SIZING UP YOUR WINE
No matter what you’ve heard,
size really does matter
So does variety. Many restaurants around the country are going out of their way to make wine choices appealing and plentiful and full of size options. From modest to high-ticket restaurants, wine by the glass offerings, from ten to two hundred wines, in flights or in different sized portions, are catching on.
Flights of wine, that is, small portions offered as part of a unifying theme (region, varietal or style), started out in 1980’s wine bars and have slowly worked their way into the main stream. In New York City, Blue Fin offers, of all things,a flight of Madeira. Also in New York, Enoteca I Trulli has a huge local following for their intriguing and rotating groupings of Italian flights, Oakland, CA’s A Cote has added a flight menu to their cocktail list (as well as offering fifty wines by the glass), and New York’s two Flute Bars offer a quartet of champagne by the flights.
Flights, in fact, are the biggest portion of Chicago’s Bin 36’s revenue. Partner and wine director Brian Duncan says they beat food and wines by the glass on a daily basis and they serve three meals a day. “It’s the draw here. We offer four wines in each flight choosing from fifty wines and ten flights. People can order a 6 oz pour of wine or custom design their flights and the range goes from $12.85- $17.85.”
Bin 36 promotes the wines by listing each from driest, to fruitiest and lightest to fullest. “I give customers a cheat sheet, tell them why I chose to lay out the flight this way and what to expect. I describe the wine and let them know they can agree or tell me if I’m completely out of my mind. All night long you see people swapping glasses, taking notes and making discoveries.” It’s like listening to cd’s before you buy them.
Duncan advises against most preservation systems as they impart funky aromas and flavors, he believes. In sync with many others, he says the best preservation is to move the wine and pour it to customers.
In San Francisco, Debbie Zachareas’s restaurant Bacar has been created as a love poem to wine. She doesn’t offer flights but does provide just about everything else. At Bacar, all the bases are covered through offering a staggering 100 rotating wines in 2 oz. and 5 oz. pours, as well as in 250ml and 500 ml decanters
“We don’t pour cult cabs by the glass; if people want those, they sell just fine off of the list. We offer really special wines like a ’95 brunello for $16.75. That gets people excited.” She explains that her program helps people who don’t want to commit to a bottle, or desire different pairings with each course.
She cautions that with a big by-the-glass program, you must pour smart. At Bacar, with 300 covers nightly and a sizable bar crowd, they can move lots of wine from their 1400 selection list. “There has to be a good mix that myself, my staff and sommeliers are excited about as well as the customer comfort items. Wines that are too esoteric or too expensive tend to be overlooked. What doesn’t work is offering two high-end Italian wines by the glass on the same night, like the brunello or barolo at the same time. Too close a choice.” Bacar’s glass sales are so successful, they constitute 35-40% of wine sales.
While it might seem that waste would be a down-side of this sort of program, the pros say that they move more wine and pour off less. The preferred method of preservation is either a squirt of nitrogen or argon but the real favorite sort of preservation is to sell everything and have little left over.
Babbo is a restaurant that takes risks and wins, the site of the quartino’s greatest success in the US. In Italy, glass carafe frequently held ordinary jug wine, but as David Lynch, past editor of Cheers, author, with restaurateur and Babbo co-owner Joe Bastianich, of “Vino Italiano”, and now Babbo’s wine director, says, “You can’t order a glass here, it’s only quartinos, about twenty four choices, and we don’t offer crap. We offer the good stuff. Our price range for 250ml a glass and a half is between $11 and $25. Most people who care would be thrilled to order a $25 barolo rather then the whole bottle at $100.”
“The premise is multi-faceted,” Lynch says. “The idea is that a diner can control the wine in their glass. Some like a little smidge, others like to fill it up to the brim. The other issue is quality control. A quartino is a third of a bottle. We’re insuring quality because we use a bottle of wine more rapidly and not letting them die.”
He’s observed that some customers complain that they only want one little glass, and get confused when that is not an option. “Look,” he says, “we all want to drink more than a glass…they don’t know they want more than a glass but they do. So, if they’re dining with someone, we suggest splitting a quartino and see how that goes. The concept really allows for greater food and wine pairing options; for example, if someone is having branzino (striped sea bass) and the other short ribs you can have different wines. A two-top usually splits three or four quartinos over the course of a three-course meal. It’s a nice contribution to the check and the customer has gotten a terrific experience.”
Babbo required a distinctive delivery system. “We make it ceremonial. We pour the bottle into the quartino our special tear-drop shaped beaker up to the red mark that indicates the correct mls, and present it on a tray to the table. It’s customized and showy. The message is that we’re serious about every wine that we pour.”
Lynch doesn’t worry about waste. “The staff is on top of what needs to be moved at the end of the night. However, we argon the open bottles and fridge them and discard everything open after two days.”
Share and Share Alike
Everyone who serves different sizes believes it encourages sharing and a family-style dinning attitude. That’s what Joanne Herron sees at her Seattle restaurant, Le Pichet, where her little carafes are called pichets and the attitude is French, not Italian.
With few exceptions all wines on her forty-something bottle list are available in three sizes; by-the-glass, as well as two sizes of pichets the pitchers found in French countryside bistros. A full pichets holds two-thirds of a bottle, the demi-pichets, two glasses. She counts on getting 5 1/2 glasses per bottle and prices the pichets, respectively, at 2/3 and 1/3 of the bottle price.
“There’s no real price advantage to getting the full bottle,” she says. “I want to encourage people to try wine and I price accordingly. As a result our wine sales are very high. People who are intimidated about buying a bottle can do it in increments instead, and they can feel good about being adventurous. Only people who are in recovery don’t drink wine when they come here.”
And waste? Because Le Pichet sells so many different sizes of wine, if they open up a bottle to pour a pichet, it gets sold by the glass in an hour or two. “We have very little left over or waste.”
Passes at Glasses
Perhaps the most focused and simple by-the-glass program thrives at NYC’s Rhone. Except some Champagnes, Rhone’s list is 100% Rhone with tantalizing choices, from a Lirac to a Hermitage, from $6 to $20 per glass. With options like that, diners feel like going for glasses rather than choosing a bottle and it gives the regulars a nifty excuse to come back several times a week.
In New Orleans, Cuvée dishes up contemporary creole cuisine with a spicy attitude and also do a significant by-the glass program in one size. Wine director Jeff Kundinger carries four-to-five Champagnes and, like Rhone, about twenty wines by-the-glass, including unusual whites from the Basque. Yes, much of the sell is by hand but is bolstered by their varietally correct Riedel glasses.
Sales of half-bottles are growing, says Kundinger. “I’ve got fifty half-bottles which I just moved to the front of the list right after the glasses, Our sales doubled overnight. A table of three or four will treat the half bottles like their own private wine and food pairings. This summer when we’re more local than tourist, I’ll be experimenting with flights of wines with each course. I’m pouring three 1 1/2 ounce pours so people can experiment and play.”
Bin 36’s Duncan summed up the new size trend. “It’s sounds silly, but important to remember that we’re in the hospitality business.” And offering choices in your wine program that accommodate your customer is not only hospitable, but also profitable.
Alice Feiring writes for the New York Times, Departures and other magazines.