photography by Tom Sobolik
how many wine bottles can fit on the back of a bar?It’s not the sort of question philosophers ponder, but the correct answer, according to many wine professionals driving sales through by-the-glass programs, may be “Unlimited.”
Many wine-oriented restaurants have struggled to build better by-the-glass sales, both to swell the bottom line and to accommodate customers looking to match different quality wines with various dishes. Lately, curious customers have also shown more interest in sampling a variety of wines at one sitting, hoping to expand their wine knowledge without being forced to order unfamiliar and potentially budget-busting bottles. As a way to satisfy these, serving a large number of wines by-the-glass seems to make perfect sense.
But launching a solid by-the-glass program that offers more than a few varieties has until lately seemed daunting to most operations. Wine service is already fraught with potential profit-and-loss problems; adding more opportunities for both is a calculated risk many have avoided.
Yet what was once an anomaly is now becoming more common, as new restaurants open with intense by-the-glass programs as an integral part of their concept, and older operations build their by-the-glass lists into 50, 80, even 100 wines poured at one time.
The current unofficial leader among by-the-glass operators, at least in terms of selection, is Philadelphia’s Panorama Ristorante, which pours about 120 wines by the glass. A growing list of competitors now avidly set themselves apart by aggressively developing a singular wine profile and building both wine dollars and volume by marketing impressive and frequently-changing accumulations of vintages.
For instance, Hudson Club in Chicago now tallies in at about 100 wines by-the-glass, putting them neck-and-neck with NYC’s famed Soho Kitchen & Bar, a pioneer in high-profile and massive glass programs. Only compared to these big guns do others with such stellar offerings–about 70 by-the-glass–as NYC’s Divine Bar appear modest.
Some operators take the concept further, defining themselves, as with Enoteca I Trulli’s all-Italian list of 50 wines by the glass, by region or country. Others, like northern California’s Mistral, change lists as frequently as twice weekly to build loyalty with regular wine-drinking customers.
With such programs as these, waste and pour-offs have always been a road block. A number of contemporary wine preservation systems, however, have altered that concern significantly, adding a few days or weeks of life to most opened wines. The vintages still must still be sold quickly, requiring a well-trained and constantly re-educated staff; no system can manage a way for a wine to sell itself.
Says Maria de Corpo, wine buyer for Santa Rosa, CA’s Mistral, spoilage is still potentially the number one pitfall, even with the preservation systems, so customizing your list to your customers is paramount. “Through trial and error, we’ve found out which wines and styles go well with our customers. We used to have more cabernet sauvignons and even listed a flight, but it’s the least popular red varietal here. After giving many bottles to the kitchen, we reduced the selection.”
king of the hill
At Panorama, wine steward Tim Kilcullen oversees a 120 selection by-the-glass program pumped from their massive, custom-built wine preservation and dispensing system, which frees him to experiment.
“I try to do a number of things with our by-the-glass program,” says Kilcullen. “People are very familiar with California chardonnays, Italian pinot grigios and merlots. I list a number of them so we don’t scare anyone away with a list that’s only filled with unfamiliar names or big, expensive wines like Opus 1 and first growth bourdeaux. And we have enough wine cellared so that I can put on those that are more unusual and interesting. With this size program, I get to do it all.”
The wine-by-the-glass list changes regularly, so much so that last year, Panorama listed 800 over the course of the year, and Kilcullen says he uses the combination of 3-ounce tastings, single glass sales and multiple wine flights to create some soft-sell on-premise wine education.
It’s especially significant for Panorama in terms of competition; Pennsylvania laws sometimes make sourcing wines difficult, so specialty seekers often head to Panorama.
With 120 spots to fill on the list, Kilcullen can sneak in some oddities to mix with the more predictable wines. Whenever possible, he lists wines from excellent producers in vintages that are often dismissed by others. The combination of the praised and undiscovered has paid off at the wine bar where local restaurateurs, stewards and servers gather to taste unusual wines and those they may sell but haven’t tasted lately.
The capacity to serve so many wines allows Panorama to seize unusual opportunities. Recently, the Australian Wine Bureau introduced a number of new products to the US, and Panorama became the Philadelphia-area headquarters, selling probably the largest selection of Australian wines sold by the glass in the US at 60.
With a number of 1988 barolos and 1990 barolos and barbarescos, and other great vintages, he’s poised to make inaccessible bottles an unexpected menu treat.
“It’s pretty wild, since I’m changing the list every week. Because we’re an Italian restaurant, the lists leans heavily toward Italian and California wines, but I try to mix it up as much as possible.
river of wine
According to Curt Burns, the self-named “wine guy” at Chicago’s 225-seat Hudson Club, staying on top of a 100 by-the-glass list has paid off handsomely. About 50% of the restaurant’s $1.7 million 1997 wine income came strictly from glasses of wine, another 30% from flight sales. On a busy night, his staff has sometimes rung up as many as 200 four-glass flights. That’s a lot of appellations.
“With our flight program, a customer who only knows something like Sterling chardonnay might be willing to order the California chardonnay flight and taste it alongside a rarer one, like Rutz Cellars, a great chardonnay from the Russian River.”
On his list, Burns ranges far and wide, including at least four pinot grigios, sauvignon blancs, Alsatians, hard to find viogniers and roussannes, sangioveses, pinot noirs from the US and France, along with in-demand bourdeauxs, cabernets, chardonnays and merlots.
Unlike restaurants which have built on strong but limited by-the-glass programs, Hudson Club, open two years, was designed to handle 100 wines at a time. “We stared out at this level, but we have evolved,” says Burns. “On our original list, I had many more esoteric selections in an attempt to be as different as possible. Now, we’re slightly more commonplace. It’s important for consumers, we’ve found, to be able to search a list and pick out a number of wines they already know. It makes them feel comfortable, and that’s important.”
The restaurant was designed with a 50-foot-long service and preservation system that cost about $40,000 to purchase and install, designed, like Panorama’s, by Wine Keeper. “Once you get over 20 wines by the glass, you have to have a wine preservation system of some kind,” says Burns. His Wine Keeper maintains most wines for two to three weeks, he says. “I think pinot noirs and the like don’t maintain their flavor as long as, say, a cabernet.”
Hudson Club’s list and sales training is geared toward flights; In fact, Burns is marketing his own system, called the Hudson Carrier, a bow-shaped chrome-plated stainless steel server which allows staff to carry easily up to six flights at a time, keep glasses in tasting order and build attention to the program among customers.
The carrier might have saved Hudson’s flight program. “We used to serve flights with wooden boards and paddles, but we lost lots of glassware, spilled lots of wine and paid lots of dry cleaning bills, and our staff was very frustrated by the problems. It showed in their sales.” One day, Burns was toting four glasses in one hand, and it dawned on him that there might be a slightly better way. A metal-working friend developed the prototype, and it pushed sales through the roof.
But without training, the program could collapse. “We do a full staff training twice a week and taste 12 wines, talk about pairings and give the staff all background about each one. Our staff is used to aggressive tasting, and they are all interested in wines.”
The massive by-the-glass list ranges in price from $5 for glasses of Villa del Borgo 1996 Pinot Grigio, Lindemans Bin 45 Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 and others, topping out at $17.50 for the most expensive white, Leroy Montagny 1er Cru 1994, and $37.50 for a red, Napa Caymus Special Selection 1994.
The by-the-glass wines at Hudson Club are grouped together on the list into 24 separate flights of four, priced from $9.50 up to a top of $35.75.
When opening Enoteca I Trulli, an Italian-style wine bar connected to restaurant I Trulli in Manhattan, listing only Italians was an obvious choice, says manager Charles Scicolone. “We’re an Italian restaurant and thought it made good sense to have a variety of good Italian wines to go with the food. We have the familiar wines, but also some that are usually hard to find, especially by the glass.”
As far as controlling spoilage, I Trulli, like Mistral, uses the Private Preserve method that only extends a wine’s life a few days, good enough for Scicolone. “Our turnover is very good, and the rest we pour off. To be truthful, we drink it ourselves, so what little we don’t sell doesn’t go to waste.” Initially, the enoteca also sold 2-ounce tasters, but Scicolone eliminated them when service became unwieldy. “When we’re busy, running back and forth to tables with one 2-ounce glass creates service problems. With three 2-ounce glasses at once in our flights, it’s worthwhile”
As with most other large list operations, I Trulli’s flight program is popular, especially customers who meet for pre-dinner wine and then move next door for their meal. With fewer wines sold by the glass in the restaurant than at the wine bar, customers use the multiple taste of flights to help select their bottle for dinner.
With flights, Scicolone gets to do some interesting things, like grouping montepulciano d’abruzzos with vino nobile di montepulciano. But some Italian wine drinkers are unfamiliar with the whole flight idea, says Scicolone. “One lady looked at the list of flights and wines by the glass and said to me, ‘I see, these are the flights, and these are the stand-bys?'”
Maria de Corpo, wine buyer for Mistral restaurant in Santa Clara, offers 40 wines by the glass on a list that changes once or twice weekly. “I taste anywhere between 20 and 40 wines each week, and a lot of what we add has to do with what’s newly available. And it depends on our current inventory and what we need to move or highlight or what we want to get our servers behind because we feel strongly about it and want to give them the opportunity to sell that wine.”
She presents flights to encourage comparative tastings; for instance, the sauvignon blanc flight includes wines from New Zealand and California’s Russian River region, and a French Sancerre, three very different wines that offer distinctive styles.
“We’re very generous with tastings of our wines. Any wine that’s open can be tasted out by staff, or they themselves can try them,” says de Corpo.
After Mistral was renovated three years ago, the wine bar, tastings flights and by-the-glass programs allowed them to develop a signature style that differentiated them from other area operations. Now, wine drinkers know that if they want more than cabernet or chardonnay, Mistral is good start. (Zinfandel is currently the most popular by-the-glass wine at Mistral, followed by California Rhone blends. Sauvignon blanc is the most popular white.)
With so much attention paid these days to cabernet, chardonnay and merlot, finding a way to serve more zinfandel and sauvignon is a bit of a coup for Mistral. But if there’s one thing that managing these intense by-the-glass programs has taught operators, it’s that consumers will bestow upon you their loyalty and their business if you just give them a choice. Or, in these cases, endless choices.