Nothing against the quintessential French sparkler, but ample alternatives to Champagne are being popped open and poured in bars and restaurants around the country. Sales of domestic sparkling wine increased 3.9 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to Beverage Information Group, Cheers’ parent company.
Sales of Segura Viudas Cava from Spain were up 11.1 percent, and Italian easy drinking bubbly Verdi Spumante saw a rise to 11.9 percent, according to BIG. On the flip side, though still among the top imported sparkling wine brands, sales of Champagne giants Veuve Clicquot and Moët & Chandon were down 3.7 and 4.1 percent, respectively. Operators around the country were happy to uncork how they are promoting, pairing and mixing Champagne alternatives from around the world.
Across the board, a ubiquitous Italian offering is a surefire sparkling winner. “Prosecco has absolutely become an everyday wine!” declares Lara Creasy, beverage director of classic neighborhood bistro JCT. Kitchen and Bar in Atlanta, and No. 246, an Italian-inspired, locally driven restaurant in Decatur, Georgia. “Consumers recognize it and ask for it by name.” No. 246 offers six non-Champagne sparkling wines by the glass, priced $7 to $15, and seven by the bottle, priced $30 to $120, and their top selling bubblies by for both are Proseccos by Valdo ($7 a glass) and Zardetto ($40 a bottle.)
At Ripple, a 120-seat artisanal modern American restaurant in Washington, D.C., Prosecco isn’t just the top selling sparkling wine, but the NV Tocco Prosecco ($9 a glass, $30 a bottle) is actually the most popular wine on the entire list of 47 selections by the glass and half glass, and 154 by the bottle.
Prosecco is not made with the traditional method like Champagne, Cava and many American sparkling wines, but with the Charmat, or tank, method. But what it lacks in complexity, Prosecco more than makes up for in its clean finish, easy drinkability and wallet-friendly price tag, according to many operators. “We truly believe in value—the customer will remember this glass and return for more of the same,” explains Ripple sommelier Maurice Cherry. Ripple carries four sparkling wines by the glass priced $6 to $11 (including two Proseccos) and six non-Champagne bottles of sparkling wine, priced $20 to $70.
Bubbly Flavors and Deals
Not only are bubblies like Prosecco a smart choice for economically savvy customers, but their serving size flexibility means more bang for the buck for operators. “Margins are generally better on non-Champagne sparkling wines than still wines. I can generally pour five glasses of sparkling from one bottle, versus four per bottle of still wine, increasing profit per bottle,” says Creasy.
Many operators still struggle to have guests see past sparkling wine’s traditional reputation. “Most of our guests still view sparkling wine as a wine for celebration, but more guests are ordering wines as an aperitif and a pairing it with dessert,” says Jason Cha-Kim, beverage manager for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, which has 465 food and beverage locations, including more than one hundred with table service, and more than seventy bars.
Guests at the resorts and on Disney cruises can partake in more than fifteen sparkling wine selections, including a flute of the Washington state-produced Domaine Ste. Michelle Blanc de Blancs ($9 a glass) to begin a meal, a splurge-worthy bottle of Napa Valley’s Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs ($80), and the aptly named Iron Horse Fairy Tale Cuvée ($62 a bottle) from Sonoma County.
The built-in acidity and palate-scrubbing abilities of sparkling wine make it a perfect start for meals. Emiliano di Franca, lounge food and beverage manager at the 151-seat Blue Duck Tavern located in the 215-room Park Hyatt Hotel in Washington, D.C., recommends a glass of Gloria Ferrer “Va de Vi” ($12) from Sonoma County, or Thibaut-Janisson Blanc de Blancs ($18) from Virginia as aperitifs. “As we are an American restaurant and hotel, we try to promote our American made sparkling wines,” di Franca notes. Blue Duck Tavern offers ten sparkling wines by the bottle, priced $45 to $160, and four by the glass, priced $12 to 18.
Getting the Wines in Front of Guests
Integrating sparking wine with the dining experience increases visibility—and sales. At Sons & Daughters, a 29-seat American restaurant in downtown San Francisco, seated guests are greeted by their servers and asked if they would like a glass of Sorelle Bronca Prosecco ($10) or Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé ($13) while viewing the menu.
“It’s surprising how setting this small detail in place in our service has boosted our sparkling wine sales,” admits wine director and general manager Carlin Karr. “People really enjoy starting their evening with bubbles.” Seventy percent of patrons at Sons & Daughters order the five-course tasting menu ($78) with wine pairings ($56), which always begins with half a glass of bubbly—and Karr is partial to Crémants. These wines are produced outside the Champagne region but still in France using the same method and often the same grapes, which Karr says translates to great value. Sons and Daughters offers four bubblies by the glass, priced at $10 and $13; and four by the bottle, priced from $38 to $67.
Cherry encourages guests to consider both classic and unexpected sparkling wine pairings. “The true beauty of sparkling wine is its versatility—a richer style could most certainly stand up to the juiciest of steaks, its minerality and acidity cutting through the fat while the next sip primes the palate for the next bite; a lighter style is at home with.” Servers at Ripple taste new menu items and wines daily, alongside Chef Logan Cox. Cherry loves how the rich Conde de Subirats Rosé Cava ($9 a glass, $28 a bottle) plays nicely with tomato, cheese and eggplant dishes.
Sweeter styles of sparkling wine can even take a diner through to the last bite of the meal. Disney Resorts highlight the raspberry notes of the ruby-tinged Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto d’Acqui ($12 a glass) with dark chocolate desserts; di Franca serves Bera Moscato d’Asti ($12 a glass, $36 a bottle) with Olive Oil Cake with Pine Nuts, Apricots and Rosemary ($9 a glass). Not to be confused with Asti Spumante, Moscato d’Asti is lighter in body, and lower in alcohol and effervescence. Its heady aromas of white grapes and blossoms partner synergistically with light, fruit-based desserts.
Keeping Product Fresh
One of the criticisms of sparkling wines made outside of Champagne can often be the presence of larger and less persistent bubbles, most noticeable in Charmat-method produced sparkling wines. Still, preserving those precious bubbles is paramount—leftover open bottles of flat sparkling wine won’t sell. The most popular method, employed at Sons & Daughters, No. 246 Disney and Ripple, is also a very inexpensive one. “We use Metrokane Champagne stoppers and only serve sparkling wine for twenty-four hours or less after they have been opened,” declares Karr. Cherry inserts a layer of inert Argon gas for an added layer of protection.
“Nothing is worse than ordering a great bottle of bubbles and having it served improperly,” declares Karr. At Sons & Daughters, she hosts extensive wine training every three weeks, as well as daily reviews of sparkling wines and regions. And because there are distinct differences in style from the various production methods, Creasy thoroughly reviews with staff the distinctions and nuances in traditional and tank method bubbly.
Staff training is crucial—not only from a knowledge and pairing standpoint, but from a safety one. Cha-Kim points out that learning how to properly remove the cork from a bottle of bubbly is a requisite during training sessions to prevent injury to guests and employees. Ongoing education in the form of daily pre-shift meetings, monthly tastings and fifteen-minute, mini-learning sessions keep staff sharp. Through Disney’s partnership with the Court of Master Sommeliers, servers are encouraged to achieve sommelier accreditation.
Regions, production methods and included grape varieties aside, a flute of sparkling wine presented to a guest tableside, the soft pop of a bottle uncorking, or a strikingly garnished, flavorful bubbly cocktail bring enjoyment to guests. In the end, says Herve Rousseau—owner of Flûte Champagne Lounges’ locations in New York, Paris and soon-to-launch London—says sparkling wine “is all about pleasure; not about price, label or really where it is from.”
Sparklers and the Shaker
In cocktails, sparkling wine becomes the ultimate mixer, easily blending with a variety of ingredients, its effervescence serving as a conduit for a libation’s aromatics. Bubbly libations can also bridge the gap for wine lovers. As Creasy puts it, “Rather than inclusion in cocktails making sparkling wine more acceptable, I think inclusion in a cocktail makes that cocktail more marketable to wine drinkers!” At No. 246, the Aperol Spritz ($8) combines the bitter orange-colored Italian digestivo with Prosecco, blood orange bitters and pink peppercorn; the complex Star of Wonder ($9), served around the holidays, mixes Carpano Antica Formula, Cherry Heering and Regan’s Orange Bitters, topped with Brachetto d’Acqui.
The Kir Royal cocktail, in which Crème de Cassis is mixed with Champagne or sparkling wine, is still popular, says Rousseau. He offers 20 different takes on the classic. The Kir Royal tasting flight ($20) lets guests sample their pick of three, including traditional cassis, cherry, ginger, peach, blackberry, lemon and pomegranate. Rousseau is partial to Massenez syrups, using just a small amount so the cocktail isn’t cloying.
Floral and aromatic fruit components especially show an affinity when mixed with sparkling wine. Blue Duck Tavern’s Sakura ($12), blends Prairie Organic Vodka and Gloria Ferrer Va de Vi sparkling wine from Sonoma with cherry purée, syrup and bitters. The Aviation-esque Violet Beauregarde Part 2 ($11) at Ripple mixes Aperol,lemon and Liqueur de Violette, topped with Prosecco.
At all of Morton’s The Steakhouse’s worldwide 77 locations, from November to January, guests can order the Sparkling Cinnamon Apple ($14), made with Lindemans Apple Lambic Beer, Monin honey syrup, a layer of cream, cinnamon sugar rim and sparkling wine.
Sara Fasolino, beverage systems manager of the Chicago-based Morton’s restaurant group, uses Lunetta Prosecco, but operators could easily substitute a Brut Champagne or high-end domestic bubbly. She points out that since it is not overly sweet, the libation is appropriate as both an aperitif as well as a liquid dessert.