How virtual wine dinners saved our restaurant in Houston.

Image by the Corkscrew Concierge, a regular attendee at Roma’s virtual wine dinners.

Like many independent concept restaurants across the U.S., the barely four-year-old Roma in Houston was eager to shift to virtual events as soon as the shutdowns began to be enforced across Texas in the early days of the growing pandemic.

At the time, prospects for the restaurant’s survival were dim. As for tens of thousands of American restaurateurs (and for hundreds of thousands across the world), business had ground to a halt. Regulars, mostly middle-aged professionals, were reluctant even to order take-out in those early days of the health crisis. And for a “neighborhood,” “date night,” and “special occasion” restaurant like Roma, the world of plastic containers and utensils was as distant as Mars. The expression curbside available, now a workaday locution in the American restaurant lexicon, was as exotic as H.G. Wells’ “Martian herbs and trees.”

When the owner was approached by an energetic supplier/sales rep (a salesperson for a locally based importer and distributor), he gladly accepted her offer to organize a virtual wine dinner and tasting. Her idea — as brilliant as it was simple — was to have a winery representative in Italy on the other line, as it were, while the guests tasted through a three-bottle flight of wine paired with regional dishes. Yes, it would be 2:30 in the morning for the estate ambassador, but the sacrifice of a little sleep was well compensated by the potential sales and brand building — especially considering how business had declined precipitously in the early days of the new normal.

The initial virtual gatherings were unsurprisingly (at least in retrospect) clumsy. Zoom links that didn’t work. Guests who didn’t know how to mute their microphones and the subsequent TMI intimacy. Seafood dishes that were cold and rubbery by the time the guests opened their containers at home.

But the turning point came when the featured guest, the enologist son of a legacy Italian winemaker, began to insult the restaurateur over the pairings — in Italian. It didn’t occur to the dim-witted nimrod (excuse the pleonasm, merited in this case) that one of the guests, who happened to work as the restaurant’s media manager, was fluent in Italian.

The disconnect issue was only compounded when another microcephalic brand ambassador joked to the guests that the proprietary name of one of the estate’s wines could be loosely translated as “end of the world.” Appropriate, he quipped, for the times (despite the fact that he was employed by the estate, he didn’t realize the name was actually a reference to the nec plus ultra of Homer’s Odyssey).

And that’s when it dawned on Roma’s owner: the dinner’s “content” was being driven by the supplier rep and the brand ambassadors on the other side of the Atlantic; and the brand ambassadors, often export directors with poor English skills, were treating the events as if they were “supplier meetings,” as they are called in the trade, educational affairs where the brand ambassadors share insights with sales reps from regional distributors.

It was mid-July and the restaurant was still struggling, literally teetering on the brink of failure, when the owner made a radical shift: he would only host virtual wine events, he decided, with “principals” from the wineries, the winemaker or an immediate family member, and the featured guests had to speak English well. He also brought on a moderator, a wine professional with experience in public-facing wine education and public speaking, a veteran events organizer.

And that was what turned out to be the key: instead of letting commercial interests shape the events, his team would choose the wines, the pairings, and — most importantly — the winemakers who would represent the wines. The idea was to deliver a media “product” that was as entertaining and engaging as it was delicious.

He also made sure to keep the cost moderate. By negotiating aggressively with the distributors, whom he approached as opposed to them reaching out to him, he made sure the price per person remained palatable. What he found was that distributors were so keen to “move boxes,” as they say in the trade, that there was ample flexibility in pricing, “sampling,” and other strategies to offset the wine cost.

Almost as if by magic, the attendance at the dinners grew rapidly from 10-20 guests to 40, 50, and 60. By the fall even though the events were held on a weekly basis, he was regularly fielding 70-80 diners every Thursday evening. By the time the restaurant hosted its last event of 2020, it counted 90+ guests including some of the city’s leading wine mavens.

The secret, says the owner, is that he gives the guests what they want and not what the distributors want. And dulcis in fundo, the distributor reps aren’t complaining (anymore) either.

I’ll be joined by three other leading Italian-focused food and wine professionals a week from Friday as we discuss the mechanics of running a successful virtual tasting event for a webinar hosted by the Italy-America Chamber of Commerce South Central. See this link for registration details. All are welcome.

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