“I see sparkling wine as a category that, if priced reasonably with staff trained to talk it up, can win you a lot of friends as a restaurant operator,” opines Sandy Block, master of wine and vice president of beverage operations for the 31-unit, Boston-based Legal Sea Foods. He carries about 10 sparkling wines on his menu, priced from $30 to $160.
Although many customers still regard sparkling wine, and especially Champagne, as a special occasion beverage, that attitude seems to be changing thanks to operators who appreciate bubbly wines and know how to price, promote and train their staff to sell them.
The category took an overall dip of 3.9 percent in 2009 versus the previous year, according to the On-Premise Barometer Handbook published by the Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company. Imports were down by 7.4 percent and domestics by 1.4 percent, according to the study.
“I like to drink sparkling wine any time,” says Kate Tozier, general manager at Grace, a fine-dining restaurant set in an old church in Portland, Me. The restaurant offers two sparklers by the glass, priced from $7 to $8, and seven bottles, ranging in price from $28 for a Spanish cava to $75 for a non-vintage Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Champagne.
Despite concerted efforts by producers, marketers and operators to convince consumers otherwise, sales of sparklers still peak in the fourth quarter during holiday celebrations and the gift-giving season. And restaurants continue to sell a lot of the stuff during Valentine and Mother’s Days, birthdays and anniversaries.
“Sparkling wine still leans toward being a special occasion drink,” confirms Andrew Deffenbacher, general manager of B2 Wine Bar, a Eugene, Ore., establishment that focuses on wines from the Northwest. “But I have a number of regulars who always drink sparkling wine; it’s their drink of choice.”
Under its “Bubbles” section, B2 showcases two selections from a local Oregon winery, Meriwether Brut 1999 ($8 a glass and $28 a bottle) and Meriwether Brut Rosé 1999 ($36 a bottle). B2 also currently offers a Spanish cava, Segura Viudas, priced at $6 a glass and $20 a bottle. “It’s more approachable for a customer that just wants to have a glass of wine in front of them,” he notes.
Sparking a Change
Not surprisingly, one of the factors in this shift of taste is the difficult state of the economy. On-premise wine sales have been hardest hit among the beverage alcohol categories, especially high-end bottles such as tête de cuvée and other top of the line Champagnes.
According to the On-Premise Barometer Handbook, Champagne’s market share declined 5.1 percent between 2005 and 2009. Italy and Spain have bubbled into the gap, gaining 3.9 percent and 3 percent respectively, during that same period. One category, prosecco, grew its share by a whopping 12.3 percent during 2008 and 2009–albeit off a small base, thanks in part to heavy promotion by Italian producers and its lower-price and refreshing, easy-drinking qualities. Other sparkling stars are appearing from areas as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, South America and the U.S.
In general, these other sparkling wines are reasonably priced and seen by customers as an affordable luxury, especially when offered by the glass or half bottle. But even Champagne still sells if the price is right.
“We have always had a moderate price policy for most of our wines, but we mark up sparkling wines a little less because we want people to try them,” says Block. Often people shy away from sparkling wine in restaurants because they expect it will be over priced, he explains. “We want to make a statement about how reasonably priced our sparkling wines are, especially the Champagne.”
Legal Sea Foods offers a non-vintage Taittinger Brut Champagne by the glass for a very competitive $9.95. Also by the glass is a well-priced Spanish cava, La Poema ($7.75). By the bottle, the Taittinger Brut is $49. Legal Sea Foods’ selection includes a number of other fine Champagnes such as Roederer Cristal ($155) and Dom Pérignon ($159). Customers are responding positively, reports Block. “We are selling a lot of Champagne.”
“I’m selling more sparkling wine than ever,” confirms Victoria Norvell, the sommelier at Lucia’s Restaurant and Wine Bar, a French-American bistro in Minneapolis. Lowering the ceiling price points on some bubbles did the trick. Lucia’s stopped stocking pricy $125 bottles of Champagne because they didn’t move. Now most of Lucia’s sparklers are cavas and proseccos, with a price range of $8 to $12 a glass and $25 to $40 a bottle. Norvell’s sparkling selections have ranged far afield; at various times she’s offered sparkling chenin blanc from Vouvray in France and a Brachetto d’Acqui from Italy. Currently, Lucia’s list features an unusual Finca Flichman Extra Brut chardonny-malbec rosé blend from Argentina priced at $27.95 a bottle.
Small is Big
Although customers might not pop for a full bottle of bubbles, they can be tempted with less-of-a-spluge splits and, especially, glasses of sparkling wine. And the trade-off in dollars can also be made up in volume.
“We sell more sparklers by the glass,” says Tozier at Grace. A glass is less of a commitment; one customer can order just a glass versus the whole table having to get a bottle, she explains. Splits are also popular for that same reason; they yield just two and a half glasses, perfect for an aperitif or to share with a small bite.
Similarly, Lucia’s customers with a taste for Champagne, for example, can still get a half-bottle of non-vintage Laurent-Perrier for $35.95. “Unlike the full bottle, these fly out of the cellar,” says the sommelier. Also popular for its portion size is an individual 187-ml bottle of prosecco from Zardetto ($7.95).
Tristan Dining, an inventive fine-dining restaurant in Charleston, S.C., takes its vision of small a step further, offering wines by the half glass at half the price, including sparklers. “Half glasses are great if a customer is not sure about a wine or if they’ve had a glass and just want a bit more,” explains general manager Steven Harris. Wine sales have increased due to the half glass policy. Tristan’s by-the-glass pours change frequently. Currently on tap are an Avinyó Cava ($9 a glass), Domaine Carneros ($12) sparkling from California and a non-vintage Champagne Veuve Clicquot ($15).
Selling the Sparkle
To kick off Veuve Clicquot, which was just added to the by-the-glass list, Harris is also running an internal promotion. The staffer who sells the most Veuve during the month will receive a gift basket of goodies, including a bottle of the Champagne.
Tristan also offers half-off bottles of wine, including sparkling, on Mondays and Tuesdays. The promotion is quite popular with customers, he says. The promotion has boosted dinner business on these traditionally slow nights. With a lower bottle cost, customers are more willing to try new wines.
B2 promotes its wine specials on a chalkboard. “I’ll feature say a sparkling wine of the week and knock a dollar off the bottle price,” says Deffenbacher.
Few people look to the “sparkling wine section unless they are celebrating,” says Block, so it’s up to servers to point it out to them. “We encourage servers to pick up the list and suggest Champagne right at the beginning of the meal.”
Just the festive drama of opening a bottle of Champagne or other sparkler on the floor promotes sales, believes Harris. “My staff is [composed of] a bunch of showmen, anytime they can open a bottle of sparkling wine, they will. It’s part of the show and presentation goes a long way to selling more.”
However, not all employees can pop a cork with flair and that could hurt sales. “Servers could be reticent to suggest sparkling wines because they aren’t at ease with opening a bottle. That’s why we emphasize it,” says Block. At Legal Sea Foods, servers are not only trained to present and open bottles, but also to talk up sparklers as an aperitif or as a great match to seafood.
“Our staff is seasoned but in other places I’ve managed, opening sparkling wine has been more of a challenge, especially for less-experienced servers,” says Tozier. At Grace, servers are well-trained in presentation, as well as suggesting food and wine pairings to build sales, says the general manager.
“Champagne and sparkling wines go well with a number of our appetizers, as well as with some chocolate and fruit desserts,” adds Tozier. She cites Grace’s Oyster Sampler with a Strawberry Horseradish Mignonette, as matching well with the Jeio Desiderio Cuveé Rosé, a prosecco from Italy ($8/$32). “The sparkling rosé has a bit of sweetness that complements the mignonette.”
Block is also a champion of Champagne with fish and shellfish. “My first love is Champagne. There is something unique about the minerality, chalkiness and structure of a grande marque Champagne. I think it goes beautifully with shellfish,” asserts the master of wine. In general, he believes that white grape varietal-based sparklers made in the traditional method have a natural acidity and toastiness that cut through velvety sauces and cool down spiciness and work well with the brininess of a bivalve.
Of course, there’s no denying that Champagne and sparkling wine create their own celebratory atmosphere, no matter what they’re served with or when. So why not play this card? When large parties make reservations at Grace, for example, the host always asks if it’s a special occasion. “If it is, we suggest having a bottle of sparkling wine waiting on the table when they arrive,” points out Tozier. During last year’s holiday season, she estimates that about 25 percent of parties took advantage of the offer; and this year Tozier expects that percentage to be even higher.
Bubbles are celebratory, confirms Harris. “We’d like all our guests to start off with a glass as an aperitif; it gets the juices flowing, gets the guest relaxed and comfortable.”
Chimes in Block, “Sparkling wine makes everything special.”