I’m working on an article for Vineyard & Winery Management that has me talking to people about wine in restaurant chains. (And, for record, neglecting this blog.) The people I’m talking to are wine professionals who don’t see wine through any kind of gauzy romanticism. They appreciate what works, what sells, what promotes restaurant “beverage programs” because that’s where they make their living.
Here’s one of the things that comes up in every interview: a real appreciation for Olive Garden. Yeah, that’s right: the restaurant chain we snootypants amateurs like to sneer at is the hero of a giant swath of the wine industry, and is changing the way Americans think about wine.
“They’re making new wine drinkers every day,” said one wine distributor. “They’re creating their own culture of food and wine. They’re doing it on a massive scale. And they’re doing it without an ounce of respect from the wine media.”
It’s true. Widely derided as inauthentic, fodder for road-tour comedians and anathema to food snobs everywhere, Olive Garden is doing what the rest of us purport to be in favor of. While we’re searching for the next obscure wine “find” and fretting over perfect food matches, on 600 suburban strips from coast to coast, Olive Garden is selling the idea that food and wine with friends is care-free recreation.
There’s nothing difficult about wine at an Olive Garden: the sampling program pours an astounding 30,000 cases of wine a year at no charge. Customers taste free while they’re waiting for a table. (Note to industry: there’s a wait at Olive Garden.) They pick something they like and have it with dinner. The menu has recommended wines right next to the food; there’s no going over to a separate list. People who haven’t had a bottle of wine in their homes since the boss came over for dinner back in ’97 try a couple of well-chosen wines at reasonable prices. They’re laughing with their friends, enjoying the moment.
Establishment condescension aside, Olive Garden is spreading the joy of wine to people who have largely defaulted to the joy of beer. The restaurant deserves a lot more respect than it gets.