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Small Pours Leave Little to Whine About

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This is where the fun begins, as drinkers have the ability to pivot among wines without buying bottles.

By Kristine Hansen October 2014 Wine

I’ll admit I’ve judged a restaurant by its wine program. I’m not talking about how many countries are represented or the number of varietals, but the depth in by-the-glass selections. Maybe I want a crisp Soave to wake up my palate with a salad starter, then a sultry Malbec with steak. Furthermore, if I’m dining solo, or with one other person, a bottle might be too much wine. Instead, we want one or two glasses each.

Beefing up a by-the-glass list is a sure way to attract wine lovers. “By-the-glass is what drives a wine program. It’s a doorway to your wine program as a whole,” explains Christopher Birnie-Visscher, sommelier at db Bistro Moderne in Miami.

Deciding on the slim number of wines to pour by the glass can be a challenge. Birnie-Visscher suggests choosing “varietals customers know or are comfortable ordering without asking you” along with “esoteric options,” such as a Gamay from El Dorado County in California. Consider seasonality, too. A Provence rosé that pairs well with summer salads won’t mesh with a beef stew in February.

In building a by-the-glass list, it can be tempting to put your best foot forward by offering dozens. However, this is an opportunity to host a curated list featuring only the best of the best. The “magic number,” says Birnie-Visscher, should be between 12 and 15. Opt for five or six each of reds and whites, and a handful of dessert wines such as Sauternes, Port, or late harvest. “Maybe 12 (of the inclusions) are regions people feel comfortable with, while others are new, up-and-coming, and trendy,” Birnie-Visscher says. “You’re not getting too in-depth. You’re not going to waste wine.”

What you don’t want to do is offer too many options. Years ago, I broke out in a sweat at Kazimierz World Wine Bar in Scottsdale, Arizona, faced with a 2,000-selection-deep wine list. A friend and I were angling for a bottle to share but spent more time consulting the list than we did sipping our choice.

“We try to create a good cross-section,” says Mitch Einhorn, owner of Lush Wine & Spirits in Chicago, “that works on a lot of different flavor profiles.” His wine list of 10 selections, in fact, builds on the food menu. There is always a sparkling wine, a white and red, a rosé, and a dessert or fortified wine. Eschewing the typical 5-ounce pour, Lush offers a carafe (a third of a bottle).

Certainly, there is the risk of wine going bad when you have 100 bottles open and are selling them by the glass. Wine-dispensing machines such as Enomatic, Micro Matic, and Cruvinet—all with longer preservation times—have helped solve that problem. At Napa East Wine Lounge in Nashua, New Hampshire, 100 wines are stored in four 25-bottle units.

Rotating the selections at Napa East is a task general manager and sommelier Chris Riendeau takes to heart. It’s also a way for a wine director or sommelier to put her stamp of approval on a wine list. Regular customers will learn to seek out the by-the-glass lists, as it takes more ingenuity to determine a list of 12 options than it does to list hundreds of bottles.

“I taste between 50 and 75 wines a week,” Riendeau says. “I like to bring in things people wouldn’t normally try themselves. It needs to be fun. People shop by varietal. They know Merlot, but they might not know Rioja or Bordeaux.” Recently, he introduced Falanghina from Italy as an alternative to Pinot Grigio and got several takers.

By-the-glass pours also open the door for pricier wines if a wine-preservation system is employed. For Riendeau, it’s the perfect marketing tool. “We had on Opus One (a Bordeaux-style blend from the prestigious Napa Valley winery of the same name), and people were coming in just for that,” he says.

Food pairings are another draw for by-the-glass lists. “We’re just starting to explore flights,” says Einhorn of Lush Wine & Spirits in Chicago. The flights he’s created dovetail nicely with the food menu, encouraging the customer to stay for nibbles; for a French-themed wine flight, a French cheese is suggested.

At Napa East Wine Lounge, a different foie gras recipe each night gives Riendeau an opening to suggest a new wine to customers. “Tonight, we’re pairing [the foie gras] with a very quaffable Votre Santé Pinot Noir from Francis Ford Coppola Winery,” he says.

Along the same lines, diners at db Bistro Moderne in Miami can order a signature, truly customized experience in which five dinner courses are paired with a wine ($200 per person). No two meals are the same; each is based on an individual customer’s palate. Birnie-Visscher queries the customers about varietals they enjoy—whether they like oak or fruit on the palate, for instance—and brings that information to the chef. “It gives me the chance to offer things the customer may not have tried before,” he says.

Riendeau says Napa Lounge has found success with its create-your-own flight options. “It’s a launching pad for things people wouldn’t normally gravitate toward,” he explains. Customers are more likely to stray from their favorite varietal, producer, or region if it only costs a few bucks for a small pour, compared to a $10-plus-per-glass price.

Another advantage of small pours: if it doesn’t suit her palate, a guest can easily move on to another choice. Riendeau also sells half-glass pours of 3 ounces each that bridge a flight-sized pour with a regular-sized one.

To steer customers towards flights or glass pours, catchy names help. World Wide Crispies was spotted at Vintage Wine Bar in San Jose, California, for example, linking an Austrian white wine with a Sauvignon Blanc from the Arroyo Seco grape-growing region in California and a German Riesling.

A successful wine bar rotates the by-the-glass options often to retain the same happy customers. What will be the most popular wine of the week among the customer base is a moving target. “At the end of the day,” says Birnie-Visscher, “everyone’s palate is completely different from the next.”

He’s right. Maybe one night instead of opting for my stand-by of Spanish cava I want to shift gears and try a really good French Champagne. It’s easier to follow through on that desire when a glass is $30. Plunking down $120 for the bottle, however? That’s a tall order.