What a sommelier likes in a wine and what consumers prefer to drink have historically been pretty far apart, due to differences in personal taste, as well as issues with availability or pricing. But that gap is closing, thanks to a few trends.
For one thing, wine directors and operators have become more customer-focused in terms of offering accessible wine flavors and aromas. They’re also aiming to expand guests’ palates and trying to introduce them to new flavors and food pairings.
It also helps that guests are less intimidated by the wineordering process. Consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable, open-minded and adventurous when choosing wines by the glass.
So what makes a good by-the-glass wine selection? “The key is to offer many different styles, a good range of price points and wine that are distinct and appropriate for the food on the menu,” says Renée Bourassa, wine director and sommelier at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa in Sonoma, CA. The 226-room property has five restaurants and bars, ranging from fine dining to the golf club grill.
The price-to-flavor/quality ratio is the key to selling some of the Fairmont Sonoma’s most popular wines by the glass, which are primarily small-production, local Sonoma wines, Bourassa says. The current top-selling wines by the glass at the property’s Santé restaurant are Kistler “Les Noisetiers” chardonnay, Sonoma Coast 2010; Merry Edwards pinot noir, Russian River Valley 2009; and Benziger Tribute cabernet sauvignon, Sonoma Mountain 2005.
At Jonoon, a contemporary Indian restaurant in New York, guests are generally open to the suggestions made by the wine staff, says sommelier Guy Goldstein. Some of his favorite bythe- glass picks include Agusti Torello, a Spanish cava brut reserva; the Sicilian white Donnafugata Lighea; and Dry Creek zinfandel “Heritage.”
Every wine on Jonoon’s list is paired with specific dishes on the restaurant’s menu to make it easier for guests to feel comfortable ordering them, Goldstein says. It’s also important to consider seasonal preferences with by-the-glass wine selections, he notes: “More options for chilled white wines and rosés in the warm months, while in winter, [guests] will indulge in heavier reds.”
FRUITY AND FOOD-FRIENDLY
As consumers become more sophisticated, their taste preferences are getting closer to those of the wine directors at their favorite restaurants. Many of the wines offered are now more foodfriendly, often with crisp fruit flavors and balanced acidity.
“My favorite wines by the glass fall into two basic categories: wines that are bright, lively and acid-driven, and wines that have significant maturity,” says Dan Davis, the wine director at Commander’s Palace, a modern Creole restaurant in New Orleans. “They tend to prime your palate for the meal to come.”
Wines that boast a “good backbone of acidity—in balance with other characteristics of the wine—tend to go well with a lot of other foods,” Davis says. His favorites tend to be fully developed wines, as well as those that can “make an intricate dish truly explode.”
The top-selling wines at Commander’s Palace are the usual suspects: chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. “So it is my job to expand the horizons for our patrons by giving them wines that are made from those varietals but are not what they would usually order” or be able to order by the glass, he says.
These options might include Premiere or Grand Cru Burgundy, pinot noir-based blends from the Loire Valley or mature, cabernet sauvignon-based Bordeaux, Davis notes.
At the 150-room Heathman Hotel in Portland, OR, which serves seasonal, Pacific Northwest-focused cuisine at the Heathman Restaurant & Bar, acidic wines are also favorite by-the-glass choices. For instance, says sommelier James Rahn, Brooks Bois Joli riesling from the Willamette Valley offers “an incredible amount of acidity, which for me is the most important wine element for pairing with food.”
MARKETING BY-THE-GLASS OFFERINGS
How a wine is marketed on a list or by a restaurant’s staff can affect its popularity with customers. At Legal Sea Foods, customers’ interest is often driven by “familiarity with the varietals, comfortable price points, reliability [of the wines’ taste profile] and confident recommendations from the staff,” says Master of Wine Sandy Block, vice president of beverage operations for the 34-location Boston-based chain.
Block’s favorite wines by the glass include Domaine Zind Humbrecht riesling “Gueberschwihr” from Alsace, which he says pairs well with many of the restaurant’s fish dishes. DeLoach “Block 1950” pinot noir from Sonoma—which Block blends himself—works well with medium-textured fish, and Beckmen Vineyards Estate grenache from Santa Ynez is a good partner for meat dishes, he says.
The power of suggestion is often the easiest way to sell these wines, says Jason James, the general manager and beverage director at Barley Swine, a small-plates restaurant in Austin, TX. “At that point, it is up to us to supply the staff with the knowledge to sell these wines that may be a bit outside of the box for some folks.”
James’ favorite by-the-glass pours include an Italian red blend called Gonzaga Terre di Leonardo Rosso and Monte Velho, a Portuguese white blend. Smart wine directors will often offer abundant tasting possibilities to guests. That might be a handful of tastes by the glass, half-glass pours or carafe-size samples.
“With the large number of [by-the-glass] wines that we offer, and with half-glass and full-glass portions available, our customers have a lot of flexibility to play around and try new things,” says Commander’s Davis. Guests enjoy tasting around the list and finding pairings for the restaurant’s menu, he adds.
Making your wine list more accessible to customers usually adds up to better sales. So by-the-glass wine options, according to Rahn, should be both simple to pronounce and order. That’s why he constructs Heathman’s glass-pour list “in such as way that even an über-novice will be able to navigate it.”
KEEP THE CUSTOMER IN MIND
The best wine directors are attentive when introducing new wine styles to their list, and that caution often pays off in palate expansion. A great wine director should attempt, if necessary, to bridge the gap between “the natural comfort zone of the guest and nerdy, cerebral interests of someone who has devoted their life to wine,” says Rahn says.
Good sommeliers should “never choose wines that only they would like to drink,” he says, “nor should a good sommelier fill a wine list with predicable wines that do not challenge or intrigue a guest.”
At the end of the day, “my responsibility is with the customer,” agrees the Fairmont’s Bourassa. “When selecting wines for our list, I have to approach my selections with them in mind.”
This translates into “a broad spectrum of wine styles and varietals, as well as a good range of price points,” Bourassa says. “I am a matchmaker between wine and food and people,” she adds. “All of these components must come together to achieve an exceptional experience.”
Introducing both regulars and new customers to wines that they may not be familiar with or know how to pair with food is an ongoing challenge for operators. But it’s getting easier, and it’s well worth the effort. Informed servers, accessible prices and a down-to-earth approach in presenting new wines tableside helps integrate more unusual—and more potentially profitable—wines by the glass.