Wine-by-the-glass programs give guests plenty of options
to try wines new to them while boosting sales.
Wine-by-the-glass programs are thriving all over the country. Why? An oversupply of wine worldwide, low domestic price points and younger consumers’ growing love affair with wine are three strong reasons. The practice of providing multiple options in wine service may have started out in fine dining restaurants, but now it’s common in cool wine bar hangouts, small bistros, and even chain restaurants.
With a restaurant-going public that has become more wine savvy and daring every year, offering an interesting wine-by-the-glass program is not only profitable (margins can be better on a glass of wine than on a bottle), but smart marketing. Patrons today want to learn, experience and sample as many wines as they can. How fortunate that today’s wine consumer is able to taste a wider, more interesting assortment of wines for much less than before.
Recent estimates put wine-by-the-glass sales at about 10 to 12 percent of table wine volume in the U.S. The rule of thumb has been that the first glass of wine sells the bottle, something not lost on many consumers, and a good reason why many restaurateurs are rethinking pricing. Beyond the profitability issue, many wine directors, sommeliers and restaurant managers are viewing wines by the glass in a whole new way.
WHO’S ON FIRST?
When it comes to creating a by-the-glass list, what is it that determines the makeup of the list, or rather who? Does consumer preference lead the way, or do wine directors feel they know best? For most operations, it’s a little bit of both. Some wine directors take the stance that customers are looking to them to expand their horizons.
“We encourage people to play around with tasting different wines,” says Chrish Peel, co-owner with wife Laurie of Enoteca Vin, a small American bistro in Raleigh, NC. “We try to find classic wines and the best example are those that are generally too expensive for people to normally sample.” He has a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, for example, that he can sell for $35 a bottle, too rich for many of his patrons’ blood, but for $6 a glass they are more willing to try it.
Peel’s philosophy is to try to offer as much of a variety of wine as possible at the fairest prices. “But wine is much more than that to us. It’s our inspiration.” He believes that the values that make good wine a respect for tradition, painstaking pursuit of quality and recognition that the earth is the ultimate provider are the same values he strives to emulate in his restaurant.
Though the restaurant only seats 45, Peel offers 70 wines by the glass. Part of the reason he can offer such an extensive list for such a small venue is that he and his wife also own a retail wine store in nearby Charlotte. The North Carolina market in general, he says, tends to buy California brands, something he often regarded as an odd and inflexible attitude. “People don’t go to restaurants because of the wine, so we realized we can serve the wines we want,” Peel explains. However, patrons go to Enoteca Vin with expectations of learning more about wine and they are willing to expand their horizons.
WINE EDUCATION CLASSES
Brian Duncan, wine director, Bin 36 in Chicago (with another restaurant in Lincolnshire, IL and a third to open soon in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood) takes a similar approach to developing his by-the-glass program. The restaurant has 50 wines on the by-the-glass menu that change throughout the year. Duncan, too, sees himself as an educator and is delighted that his patrons are so eager to learn. “I have never seen more hunger to know more about wine than here in the Midwest,” Duncan says. He hosts three classes monthly on average and offers detailed descriptions of the wines on the menu.
For example, check out this description of 2003 Brander, “Cuvee Natalie,” Santa Ynez Valley, California: “Yet another exclusive from one of the hottest emerging regions of California’s Central Coast, the Santa Ynez Valley. Sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot gris and pinot blanc are blended to perfection here. The beauty here is the balance of juicy green apples, grapefruit, peaches and pineapple all anchored by brilliant acidity. It’s fresh and brash with no apologies necessary.”
“I think the strength of our program is that we provide descriptions of everything. For those wines that are hard to pronounce, there is the ability to order the wine by the number,” Duncan says. “We believe that all wines can be experienced if you know enough about them. If all I know is the price and where the wine originated, then why would I want to buy it?”
At a new Oklahoma City restaurant, Rococo Restaurant & Fine Wine, headed by Bruce Rinehart, formerly of Legal Seafoods, wines by the glass have taken center stage. In only a year, the restaurant has earned local and national acclaim. Rinehart picks the approximately two dozen by-the-glass wines to complement the food. “I started out with the philosophy of choosing high caliber wines priced reasonably because I wanted people to broaden their wine experience. Besides, the higher the caliber of the wine, the more the guest is apt to buy by the glass.” He observed that many customers were gravitating toward more complex wine so when he arrived in Oklahoma from the East Coast, he developed a progressive list. Patrons that come from larger markets tell them they feel they are dining at home.
Large chains often take a different approach to developing wine-by-the-glass lists. At California Café and Napa Valley Grille restaurants, they start with a popular anchor wine like Kendall Jackson. There are 24 wines by-the-glass on California Café’s wine list, all of them California wines to match the restaurant chain’s theme.
“What we try to instill is that wine should not be esoteric. It should be finding what you like and going with what you like. We try to help our guests find what they want to drink and we will pair wines with food, but we want people to drink what they want. No one wants to feel silly. Everyone wants to hear ‘excellent choice,'” says Sara Barker, marketing director for Tavistock Restaurants, Emeryville, CA, which operates both California Cafes and Napa Valley Grilles.
‘CORE’ PLUS LOCAL WINE LISTS
Another chain, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, Newport Beach, CA, offers 100 wines by the glass in each of its 32 restaurants. Wine director Marian Jansen op de Haar develops a core list of 50 wines every year, and then allows each restaurant’s wine director to choose the other 50 from their local markets. She gives the local directors guidelines that must be followed for choosing the other 50 wines in terms of taste, origin and price, but does not specify brands. Sixty percent of the wines featured in the restaurants have recognizable names, while forty percent represent the hard-to-find boutique wines from the U.S. and worldwide.
Retail/restaurant venue Bounty Hunter in Napa, CA, also has the advantage of variety and good pricing. Started by Mark Pope as a catalogue company offering unusual, small batch and allocated wines, it’s now a popular retail store and restaurant serving “campfire cuisine.” Because the retail store is located next to the restaurant, patrons are able to taste wines with food, buy bottles and have them shipped home. Forty wines are available by-the-glass, a list that changes about twice a week.
Bounty Hunter’s “saloon keeper” Andy Herbert (also called wine maverick and desperado) and his co-saloon keepers Glen Hugo and Eddie Huntz (aka master cork pullers) don’t take themselves too seriously, but they know their wine. Herbert sells a lot of pinot too, but also zinfandels and a group of highly allocated wines. They are at the vanguard of launching new brands like Hundred Acre and Viator. “We like to be a launching pad. If we put the Bounty Hunter name behind it, we want to make sure it’s up to our quality because as soon as Mr. Pope slaps our brand on it, the popularity rises,” Herbert says.
Another way for restaurants to stand out with their wine-by-the-glass lists is to use whimsy and creativity when printing the menus. California Cafe uses unusual pairings, listing wines by characteristics. For example, Flirty, Fresh & Floral category whites are called “Sweet white/blush/rose wines listed from sweetest to less sweet” and include California white zinfandel, riesling from Madrona, WA, Belvedere’s gew