Maxwell Eyrise of Milwaukee’s Five O’Clock Steakhouse on Merlot and Supper Clubs

Boutique wines and wines with a local edge make their mark in Wisconsin

Maxwell Eyrise joined Five O’Clock Steakhouse, Milwaukee’s longest running supper club, a year and a half ago and quickly started rebuilding the list. His focus—on boutique wineries that appeal to Wisconsinites and, yes, merlot—has made its mark: Sales are up, even though prices haven’t changed.

First off, what is a supper club?
The best way to describe a Wisconsin supper club is that it focuses on the idea of coming together as family and friends in a welcoming environment. Supper clubs typically start guests at the bar—traditionally with either a brandy or a bourbon old fashioned. They switch to wine once they get to the dinner table, where there is always a relish tray, fresh sourdough bread, toasted sesame sticks and a family-style salad.

Your wine sales were up last year but prices didn’t rise. How did that happen?
Last year I replaced some of the wines that were no longer exclusively on-premise—wines that our guests were starting to find at the grocery store, for example.

I basically spent my entire summer with all my reps trying new wines and comparing price points so I wouldn’t have to change the prices of the wine, but could put on something a bit higher caliber or lesser known—or just better all around.

How did your list change?
I increased our selection of boutique wineries. A Bootleg red, Prequel, has done phenomenally well here. There’s a pinot noir called Farmlands—a very small, lesser-known wine. It’s out of the Willamette Valley, in Oregon, but the owners are from Wisconsin. Those wines definitely piqued interest and, honestly, in Wisconsin, it’s nice when you can tell guests that the owners are local.

Some of your top sellers are domestic merlots. Is merlot gathering steam as a category?
For the type of steakhouse that we are, and with our signature char sauce, merlot is definitely gaining steam. It’s a bold enough wine to cut through the intense flavors you get when you have a 21-ounce bone-in ribeye or a 32-ounce tomahawk, where you need either a pretty strong cab or a merlot. Honestly, merlots are just the easiest way to go.

What trends have you noticed over the past year?
I’ve noticed a lot more people asking for a cabernet sauvignon with a little more elegance and structure. We have 15 cabernets by the glass, and I’ve seen guests looking for more than just fruit and tannin in some of these wines. Maybe we’re moving away from wines that are just super fruit forward and toward cabernets with some spice and a peppery bite.

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