by the restaurant’s elegance. Across the country, the Napa Rose Restaurant at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa features nearly 300 wines with regional diversity from all four wine-growing areas in California. Or, back in Florida at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, guests can visit the Sanaa Restaurant and enjoy a flight of South African wines while watching the giraffes and zebras outside the windows.

“The location’s theme and menu are critical components,” says Cha-Kim, who has been with Disney for 15 years. But, he notes, it’s also crucial to take into account price points, wine-growing regions and diverse wine styles.

Part of offering such a diverse wine list includes giving guests something unique, and Disney certainly meets that goal through its partnerships. Among Disney’s many wine partners are Silverado Vineyards, owned and operated by Walt Disney’s daughter Diane and her husband Ron Miller; Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard, run by the family of the late Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett; and Lasseter Family Winery, founded by Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios CEO John Lasseter.

With so many options from which to choose, it’s critical for Disney to assist its guests in the decision-making process.

The staff members — or “cast members,” as Disney calls them — play a major role in guests’ decision-making, of course, and Disney prides itself on having highly trained employees. Through pre-shift meetings and tastings, educational sessions with distributors and suppliers, online wine education and training and an environment that encourages servers to become sommeliers, Disney’s employees are continually being tested and pushed to learn more about their wine selections. More than 700 “cast members” have been awarded the first-level sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, and more than 300 sommeliers work in Disney restaurants and catering services.

In addition to highly trained employees, the menus help sell the product. Created by MarkeTeam and Walt Disney’s Imagineering department, the menus include descriptions for every wine. The beverage menu program, Cha-Kim says, helped wine sales rise by 4.2 percent over the prior year.

“Thanks to our extensive wine training, exceptional servers, unique beverage menus and a multitude of wine selections, we continue to increase our wines sales every year and further differentiate ourselves from our competitors with more sommeliers than any other hotel operation in the world,” Cha-Kim says. “We have achieved our objectives of offering a world-class wine program that enhances the guest experience while also increasing our overall wine sales, and we could not be more satisfied.”

Morton’s The Steakhouse

It’s not uncommon for a steakhouse to put forward a stellar wine list, but Morton’s The Steakhouse goes above the standards to provide guests with a wine experience that is unrivaled.

The Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., brand offers 235 bottled wines and 30 by the glass at its 68 locations worldwide; each list is then complemented with Morton's Toastother regionally popular bottles.

But the wine menu’s excitement begins with the “Sommelier Selections.” In an effort to spur bottled wine sales, which declined during the recession, Morton’s introduced “Sommelier Selections” — one page filled with 20 hard-to-find, boutique wines priced from $60 to $90, explains Tylor Field III, vice president of wine and spirits, who has been with Morton’s for 21 years. Selections from this menu now account for more than 20% of the brand’s bottled wine sales.

The concept started as “a tactic to keep us hip through the recession, and it became its own monster. People want these hard-to-find wines — and if you offer them value to go with it, it’s a win,” Fields says.

Additionally, Morton’s has seen success with guests by increasing its by-the-glass selections; with more options on the menu, by-the-glass rings are up more than 10% in the past two years.

“People want to experience different things,” Field says. “Wine by the glass is a lower cost ‘luxury’ than buying a bottle. It’s almost like getting tapas vs. an entrée — it’s all about value and experiences.”

The brand also attempts to increase guest engagement through “Experience Enhancements,” such as a wine and food pairing. These “enhancements” are low-cost, 15-minute wine experiences that guests can purchase as part of the meal; at the beginning of the meal, a sommelier would offer guests a sampling and “edutaining” class before they begin their meal. This program has been so successful, Field says, that it has expanded globally and now includes topics beyond wine, such as Scotch tastings.

The presenters must be knowledgeable — more than 110 Morton’s sommeliers have passed the first level course of the Court of Master Sommeliers — but they also must be good educators and group speakers. Management vets the sommeliers to pick out the top educators in each restaurant.

In the end, though, it all comes down to having a top-notch wine program that complements the cuisine, and Morton’s excels in both areas. Morton’s wine program, Fields notes, is especially important in helping them stand out from other steakhouses. “A steak is a steak. Wine adds a ‘state of grace’ to the experience,” he says. “Morton’s wouldn’t exist as an experience at all if it were not for wine.”

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