Corks are popping all over restaurants, and not just from Champagne bottles. The expanding options in sparkling wines are appealing to guests who want to celebrate everyday occasions with affordable bubbles, according to several restaurant and wine bar operators.
With French Champagne prices remaining high, operators have been promoting alternatives, including domestic sparkling wines, Italian prosecco, Spanish cava, German riesling and others. Champagne still sells, but it’s becoming even more of a special occasion beverage than it used to be.
Bin 36, a restaurant, wine bar and retail store in Chicago, stopped pouring Champagne by the glass several years ago. Increased prices made that practice prohibitively expensive, recalls Brian Duncan, partner and wine director. Instead of having to charge up to $25 for a glass of champagne, Bin 36 is able to charge $7 to $12 for an alternative sparkling wine.
“Champagne no longer is the first choice for an effervescent drink,” says Donatella Arpaia, owner of Donatella in New York. “I definitely think that prosecco as a category is becoming more widely known—especially in this economy. People still want to go out and celebrate.”
Arpaia’s main focus in sparkling wines in her Neapolitan restaurant are Martini prosecco and Asti. “It’s a brand that people know, it does really, really well and is priced really well,” she says.
Donatella sells prosecco for $13 to $16 by the glass and by the bottle for $45. “It’s an affordable luxury,” Arpaia says. “It’s all about making the customer feel comfortable.”
The biggest attraction to sparkling wines “is that they are half at least the price of a Champagne,” says Alex Karas, general manager of Quattro Gastronomia Italiana in Miami Beach. “The production method reduces our cost; we don’t have to charge $100 for a great prosecco.”
The Italian-themed Quattro, a lunch-and-dinner restaurant, carries an all-Italian wine list except for Champagne, as well as a full bar. Its sparklers include prosecco, spumante and franciacorta—all of which are sold by the glass and in cocktails, as well as by the bottle.
Prices for sparkling wines at Quattro range from $10 to $14, cocktails are $15 and bottles run from $39 to $46. Prosecco by the glass now accounts for 12% of annual beverage sales, Karas says, which represents a gradual increase.
Not just prosecco
Italian sparkling wine exports to the U.S. increased by 36% in 2011 alone, according to the Italian Trade Commission’s analysis of U.S. Department of Commerce data. But prosecco isn’t the only popular sparkler.
“There is a treasure trove to choose from,” says Duncan of Bin 36. “Most countries have something good—South Africa, South America, Spain, Italy, France, Australia, domestic—there are so many choices.”
A few of the sparklers that Duncan recommends are Tabernero from Peru, a brut style that is 100% chenin blanc; Sziget, a mineral-driven Gruner Veltliner from Austria and a 2009 Raventos Brut Reserva, a Spanish cava, which retails for $20 a bottle.
At Pickwick & Frolic, a Cleveland, Ohio, entertainment complex with a comedy club, sparkling wines from all over the world comprise about 35% of the inventory of 73 labels. Sales of both sparkling wines and Champagne have risen this year, says Dina Kostis, sommelier and Champagne bar manager, following a slump after the recession hit in 2008.
“Sparkling is an easier price to swallow, and I think the quality is there,” Kostis says. “For instance, I would put up Gruet blanc de blancs from New Mexico against many 100-percent chardonnay Champagnes.”
At the two Indulge Wine Rooms in Milwaukee, Wisc., proprietor Marc Bianchini sells sparkling wine from many major regions. Like other operators, he has found that guests are buying sparklers to celebrate for many reasons other than big occasions. “People are looking for something different and fun,” he says. Bianchini offers choices in a range of prices but requires a two-glass minimum on higher-priced options. “That way, I can guarantee the pour is always fresh,” he explains.
Sales of both sparkling wines and Champagne have risen at Meat Market in Miami Beach. But the increase has been driven by the wider appeal of the less-expensive sparklers, says general manager Sebastien Tribout.
While the contemporary steak house sells plenty of red wine with its steaks, sparkling wines are especially popular with female guests. “A lot of customers have it as an aperitif, but some will have a bottle with dinner,” Tribout notes.
Meat Market servers will ask guests if they are celebrating something, and if so, suggest a sparkling wine or Champagne. They also recommend sparklers with oysters and other such classic pairings.
While both genders drink sparkling wines, more women than men order it at Bin 36, particularly for occasions such as bridal showers, Duncan observes. But like many operators, he finds that sparklers are becoming more of an everyday wine.
Upstairs on the Square in Cambridge, Mass., offers various sparklers, with cava and Champagne leading sales. “Cava is the closest in taste to Champagne with its toasty, rich style,” says wine director Matt Reiser. A difference between the two is that 70% of Reiser’s Champagne sales occur between November and January, while sparkling wine sales are more consistent throughout the year. Sparklers—even pink rosés—have proven equally popular with men and women, Reiser says.
Sales are of sparkling wine are up at Hubbard Inn in Chicago.In particular, younger women are ordering it between 5 p.m and 9 p.m. and sharing small plates of a variety of tapas-style dishes. The value is attractive for guests: “The price point of prosecco, for instance, is about half or less the cost of Champagne,” notes Glenn Ventura, managing partner.
Still, the restaurant sells sparklers in a range of prices, from $35 bottles of Italian prosecco and moscato and $38 bottles of Mumm brut from Napa Valley to $75 bottles of Chandon rosé, also from Napa. Hubbard Inn plans to open a club-like space on its third floor later this year; the space will be geared to late-night celebrating with sparkling wines and exclusive Champagnes.
Pairings and promotions
Sparkling wine pair well with a variety of cusines, so operators are creative with promotions. Some limited-time offers that have worked well for Upstairs on the Square include a summer feature of Riesling from Mosel, Germany and an Italian lambrusco. Wine choices are printed on the back of the operator’s food menu, Reiser says.
Donatella pairs prosecco with everything from pasta to meats to seafood. “Prosecco can go across the menu; it goes with everything,” Arpaia says, due to the sparkling wine’s citrus, fruit and floral notes.
Sparklers pair well with many foods, agrees Karas of Quattro Gastronomia. The restaurant often offers limited-time pairing promotions, such as caviar with a crisp franciacorta.
Bin 36 suggests specific wine pairings—including sparkling wines—on its printed food menu, Duncan says. The restaurant also features a daily-changing flight of sparklers, in addition to several flights of still wines, he notes.
Selling flights often leads to bottle sales with sparkling wines, notes Kostis of Pickwick & Frolick. Many of her customers are reluctant to order an entire bottle of something they never have tasted, she says.
But overall, “I think people are becoming more familiar with sparkling wines,” Kostis says. “Now there is more variety, and people want to know more.”
Pouring prosecco cocktails
“The Bellini is the main reason for prosecco’s popularity,” says Alex Karas, general manager of Quattro Gastronomia Italiana in Miami Beach. But there are plenty of other ways to mix the Italian sparkling wine into drinks.
Quattro makes a half-dozen prosecco cocktails, most with various fresh fruits. A spritz with prosecco and Aperol is one of Quattro’s signature cocktails.
Meat Market, also in Miami Beach, offers a few sparkling cocktails, including the Honey Bunny—prosecco with vanilla-infused vodka—and the Champagne Cobbler, which is prosecco mixed with blue Curacao.
The drinks menu at Donatella in New York usually includes four prosecco cocktails. One current libation is the Bella Dona, made with Grey Goose Le Poire, Martini Rosato, hibiscus tea and Martini prosecco. The Rosemary Fresca mixes Espolon Reposado Tequila, St. Germain, rosemary jalapeno syrup, fresh lime juice and Martini prosecco.