Sustainability is no longer a grassroots movement. Fueled by a groundswell of commitment on behalf of operators, beverage programs that have made sustainability a priority have taken hold in every corner of the nation and are becoming the driving force behind a wave of new businesses.
Jumpstarted by the passion of chefs who advocated a regional and seasonal approach towards eating, sustainable beverages are now riding a wave of success. While the parameters of sustainable beverage programs differ, the fundamental considerations of most operators are very much the same. Given the success of their efforts, sustainable practices are generating interest and profits and are likely here to stay. This story looks at a lineup of different models of sustainable drinks lists in different parts of the country.
For many operations, a sustainable beverage program is one component of a larger, brand-wide effort to raise consciousness and protect the environment. At Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, a national chain of 51 boutique hotels and restaurants based in San Francisco, California, master sommelier Emily Wines created Wines That Care: a program that features the wines from a different sustainable producer every month during the nightly hosted wine hour at Kimpton hotels. For her 2011 lineup, Wines selected producers like French Rabbit, Citra, Concha y Toro, Banrock Station and Hayes Ranch by Wente for their dedication to earth-friendly practices and local communities. Wines That Care is part of Kimpton’s company-wide EarthCare umbrella program that encompasses 50 daily environmentally friendly practices. “We were looking for ways to expand our EarthCare initiative and over the last two years we’ve achieved a lot with our beverage program. Thirty percent of the wines on our lists are eco-friendly choices including wines from organic, biodynamic and sustainable producers large and small.”
The company also offers in-house purified still and sparkling water through a partnership with Natura that reduces waste and supports The Nature Conservancy. Wines’ approach to sustainability is to “avoid depleting the earth for short-term gain,” a philosophy that she puts in to practice on a daily basis through her various programs at Kimpton.
Sustainability was a priority for Talish Barrow when he designed the beverage program for Graze Gastropub, a small plate-concept sister restaurant to famed L’Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin. “I have always thought the tradition of European house wines [from the barrel to the carafe] was charming and the quality and cost benefits of wine on tap were appealing,” said Barrow who was inspired to source wines on tap after reading about them in the New York Times. Barrow lists a Dry Creek Valley sauvignon blanc and a Sonoma County merlot-cabernet franc blend sourced from Sonoma producer Silvertap’s portfolio of sustainably farmed, organic wines. At Graze, wines on tap are listed by the glass for $6, half liter at $16 and full liter carafes for $32 and Barrow sells through two 5.5-gallon kegs each week. “We’re on the same trajectory as the adoption of the screw cap and we’re quickly overcoming any stigma,” said Barrow. “Wine on tap reduces costs to the consumer by as much as 30 percent.”
Five years ago, Oleana, an 86-seat Mediterranean restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, implemented a sustainable beverage program and the concept has since been adopted by restaurants throughout the community. Wine director Lauren Friel, who has been managing Oleana’s beverage program for three years, has devoted 80 percent of her creative list to sustainable products.
“Organic or biodynamic certification is the most obvious form of sustainability,” says Friel, “but we recognize how expensive certification can be and there are many Old World producers who have always farmed organically but don’t make those claims.” Friel looks to domestic producers for no and low-sulfur wines citing less bottle variation even though she rarely sees a wine rejected on that basis. “We educate consumers to expect wine to vary by vintage and even by bottle.”
In New York, beverage director and sommelier Sarah Sutel established a sustainable program beverage program at Elsewhere, an 80-seat American comfort food restaurant in Manhattan, last October. “We want to create a memorable experience for our guests,” notes Sutel, who demands that sustainable products be both delicious and cost effective. Sutel now lists two wines on tap: Montelvini, a cabernet sauvignon-merlot blend from the Italian Veneto region and a Sainstbury Carneros Chardonnay by the glass for $9. “Wine is a perfect medium for reaching people with a message of sustainability,” says Sutel who always strives to be a few steps ahead of demand. “We’re listening to our customers and responding in a proactive way.”
For upscale dining chains like Chicago-based Wildfire, adopting sustainable practices that are a good fit with their existing operations was made easier by an on-premise program developed by DeLoach Vineyards. Inspired by the success of the wine on tap at TWO urban licks, an Atlanta restaurant with a custom gravity-flow system for pouring 42 stainless steel barrels of wine, Brad Wermager, wine and spirits director at Wildfire, added the DeLoach Vineyards’ Barrel-to-Barrel program to the company’s 300-seat Atlanta and Chicago locations. DeLoach is part of Boisset Family Estates, a San Francisco-area based company widely recognized as a global leader in sustainable and alternative wine packaging.
DeLoach provides Wildfire with handsome French oak barrels that hold ten-liter eco-bags of their organic California pinot noir and Wermager simply re-orders the eco-bag refills. “Out of 30 wines by the glass, the DeLoach wine on tap at $9 is our third best seller,” said Wermager. “It basically markets itself; customers see the barrel on the bar and they ask about the wine.” Wermager intends to expand the company’s wine on tap program when more varieties become available. For now, Deloach’s Barrel-to-Barrel program has significantly reduced the by-the-glass carbon footprint for Wildfire and has become a key way of promoting sustainability. Boisset will launch a similar program for Raymond Vineyards in March 2011.
In North Phoenix, Arizona, The Windsor, a new 100-seat project from Postino Wine Café, made sustainability the core of its concept with a by-the-glass wine program from tap that will initially offer eight selections. Postino Wine Café director Brent Karlicek introduced the format to Phoenix and has worked to evolve his customers’ perception of this sustainable service style.
“Silvertap’s Sauvignon Blanc has consistently ranked among our top three wines by the glass at Postino,” said Karlicek, “and the cost benefits to pouring wine on tap save 25 percent over bottles.” Karlicek’s expanded program at the Windsor will include Lioco’s Indica Mendocino Carginan-based blend and the Gotham Project from Charles Bieler, Chariot Wines Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, Palmina Pinot Grigio and Sean Minor Carneros Pinot Noir among others. “We‘ve always had a strong relationship with these producers as they develop new products, they have been open to collaborating. When we find a wine we like, we ask [the producer] if they would be willing to keg it up.”
Karlicek’s desire to offer unique wines at a competitive price point led him to wine on tap and the overwhelming response from consumers led to the expansion of the program. “Clients are progressive. If you’re not being more environmentally conscious, you’re missing the boat.”
At P.F. Chang’s, based in Scottsdale, Arizona with 201 locations internationally, director of beverage Mary Melton made big gains in sustainability in 2010. Melton developed a bag-in-box wine program branded Vineyard 518 that uses 100 percent recyclable packaging. “With 80 percent of our wines being sold by the glass, alternative packaging significantly reduces our carbon footprint,” says Melton who lists sauvignon blanc and syrah by the glass for $7. Melton also chose to create the Vineyard 518 brand for the chain versus opting for a private-label program, “We now have more control over the grapes being sourced for the brand.” She also cites space savings for smaller footprint operations and the fact that the bag-in-box wines stay fresher longer as important benefits as well. Based on the enthusiastic response by guests to the quality and value of Vineyard 518, a number which means “I will prosper” in Chinese Numerology, and with varieties like pinot gris, albariño and malbec performing well by the glass, Melton has plenty of incentive to expand the program.
Surrounded by acres of restored wetlands in the heart of a quiet residential neighborhood, Copperleaf Restaurant at Cedarbrook Lodge, a 104-room hotel property in Washington just minutes from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, is a model of sustainability in an urban setting. In keeping with the restaurant’s commitment to serving locally sourced, sustainable cuisine, maître d’ Simon Stapel built a wine list of more than 20 selections that promote sustainability by organic certification, salmon-safe, sustainable or biodynamic production and/or farming methods.
“The hardest part is deciding which wines [to include],” said Stapel who has a wealth of local sources to draw from including L’Ecole No. 41 Washington Chardonnay, Badger Mountain Washington Riesling, Snoqualmie “Naked” Washington Merlot and Va Piano Washington Syrah. While 60 percent of Cedarbrook’s guests are business travelers, it’s a popular stay-cation destination for local residents as well. Stapel’s progressive beverage program is one aspect of Cedarbrook’s company-wide commitment which, by many standards, sets a high water mark for the rising tide of sustainability.
While operators all over the country have implemented many different ways of offering sustainable drink choices, all are effectively catering to their customers’ needs. The diversity in programs is just another reason that sustainability is here to stay in the on-premise sector.