Posted on | March 27, 2013
Written by | Jim Clarke
First, the obvious: wine-by-the-glass programs have come a long way since the days of house white and house red. On a more subtle level, however, it has become clear that by paying more attention to their glass pours—effectively treating them like a miniaturized list—savvy restaurants are able to literally bring more wine to the table, pleasing more diners in more ways.
More emphasis on this sub-list, so to speak, can bring new challenges, especially in terms of waste and freshness. But in these tricky economic times, the opportunity for greater profitability can not be overlooked, and by enhancing its glass program a restaurant can elevate its wine profile without significantly expanding inventory.
In speaking with wine directors at a diverse selection of restaurants, it is obvious that a good “micro list” can be a fresh, vibrant profit center, and not just by aspiring to raid the wallet of the guest who doesn’t want to spring for a bottle.
STRENGTH BY THE GLASS
“First and foremost, the by-the-glass list should represent a snapshot of the list as a whole,” says Joe Campanale, owner of several Manhattan restaurants including Anfora, L’Artusi and L’Apicio. “It should complement the cuisine, offer a variety and range of styles, offer a range of price points, and it should have a story to tell that differentiates it from other by-the-glass lists.” Complementing cuisine goes beyond pairing well to knowing how your guests eat, explains Campanale: “I look for wines that will pair broadly, as at our places guests will order several dishes at the same time and share them.”
Devising a functional list is not always straightforward. You’d think Dana Farner, wine director at Wolfgang Puck’s steakhouse CUT in Los Angeles, would have her hands full with glasses of big reds, but it’s the whites that keep her hustling, as tables most often go with a bottle of red with their mains, but start with glasses of white. She’s also not afraid to double-down on certain varietals, with two Rieslings on offer (dry and lightly sweet) and three Chardonnays. “We offer a white Burgundy, ideally a Puligny-Montrachet, and two California Chardonnays, one at the high-end…toasty oak and buttery, delicious with lobster,” says Farner. “The rest of the table may want Napa Cab, but we have something at that level for the person who wants a white. Then we have something at the opposite range of California style.”
Emily Wines, senior director of beverage for the Kimpton hotel group, agrees that while she would select different wines for an Asian concept than for a Southwest menu, “I don’t think about specific pairings. I aim for a selection of wines that are food-friendly. Good wine with great acidity works with a lot of food.”
SAFETY IN NUMBERS, OR RISK?
Master Sommelier James Tidwell’s program at the Four Seasons Resort and Club outside Dallas calls for as many as 30 by-the-glass offerings. “The priority is diversity,” he says. “The by-the-glass wines are a reflection of the list as a whole. We have incredibly diverse guests: people who want the standards, people who seem focused on a given varietal, people who like to be taken on a journey, people who want trophy wines.” So at any given time Tidwell’s pours include well-known international varieties alongside lesser-known grapes like Assyrtiko, Xinomavro, Pinotage, etc.
Offer too many wines, however, and oxidized wine becomes an issue. “When I started I wanted to have lots and lots of different things by-the-glass,” says David Weitzenhoffer, co-owner of AI Selections and formerly wine director at Felidia in New York CIty, “but it’s hard to manage too many, and hard to ensure they’re turning over fast enough.”
When selecting pours, Tidwell asks himself: “Is this a wine that’s going to benefit from being open, deteriorate, or stay the same?” Ideally it’s going to develop a bit with some exposure, but, “Am I going to be able to turn this wine quickly enough even if it’s not?” Farner asks her suppliers for a bottle of a potential pour, opens it, and tastes it at intervals as long as a week out to see how it holds up.
Even with a compact glass list, individual wines can suffer. “Put Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Noir and one ‘off’ varietal on the list,” says Weitzenhoffer, “and you are not going to sell the last one.”
Tidwell believes the solution is to price the offbeat wines attractively, and to “position them on the list so people can understand them.” For Tidwell that means grouping them alongside wines with a similar character, even though the list isn’t explicitly arranged by style.
STAFF ON THE FRONT LINES
Staff training is also essential, but remember your audience. “Wine people want their staff to know everything about a wine,” says Weitzenhoffer, “but waitstaff don’t have the same motivation. I got much, much better at condensing stuff to tell guests” when training servers.
Different staff, different toolbox, says Carla Rzeszewski, the beverage director for The Spotted Pig, The Breslin and The John Dory in New York. The staff at John Dory Oyster Bar is tiny and focused. “They know what they want to sell; they’re coming to me with questions.” So esoteric wines—like the perennial underdog Sherry, one of the team’s darlings—have a good chance of doing well there. The Breslin’s servers work fewer shifts and sales skew more toward beer and cocktails, so they’re less invested in selling wine; in turn, Rzeszewski says she offers strictly familiar grape varieties there.
Technology has provided other ways to make sure that each glass that goes out is as fresh as the winemaker intended. Wine on tap has made a major comeback, and helps control both freshness and waste. “Our wine on tap programs at the Dory and the Breslin are quite successful,” says Rzeszewski. “We have three wines and one cider on tap. In my mind, the entire point of keg wine is this fresh, juicy wine, not intended for anything other than immediate enjoyment and happy food pairing.” She adds that when they started serving wine from the keg two years ago, the Gotham Project Finger Lakes Riesling was the only one available; today she can choose wines from around the world.
Other solutions for freshness can be simple as Private Preserve, which tops off an opened bottle with an inert gas from a spray can, to installations like the Cruvinet or Enomatic, which maintain the temperature and dispense the wine while preventing oxygen exposure. These units, however, can be expensive and take up a lot of space. Ideally, by monitoring their offerings, even small restaurants should be able to offset spoilage via the higher glass-pour revenues.
FUN WITH KEGS & BIG BOTTLES
As with beer, kegged wine is an excellent value for the restaurant, and can still be well-priced for guests at strong margins. For wines packaged in conventional bottles, most restaurants charge the wholesale price of the bottle for a single glass, which accounts for by-the-glass wine’s popularity among beverage managers when they’re calculating their cost of goods percentage. Wines says, “Mark-ups maybe come down a little on the high end—typically for Champagne, as they inevitably get pricier. They end up being the best value on list.”
Even if you are sticking with high-recognition varietal wines, selecting a pour goes beyond choosing a wine you like that fits the price range. How your glass pours are presented can impact flexibility. “We don’t change our list a lot,” says Rzeszewski, “because it means changing the website, the menu, training…. I want something to be on for at least three months.” That means the supplier needs to have adequate stock. The Spotted Pig recently switched to an all-domestic list, and Rzeszewski says a lot of the boutique producers she wanted to pour didn’t have enough wine to make it work for her.
Michael Madrigale, who runs the wine programs at three of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants in New York, agrees. “If they don’t have at least ten cases I won’t put it by-the-glass,” he says. “Like a Beaujolais from Lapierre, the Morgon. Much as I want to pour it by-the-glass, I won’t—it’s so good I don’t want to burn through it. Even if it’s a feather in my cap to have something rare and affordable you need to save it; you can’t be a spendthrift.”
Some venues can be more flexible. “I can change my wines by-the-glass every week, and sometimes will,” says Tidwell, who adds that he doesn’t worry about supply or continuity issues with his slower-moving, more esoteric wines, and also has a number of selections he can pull from the bottle list if need be.
There’s also room to play. Madrigale offers something special each evening at Bar Boulud by pouring a selection from a large format bottle—“only bottles with some age, sold at cost.” So it’s not a moneymaker directly, but it generates buzz and reminds people that they can get something special there. In addition, “Flights are always fun, and people seem to like them. We did a flight from volcanic soils: a white from Santorini, a red from Campania, a white from Canary Islands. Or you could do Rieslings from different soils. People are really into it.”
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL FOR SOME
Michael Riahi—who left a management position at a large NY metro distributor to form his own import company, Riahi Selections—has found by-the-glass programs to be a fertile proving ground for boutique offerings. “I find that buyers are looking to offer their customers a unique experience with high-quality, atypical wines,” says Riahi. “When I tell the story of the family-owned vineyards and artisanal production, it allows the buyer to really connect, and they become as passionate about the product as the winemakers themselves.” From the restaurant standpoint, consistent supply of small-production wines can become an issue in a higher-volume glass program; and esoteric wines will need more TLC to move like Cabernet and Chardonnay. Still, artisanal wines bring some real advantages: