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A New Taste for Wine at U.S. Hotels

January 12, 1986|PETER GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Until recently, if you ordered a bottle of wine at most U.S. hotels, you got either a pedestrian wine, an overpriced wine or both.

More often than not, wine has been an afterthought at hotels, wine lists have been limited and prices have been way out of line.

Not anymore. True oenophiles, as well as beginning wine lovers, will be happy to hear that the dismal wine situation at many U.S. hotels is changing for the better.

In a number of cases, it's changing in some surprising places. The Vista Hotel in Kansas City, Mo., for example, has embarked on a large and ambitious wine program.

A Variety of Wines

"Most people think that, because this is the Midwest, people only drink beer and bourbon," says Thomas Clemans, the hotel's food and beverage analyst. "But that's not the case."

The Vista offers a wide variety of wines, especially those from California. (Missouri wines are, alas, not terribly good.)

Clemans has started a California wine program at the hotel that includes reasonably priced wines as well as a 16-bottle Cruvinet (an innovative device that injects nitrogen rather than wine-degenerating oxygen into each wine bottle as wine is extracted), which allows customers to sample fine vintages by the glass.

"If we've learned anything," says Clemans, who has recently purchased nearly $100,000 worth of wine for the hotel, "it's that it's not my duty to rape the guests by taking advantage of them with a wine list. We want them to discover and enjoy new wines."

Does Waikiki sound like a major wine capital? You'll find one of America's best wine lists at Bagwells Wine Bar at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Honolulu. Not only does the hotel offer one of the most extensive wine selections in America, Hyatt has also embarked on a substantial wine appreciation program.

Selective Social Club

The hotel has created Bagwells 2424 Carat Gold Club, one of Honolulu's most selective social clubs, which revolves around wine appreciation.

Each month, club members are invited to special wine dinners, events at which the hotel hosts such noted wine makers as Michael Grgich (Grgich Hills), Sam Sebastiani (Sebastiani Vineyards) and Lee Knowles (Beaulieu Vineyards).

Additionally, the club sponsors other wine-related functions such as coupling wines to Oriental cuisine or a French Chardonnay tasting to celebrate Bastille Day. Each month, six bottles of the world's finest vintages are placed in the hotel's Cruvinet. "It's been a tremendous success," spokeswoman Ruth Limtiaco says. "Guests can--and do--learn about wine."

And nowhere is that more possible than at the Monterey, Calif., Sheraton where the hotel has a major wine operation geared to presenting the wines of the area. In fact, the Wine Basket, located next to the Sheraton's restaurant, offers more than 125 different wines from Monterey County (representing 40 nearby wineries).

"Many people aren't aware that Monterey is a serious wine-producing region," says Ted Durham, the hotel's director of food and beverage. "Monterey doesn't have the recognition of a Napa, so we have to educate people about it."

Zooming Wine Sales

The educational program seems to be working. The locals in Monterey have already discovered that the Wine Basket is also a retail store, and wine sales have zoomed.

At the Lancaster Hotel in Houston, owner Bill Sharman is a true believer in wine education. He offers frequent programs that include displays of wine, tastings and seminars. The Lancaster also sells wine by the glass and offers at least 20 different wines at a time, ranging from a $2.50 Chardonnay to a $20 glass of a 100-year-old Madeira.

The hotel's restaurant, Charley's 517, features a spectacular wine cellar that utilizes a 20,000-bottle inventory of about 1,000 different wine selections.

At San Francisco's Huntington Hotel, there's a good reason that there's such an extensive wine list. Proprietor John Cope knows his wines very well--he once owned a Northern California vineyard.

Some overseas hotels have amended their wine lists, partly because of the demand of their U.S. customers.

California wines continue to be a favorite of Hilton International. For the last three years, the company has been the only international hotel organization to undertake a premium California wine exporting program--more than 40,000 cases of California wine have been shipped to participating Hilton International hotels around the world.

An Extensive List

At the Regent Hotel in Hong Kong, the wine list is now one of the most extensive in Asia. One reason may be that the Regent's wine cellar is the only one in a Hong Kong hotel.

But a more important reason, says Heinz Rimann, Regent's director of food and beverage operations, "is that more and more Americans are coming here, and more and more of them are conscious of wine."

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