If you’re like me, the words “Olive Garden” conjure visions of never-ending breadsticks and heaping bowls of an iceberg blend. It might not be the first, second, or tenth restaurant that springs to your mind when you think celebrating with a nice bottle of wine. But it turns out that the Italian-inspired concept might just run one of the most important wine programs in the country. Skeptical? Hear me out.
In 2016, the OG was one of the top-selling table service restaurant chains in the country, second only to Applebee’s. Across over 840 locations, the brand welcomes millions of guests each year—some who know their Chardonnays from their Chenin Blancs, but many others who are brand new to the world of wine. Due to their broad audience base, the Olive Garden faces two unique challenges: serving as an oenology ambassador to wine newbies and curating an accessible list for a vast variety of palates.
As I started doing some research, I quickly realized that, like their salad and breadsticks, the reach of Olive Garden’s wine program is virtually limitless. So in order to gain a more thorough understanding, I enlisted the help of several wine experts, including Olive Garden’s director of beverage strategy herself, to help me understand the list’s composition, pricing, and overall philosophy.
Aside from a few regional offerings, I learned that the wine list is uniform across all of the brand’s American outposts. Unsurprisingly, the options are primarily Italian, with a few representatives from California and Washington State and one recently added Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. When I reviewed the list with Jamie Wolff, a partner at New York City’s Chambers Street Wines, he noted that, “Italy is one of the world’s biggest producers, by volume, of wine, and a lot of the volume is represented by some of these names—like Cavit, which is a very interesting, very large cooperative.” I also spoke with Tom Geniesse, founder and owner of the Flatiron District’s Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit. He elaborated on this point. “The challenge of having a national chain requires making choices which can be distributed nationally,” he explained. “And our country is such a strange patchwork of regulations. Not every wine is available in every state. Therefore, there is a little bit more of a national brand or private label presence on this list as opposed to what one might see at a local Italian restaurant. It can’t be a list that’s filled with tiny itty bitty producers from obscure regions because they can’t feed that large demand for this very large organization.”
“It’s nice that they didn’t forget to include a couple of very important wines from Italy for those that want to splurge a little bit,” added Geniesse. He was referring to the $75 bottle of Col d’Orcia Brunello and $130 bottle of Bertane Amarone, the two most expensive bottles on the list. But with the exception of those two options and the Porta Vita signature line, all of the bottles are priced at $40 or less. “There’s a real focus on the value here,” observed KaMar Gomez, wine buyer at Brooklyn’s Smith & Vine. “It looks like they’re working pretty much along the same sort of standard markup that restaurants do, which is the wines tend to be roughly three times what you might see in retail. They understand that to move bottles, why not price them economically?”
Now I knew the “what” and the “how much.” Next, it was time to find out the “why” behind it all. Robyn Albert, Olive Garden’s director of beverage strategy, walked me through the philosophy behind the list, which I’ve distilled into three main points.
1. Give Guests What They Know and Love
Designed to guide guests toward a selection that will suit their fancy, the wine list is divided into easy-to-understand categories like “Fruity & Sweet” and “Light & Crisp.” But beyond the menu, servers are trained to inquire about guests’ tastes rather than simply recommending their personal favorites. And then there’s the element of the wine program that creates brand new wines in response to consumer preferences. For example, after witnessing the runaway popularity of moscato, the Olive Garden developed a darker counterpart, dubbed roscato, “to help our guests continue to explore the world of wine but on the red side.” Since its debut in 2011, roscato has become one of the restaurant’s top sellers and has made the leap to grocery store shelves. Or take the case of the Head to Head red, a custom blend designed with millennial consumers in mind. “The fun story behind it is that the owner of Rocca delle Macie happens to have two children that are in the business that are both millennials,” Albert explained. “They had a little fun competition amongst each other to develop what this final blend was going to be. And Julia won, so it’s a wine that was actually created by a female millennial for our millennial consumers specifically. And our guests love it.”
2. Expand Guests’ Horizons
The Olive Garden wants you to be comfortable. But like your well-meaning family, they also want to lovingly push you toward your (wine-drinking) potential, which they accomplish in a few ways. First, if you weren’t previously acquainted with the OG’s sampling program, get hip to this: guests are welcome to try a free sample of any wine on the list. “It makes it really approachable,” said Albert, “and makes people feel very comfortable ordering something that they’ve never tried before because they can taste it first.”
Additionally, each category on the list contains a range of wines to help guide guests from familiar standbys to new choices that possess similar characteristics. “Having an off-dry Riesling is a good and interesting choice,” observed Bottlerocket’s Mr. Geniesse. “It’s a way for people who would perhaps normally have a moscato or muscat-based sweet wine to hop into what I would say is a category of world class wines that are also a little bit sweet. It’s a nice way to present a choice like that.”
3. “Food+Wine=An Experience”
Another core tenet of the Olive Garden beverage philosophy is that wine is the yin to food’s yang. The wine list is “intended to complement our food offerings and create a total experience for our guests,” said Albert. This takes shape in the form of pairing suggestions printed in the menu. Additionally, servers go through extensive training in which “they actually have to present and understand which wines go well with our food entrees and which ones complement the dishes.”