Whether it’s prosecco or cava, Champagne or California, or any number of sparkling wines from other regions, casual drinkers at bars and restaurants have been opting for a glass—or bottle—of bubbly at all occasions and times of the year.
That’s a far cry from even 10 years ago, when celebrations and holidays accounted for nearly all of sparkling sales. It’s still an important component of year-end celebration, but many operators have found creative ways to sell sparkling wine year round.
Champagne has long been the standard bearer among sparkling wines, and also the problem: Luxury imagery and high prices kept average American wine consumers at a distance. But lower-priced options, namely prosecco, washed away barriers to the acceptance of sparkling wines of all sorts in recent years. Prosecco’s success has allowed operators to develop sales of cava, lambrusco, cremant and other international sparklers, as well as those from the U.S.
The Champagne/sparkling wine segment as a whole grew 8.6% in 2015. Consumption of domestic sparkling wines consumption increased 7.2%, and international was up 10.7%. Prosecco continues to be a surging segment; Italian sparkling wines outpaced the category as a whole.
Gretchen Thomas, wine and spirits director for Barteca Restaurant Group, has seen a decided increase in her operation, which includes the 11-unit Barcelona Wine Bar. “Sparkling wine has turned into a general consumers’ ‘going out’ wine, and has a real footprint today,” she says.
Much of the on-premise growth is down to operations that put the effervescent wines center stage. Jay Schuster, operations manager/wine director at RM Champagne Salon in Chicago, lists at least 12 sparklers by the glass at any time, from cavas and proseccos to estate-grown Champagnes.
“In general, as our customers are becoming more educated, they are open to more suggestions,” Schuster says. “We break our menu down into three groups: global sparkling brut, rosés and Champagnes.”
RM Champagne Salon aims to be unintimidating “so that everyday people can come in and enjoy some sparkling wine, whether it’s for our oyster special on Thursday, or before or after or during dinner,” Schuster notes. “With Champagne in our name, we work hard to let people know we are approachable, and pricing is one of the ways we do that.”
Prices for sparkling wines range from $12 to $27 per glass; six of Schuster’s sparkling glasses sell for $13 or less. “If you break down the product mix, prosecco and cava do a huge number for us, but the quality is there as well,” Schuster says.
Prosecco is only available by the glass, he adds, so “we take nearly all that is imported in the magnum size.”
RM customers have lately been seeking rosé sparklers, especially in the summer when the salon’s space doubles to include a cobblestone patio. One example is the Francois Montand Brut Rosé Cremant de Jura, sold for $12 per glass. RM sells about eight cases a week of the sparkler in the summer.
Rosé sparkling wine, along with prosecco, is seen as a driving force in the sparkling category. “One of the biggest trends I’ve seen in the past 15 months or so is sparkling rosé, which three years ago I couldn’t sell at all,” says Thomas.
She has always listed a few, but it was hard to get people to try sparkling rosé “because the consumers’ instinct was to assume any rosé was sweet, and then the assumption is they don’t like sweet,” Thomas says. “But that’s changed.”
Even the dry lambrusco that Thomas carries is now moving, especially when the weather is warm and patio dining is in season. “It’s perfect for those who are looking for a slightly more fruity impact,” she notes. “The dry style, dark fruit lambrusco goes with anything up to and including steak.”
Providing sparkling wine options beyond Champagne helps sales, says Sarah Penn, owner Frank’s Oyster House & Champagne Parlor in Seattle. “It’s a little tongue in cheek, the name, because we are really a neighborhood restaurant, but it does telegraph from the beginning that we would have more options,” she says.
While Penn doesn’t consider Seattle a major sparkling wine market, her customers are more open than they used to be. The restaurant’s Tuesday Champagne discount, when all bottles are 30% off, probably helps, considering base prices start at $85 for NV Deutz and Piper Heidsieck to $160 NV Billecart-Salmon Rosé.
“Some people are daunted by the price, and I’d rather give people an opportunity to try something and move some wonderful product.”
Listing a range of sparklers by the glass also gets guests to try them. Penn offers Champagne, Blanquette de Limoux, Cremant de Bourgogne and prosecco by the glass, priced from $9 to $15. “It’s important to have different price points so customers know I’m not just trying to push high-priced wines.”
Victoria Antilla, wine director for Schwartz Brothers Restaurants and general manager of Daniel’s Broiler in Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood, has found great success with a full-year, deep discount of Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label Champagne.
To celebrate Daniel’s Broiler’s 35th anniversary in 2015, the restaurant offered bottles of Veuve Clicquot for just $35, with a goal to sell 1,000 bottles for the year. It sold 1,500 bottles of the Veuve Clicquot in 2015, compared to 31 the previous year.
“It’s been so much fun that we’re still doing it, now for $36, and our sister restaurant Chandler’s is doing a similar promotion for $40,” Antilla says. “We’re not making normal margins, obviously; we worked out a good price with the Moet folks [Veuve Clicquot is owned by Moet Hennessy parent LVMH] so we’re not losing money. But it’s a give-back to the guest to get people excited; real French Champagne isn’t something people usually drink casually,” she says.
She ties the promotion to two entrees at the three Daniel’s locations, but at Chandler’s the Champagne deal is open for all. Antilla believes it helps sales overall.
“One of the great things about a feature with Champagne is it doesn’t reduce overall wine sales,” Antilla says. “A table of four sits down, and Champagne is the perfect predinner drink—and they still order a nice bottle of red wine.”
And as long as Schwartz Brothers can get the Veuve at a favored price, it will continue the promotion. Antilla is even considering a $15 to $16 by-the-glass holiday Happy Hour offer as a way to get more Champagne in front of people.
Taking price out of any sparkling wine is helpful. At the Spanish-focused Barcelona, cava is the flagship sparkler. The leading seller is a house-brand cava Thomas helps blend that she can sell profitably priced at $7 per glass and $28 per bottle.
“No one asks—they just see “cava” and this price and it sells,” Thomas says. The fallback sparkling order for most people in a restaurant is what’s available by the glass, and often the least expensive she notes.
Barcelona offers numerous options, like a sparkling wine from Uruguay, a sekt, lambrusco and eight Champagnes in addition to eight cavas, three by the glass.
“We carry a pretty broad selection of them for a couple of reasons,” Thomas says. “I’m just a fan and think everyone else should be, too, and I think some of the best sparkling wines are the best food pairings. And they can be joyful by themselves and can make a great cross section of people very happy,” she says.
Food suitability is a factor. At RM, the menu is geared to Champagne-friendly food, says Schuster. “We see a lot of people who start out with sparkling wine and go with that throughout the meal—even with dessert.”
Even wines outside the traditional idea of sparkling are seeing movement. At Atlanta’s Basque concept Cooks & Soldiers, the lightly effervescent Basque-region wine txakoli is hot.
Txakoli, a slightly sparkling, high-acid and low-alcohol wine, requires some hand-selling, says general manager Nicolas Quinones. But when his servers follow the Basque custom of pouring the wine from a height to aerate, reduce carbon dioxide and increase the amount of bubbles in the glass, customers are captivated.
Quinones is careful to make a distinction between the popular cava options and the Basque wine. “I try not to sell txakoli as a sparkling wine because I don’t want to mislead folks that they’ll get flutes and something that produces a mousse.” Txakoli bottle prices range from $47 to $69; he offers one by the glass for $13.
“Folks are more open to a variety of sparkling wine in general, whereas 10 years ago they would have demanded only Champagne,” Quinones says. “Now guests are much more willing to try cavas, proseccos and others, and they are willing to spend money on them,” he notes.
What’s more, “There are some cavas out there that are just as rich and complex as grower Champagne,” he adds. Cooks and Soldiers offers a white and a rosé cava, a fairly rare option that Quinones says is a response by Spanish producers to international demand.
“We’re moving into an era where there is a perception that even Champagne can be something you drink all the time,” Antilla says. “When I started out in the restaurant business 20 to 25 years ago, there was a poor selection of moderately priced bubbles. Now there’s a sparkling wine for just about every palate, price point and occasion.”
Thomas trains her staff on the three major sparkling categories—Champagne, prosecco and cava—on their methods and how similarly cava and Champagne are produced. While she carries high-quality cavas (priced up to $74 for a bottle of 2008 Recaredo Gran Reserva Brut Nature), her Champagnes are mostly grower, or those produced by the vineyard itself.
The exception are a NV Billecart-Salmon, Blanc de Blancs Brut priced at $144, and the 2002 Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill at $378, of which she sells a few bottles every month.
“There’s something special about Champagne you can’t get in any other kind of sparkling wine; however, it’s a financial commitment,” Thomas says. “I almost have those on my list to promote my cava.”
To bolster sales of bubbly, many operators have included cocktails with sparkling wine, usually cava and prosecco. Quinones of Cooks & Soldiers, for instance, lists three cava cocktail, including the Blind Tiger ($11), made with gin, lime juice, maple syrup and cava.
“Especially in summer, it really adds a refreshing wetness to cocktails that otherwise might be a little too sweet or cloying,” Quinones says. “Adding a little cava makes the cocktail instantly more drinkable and refreshing,” a selling point with Atlanta’s steamy summer heat.
At Frank’s, Penn currently offers two: the Tufted Cowboy, with Jack Daniels, lemon, sugar, Angostura bitters, sparkling wine, served in a flute; and Scottish Breakfast (Scotch, maple syrup, lapsang souchong tea tincture, barrel-aged Peychaud’s bitters, and sparkling wine).
“Sparkling wine in cocktails is a lovely thing to work with,” Penn says. “It adds a little complexity and bubbles without covering up other flavors.”
Jack Robertiello is a spirits writer based in Brooklyn, NY.