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An Insider's guide to restaurants, wine, spirits and culinary travel

wine unchained: morton's steakhouse

                                                            By Ken Schechet

Although I will always prefer neighborhood restaurants, there is no question that chains have become America’s choice for dining out.  Knowing exactly what to expect, and getting familiar food at a known price, is appealing to large numbers of people.  Chains now encompass a range of establishments from fast food joints all the way up to very elegant and expensive dining destinations, complete with extensive wine lists. 

This riases the question of how these wine lists come into being.  Do they match the food on the menu?  Are they interesting wines, or only familiar mass market brands?  What are the restaurants trying to do with wine, and how important is it to the corporations that own them?  Basically, are these restaurants a place for a wine lover to go, or are we going to be disappointed with the experience?  This is the first of a series of articles that will examine the wine programs of some of the most familiar chain restaurants, starting with Morton’s Steakhouse, aka Morton's of Chicago.

Morton’s is a high end steak house with about 85 locations around the United States, and a few in Canada and Asia.  The menu is fairly extensive and includes a large variety of meat and seafood preparations including multiple steaks, chops, lobster, fish and shrimp.  It is not a place I would recommend for vegetarians.  In a conversation with Tylor Field, Vice President of Wine and Spirits for all of Morton’s, a very clear strategy for wine emerged. 

Morton’s is all about understanding who their customer is, what he or she wants, and providing exactly that experience each and every time.  It’s a pretty good business model for anyone.  Morton’s is an expense account restaurant for traveling businessmen who are entertaining important clients, or celebrating occasions such as the closing of a big deal.  The average check for two is $170 not including tax or gratuity, but that can vary a lot depending on what you order to drink.  Some well-heeled locals frequent Morton’s, and they are very loyal customers, but the target demographic is businessmen.  Dinners are important business events to them and, they are do not welcome surprises.  They want to know exactly what is being offered in a restaurant and want the same experience they had the last time, making them an ideal candidate for the concept of a high end chain. 

Tyler buys wine for all the Morton’s restaurants.  This, I’m sure, gives him the opportunity to do some bargaining for better prices but, more importantly, lets him give customers the consistency around the world that they want. If his guests had a New York Strip with a Caymus Cabernet in New York, they want the same thing when they have dinner in Singapore, so he creates a core wine list that is available in every Morton’s.  It reflects many regions but the focus is on American reds.  After all, it’s an American steak house.  He picks between 180 and 200 wines for the core list and then lets each restaurant choose about 50 more wines reflecting local preferences.  For example, in Miami they will enhance the selection of Spanish wines, in Hong Kong they will add Bordeaux, which the Chinese equate with prestige wine, and in Palm Beach they tend to add high end Italians such as Super Tuscans.  This also gives the restaurants the option of dealing with some small local producers to round out the wine list nicely.

        the wine program at morton's steakhouse

As you would expect, wine sales are tracked carefully and the list is refreshed once a year.  The constant goal is to offer what the guests want, not to educate them.  Trends are acknowledged, and after Sideways a few more Pinot Noirs were added to the core list. Generally, though, the customers are knowledgeable and know exactly what they want, and Morton’s success lies in knowing what that is.  Servers are well trained, attending six to eight training sessions a year, and will suggest wines based on theory (i.e., what varietal goes well with lamb chops or what goes well with veal chops), but they never push a specific brand. 

Wine is taken seriously at Morton’s.  It is a very significant portion of both sales and profit.  That is typical of steak houses, more so than other types of restaurants.  The menu just screams for wine and most customers order it.  The wine by the glass program is becoming more and more important.  Many people are drinking less but drinking better, so between 25 and 30 wines are available by the glass.  These include reds, whites, roses, sparkling, dessert wines and port.  The bottles are uncorked one at a time.  If any wine is left over it is preserved with a Vacu-Vin overnight, but is thrown out after 24 hours. 

An examination of the wine list at the West Palm Beach branch reveals that wines by the glass start at $8 and average about $12 with some high end exceptions.  There are plenty of American Cabernets and Merlots on the list, ranging from $40 for Gallo of Sonoma to $227 for Far Niente.  There were six Pinot Noirs on the list, five Zinfandels and four American Syrahs.  French wines were well represented with 22 choices ranging from $40 to $500 for a Cos D’Estournel 1986.  There were 14 Italians (Barolos, Amarones, Chiantis and Super Tuscans), and a few low end Spanish, Chilean, Argentine and Australian reds. 

American Whites were represented mostly by 22 Chardonnays, including a Geyser Peak at $40 and either Chalk Hill or Grgich Hills at $100.  Other whites represented in small quantities were Albarino, Riesling, White Burgundy, and Pinot Grigio.   Three Southern Hemisphere whites were on the list, including a Rosemont Chard for $46 and the ever popular Cloudy Bay for $67. 

A restaurant that is used for celebrations needs a good sparkling wine selection, and 13 Champagnes were on offer.  They were all quality wines that I would describe as the usual suspects.  The price range was $43 at the low end to $325 for a Pol Roger Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill.  Four desert wines completed the list.  Large bottles, Magnums and Double Magnums, are also available.

In general it’s a nice list and a well thought out wine program.  I was pleased to see wines at the $40 level as well as the expensive trophy wines.  The by the glass program is quite good and fairly priced, and you’ll find something very drinkable at a variety of price points in any Morton’s anywhere in the world.

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