Building on by-the-glass sales, wine flights are breaking into the upper atmosphere. By Alice Feiring
If you think offering wine flights is more hassle than it’s worth, think again.
Consider New York’s modest and stylish Portuguese bakery/restaurant O Podeiro, which was opened primarily as a breakfast and lunch take-out spot. But customer response encouraged them to expand into serving homestyle Portuguese dinners. While the food perfectly matched their Portuguese-only wine list, the owners also knew that most Americans possess little knowledge of the tastes and grapes of Portugal.
Clockwise from top: Soho Kitchen & Wine Bar has set the flight pattern nationally for wine flights. Mi Piaci’s wine cellar table and Southpark’s welcoming bar signal different approaches to wine flight sales. An example of Southpark’s wine-friendly cuisine, salad nicoise.
To solve that problem, they decided to try some grassroots education and offer wine flights. Here, that means offering 3.5-ounce glasses of wine in flights of three, priced at $9.50 for reds and $7.50 for the vinho verde varieties of the day, showcasing three vastly different treatments of the refreshing alvarhino grape to try with their grilled sardines.
“If we wanted to sell Portuguese wine to people who only know about chards and cabs, we had entice them with tastes,” says O Podeiro manager Henry Davis. “Most people invariably find a wine they like, and if they don’t then order a bottle of that wine, they’ll go onto a few different glasses of their new discoveries.”
Serving wine in flights–usually three or four small-portioned glasses, grouped by varietal or region or the organizational whim of the beverage manager/sommelier–even three years ago may have seemed too quirky or troublesome for most restaurants to bother. But bars and restaurants seeking to develop a reputation for wine friendliness without providing long lists of hard-to-find wines have seized upon them as a solution.
Pioneers like NYC’s SoHo Kitchen & Wine Bar (see sidebar) and other operations with massive by-the-glass wine lists have discovered, once logistical problems are overcome, that flights provided a point of differentiation for their operations. The question remains, though, whether smaller restaurants or those not primarily known for wine-friendliness can adapt flight patterns of their own. The answer, it seems, is “Yes.”
Take the situation in Dallas, where for many consumers, Italian wines are almost as mysterious as those from Portugal. To bring his clientele at Mi Piaci the pleasure he found in those wines, exec vp of the Cobb Restaurant Group Brian Black sought to develop a wine-selling strategy. Flights, he decided, were the answer.
“When we first opened nine years ago, people didn’t have a clue about these wines. But a year and a half ago I was up in New York and noticed wine flights. We jumped right on it. Now we offer a flight of the week.” Mi Piaci’s flights consist of four wines–two red and two white–with 3 1/2 ounce pours. Price–$17.95. On a typical week you might find an Antinori chardonnay, Santa Margharita pinot grigio among the whites and for reds, a Michele Chiarlo barbera or Val de Suga brunello.
At restaurants like Portland, OR’s Mediterranean seafood restaurant Southpark, and Hilton Head, NC’s Star Fire, introducing flight programs has been wildly successful and worth every bit of effort.
Southpark’s wine manager Dave Hollstrom took a chance with wines he considered outside the mainstream when first establishing his list. While enthusiastic about the wines on his list, he secretly believed he’d be forced to revert to a list filled with the bold, in-your-face sorts of California wines which “bore me to no end.”
Instead, he’s still reeling from the response of his customers, who’ve happily hopped on board for all sorts of his flights. Now, he not only gets to play with some fabulous wines to create his flight list, he’s making money.
“Our by the glass program is inching up to 45% of total glass sales, and part of that percentage is the flight program.” Offering 25-30 different wines by the glass and three to five different flights each week, Southpark has built an international wine reputation in the midst of West Coast wine country. “For example, our Chatueauneuf-du-Pape flights go for $12 to $15, and we’ll go through 3/4 of a case in one night.”
When the Star Fire Bistro and Wine Bar in Hilton Head, SC, opened about a year ago, the owners had no idea their coming wine adventure would turn out to be so profitable. With more than 20 flights, Star Fire has evolved quickly into a wine destination “About 60% of our wine sales are the flights,” said Randy Bednar, partner in the restaurant.
Southpark’s customers have embraced the Portland operation’s European flights with enthusiasm. Right, inside Southpark’s casual setting, wine sales boom.
Bednar expected a flurry of wine flight activity in the bar but was unprepared for its popularity in the dining room. “When people see tray going out with a variety of little pours, it’s like some extravagant Mai Tai and they say, ‘Give me one of those.'” He believes flights demystify wine for the diner. “When four or six people around the table order, they’ll swap the wines, read the place cards to one another and all of a sudden, there’s dialogue and a party atmosphere. And they’re learning.”
Hollstrom and others recommend that novice pilots keep the flights changing. The flights at Southpark change weekly, sometimes even daily. This flexibility allows Hollstrom to take advantage of some wines that become available in limited quantities. “For example,” he explained, “sometimes we can buy only six bottles of a given wine. Our flexibility allows us to put in a flight and get lots of people to taste them as opposed to six individual orders.” He avoids the more expected arrangements of wines by varietals by dreaming up more subtle themes. One of his favorites is a grouping from the same winemaker but from different properties.
A personal touch always boosts wine flight sales. “We often invite a winemaker to present their wines. This doubles or triples the number of wine flights we sell on a given night. People really don’t want to get caught in a wine rut. And the wine flights offer that as an opportunity.”
Mi Piaci’s Black notes that the flights are very popular as aperitifs and as a springboard for customer’s to purchase a bottle. This is also a great alternative to a half-bottle for the single diner. All in all they probably sell over 20 flights nightly. “Our servers like pushing the flights. It’s a way for them to interact positively with the customer.”
Black isn’t interested in expanding the flight program–one is enough. “I went to a place in Austin that had this mix and match your own flights from a huge list. It was too confusing for me, and so it’s certainly overwhelming to someone who doesn’t know anything about wine.” He concedes that it also makes it easier on his bartender.
Flights can grow so popular that serving staffs may feel like rebelling, says Michael Hirschberg, owner of Mistral in Santa Rosa, CA. For instance, bartenders used to one glass to a 5-ounce fill line may end up pouring nine different 2-ounce tasting portion glasses for one table, which could drive a less-than-dedicated professional bartender crazy.
But the programs pay off, Hirschberg says and the bartenders at Mistral are already into wine and consider the extras a labor of love. Even the added costs of wine loss, glass breakage and other issues are compensated for and usually factored into the charge.
“We price everything on a general markup of 2.2%, which ensures profit as well as covering waste and breakage. And though there’s some waste with wine being opened too long, the Private Reserve system works well enough. A three- or four-day-old wine gets pitched. Frankly,” he confessed, “we lose more to corkiness than to spoilage.”
Waste in such an active program isn’t likely to amount to much anyway. But managers must keep constant track of opened bottles. Hollstrom demands that all open wines be tasted for quality. “In all honesty, nothing replaces a freshly popped bottle, and no matter what kind of preservation system you use, you don’t want to hold anything longer than a day.”
In the old days, major drawbacks with serving wine flights were the ineffective, costly wine preservation systems and the assumption that the flight program had to be extravagant. Today, everything from glamorous multi-bottle systems to an ad hoc and inexpensive squirt of gas can help control waste, and allow a program suitable for all manner of operations and locations.
For their preservation system, Star Fire owners did what is becoming more commonplace–their soda supplier hooked up a nitrogen-based system for their wines. “My experience is that nitro is just fine and inexpensive; we just shoot a little in and cork it up, and nitro is cheaper than CO2. Every bottle gets dated and pitched after a day or two.” However, Star Fire is so busy, bottles rarely sit longer than a day.
Star Fire offers three, 2-ounce portions in each flight. Prices range from $5.95 to $18. “Consider this,” he said, “my margin by the flight is better than by the glass. However, if there’s an inaccuracy in the pour-through, there goes the profits.” They keep a trained eye on that. The craftsperson who made their elegant iron serving trays also made an iron stand for the bar with a marker that points to the 2-ounce zone. So, if a table of six orders six flights–it makes it a lot easier on the bartender and a lot classier than using a pourer.
What sells? He says everything but pinot grigio is flying high these days, and is encouraged by the dessert wine sales. “At other places I could count on my hands the time it was easy to sell dessert wine. But through the flights I’m selling four to six bottles of dessert wines a week.”
Bednar was smart in creating a wine community for his bistro. One of the ways he manages this is by encouraging participation. Star Fire has a wine club night. On Thursdays, for $10, the consumer can taste seven or eight wines (with hors d’oeurves). Customers rate the wines, and the winning one will appear in a flight program for the next week. “We don’t make money on it but it breeds a following and keeps people interested. People treat it as a happy hour’some treat it as an opportunity.
So, the only obstacle to starting a flight program is whether your staff can take the extra work and the versatility of your imagination. No matter what size or style a restaurant you have, if wine is one of your gods–this may be the vehicle for you.
Restaurants in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood aren’t known for their longevity, as wave after wave of trend-setters try topping each other there. So it’s worth noting that SoHo Kitchen & Wine Bar is still going strong after 15 years. Still packed every night, drawing from a fiercely loyal wine-loving community, the cavernous brick-lined space with a TV hanging above the long
rectangular bar, seems a bit more like a Boston sports joint than the Mother of All Winebars. Nevertheless, the appeal of watching the football game while scanning SoHo’s 24 different flights has proved enduring.
For all but a short time, Jay Wollman has been SoHo’s wine manager from the beginning, and he says teaching about wine is the focus of their landmark flight program.
“The word flight means a lot of things to a lot of people,” he says. “But we see ourselves as an educational facility. So we present tastes from three to six different wines in a flight. We are partial to the regional concept–like wines from the Southern Hemisphere, or the very popular line-up from South Africa or Italy. As a result, we get a lot of repeat business. About half of that biz comes from the flights.”
In the early days, SoHo jumped into using the Cruvinet system, employing a huge and costly system designed to keep wine fresh. These days, they employ equipment that caps off open bottles with a spritz of nitro. “It’s a lot of work,” says Wollman. “We’ve got a 100 spigot machine, and it needs constant attention. We check it twice a week, clean the spigots every week and give the machine an extensive overhaul every month.” But for wine-lover Wollman, it’s worth the hassle.
“Being able to offer wines by the glass, especially to the younger people who are being more adventurous, is very satisfying,” he says. Wollman advises those restaurants considering a wine flight program to stay away from old standbys and familiar supermarket brands to expand their customers’ sense of wine flavors. “We support the local industry and serve a lot New York State wines. But it doesn’t matter where the wines are from—we are looking into what’s in the bottle and its value.”–AF