Go Big or Go Home with Large Format Wine

by Caroline Hatchett with Jeff Harding
Shannon Sturgis and Zandy Mangold
April 2012

Restaurant

Learning Large Format Wines

Sommelier Michael Madrigale of Bar Boulud explains some of the basics of large format wine service.

Sourcing: For aged bottles: auctions, private collectors, and direct from wineries; for current releases: distributors (though Madrigale doesn't sell any current releases)

Aging: If a bottle can cellar for 10 years in a 750 milliliter bottle, a magnum should age for 15 years.

Opening: Use a long knife to cut the foil without spinning the bottle, which will disturb up sediment.

Serving: Educate your staff, or it won't sell. And never decant; it takes away the theatre.

Size Matters: Three-liter Jeroboams are the ideal. They're big, yet still easy to handle.

Large format bottles, with their intimidating, Biblical names—Jeroboam, Methuselah, and Nebuchadenezzer—and softer, longer aging, are darlings for sommeliers who have the numbers and clientele to pour through big bottles in a single service. "Drinking wines from large format is one of the best ways to enjoy a wine's potential," says 2010 San Francisco Area Rising Star Restaurateur Shelley Lindgren on San Francisco's A16. Because the oxygen-to-wine ratio is lower in a larger bottle, wines typically age more slowly and have better maturation. Plus, Lindgren says, "They are really fun."

The theatre of pouring from bigger-than-life bottles not only thrills somms, but diners like drinking in the magic, too. "[Larger bottles] inevitably generate oohs and aahs from both the guests that you are pouring for tableside and from those sitting nearby," says Belinda Chang, beverage director of Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group. "What is sexier than the long skinny neck on a magnum of Alsace Riesling or a magnum of Champagne?"

Mike Madrigale with a Balthazar (12 liters) of Chateau de Pibarnon, 1997 (Courtesy of Zandy Mangold)

Sommelier Michael Madrigale of Bar Boulud has been turning heads for three years. He started selling large-format bottles after he picked up a lonely six-liter 1991 Montrachet at auction. (No else one bid, and Madrigale picked it up for a steal.) "I thought, 'Let's try something bombastic. People will see the bottle and vineyard and get excited,'" he says. He opened the bottle on a Friday night so he could stretch it into Saturday service, just in case. It sold out in an hour. Since then, Madrigale has opened at least one large format bottle at 5pm every night. He tweets (@mikemadrigale) the bottle to his 4,500ish followers and sends a message to an email list of 1,000.

For Madrigale, it's all for the love of the wine—and education. He opens only premium and aged bottles, and sells them for $25 to $29 a glass. For anyone doing the math, that's little or no markup, just selling at cost. But as Madrigale sees it, he offers young people and non-hedge funders the opportunity to taste rarer wines without blowing a prohibitive $2,000 on a bottle. Plus, he has a loyal following of drinkers, who inevitably order food and then want another glass. It may be a Boulud empire luxury that many somms don't have, but at least in this context, the numbers work out in Madrigale's favor.

Madrigale inspecting the cellar at Bar Boulud. Madrigale opens a Magnum of 2000 Vieux Télégraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Vieux Télégraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape, 2000.

Sommelier and 2011 Rising Star Restaurateur Joe Campanale serves large format bottles at L'Artusi and Dell'anima, customizing the programs to match his covers. "At L'Artusi, we try to always have a large format wine by the glass, which works well for us there since the restaurant is bigger, and we might go through a few of them during the course of an evening. At Dell'anima, which only has 50 seats, we'll open a big bottle on the busier days for the weekend," says Campanale. Big bottles work for Campanale, even though it doesn't bring in the same revenue as a 750 milliliter bottle. "We usually don't take the same mark-up on these wines, since they are often more costly than 750s of the same wine," he says.

Sommelier Peter Mastrogiovanni of Abe & Arthur's and 2010 Rising Star Sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier of Rouge Tomate also work hard to keep large format prices low. "As a rule of thumb, if a three-liter [bottle] costs more than $500, I won't do it. I try to keep glass prices below $30," says Mastrogiovanni, who pours large format bottles Thursday through Sunday. Lepeltier pours large formats less often and keeps her range between $15 and $20 per glass.

For Lepeltier, sourcing challenges keep her from opening regular bottles of large-format wines. "You can't taste something and buy it right away because it is rarely available [in New York] by the magnum," she says. Purchasing large-format bottles is an even bigger problem for somms in states with Byzantine wine laws. "There are some large formats [in Atlanta] and some do purchase through private sellers," says Sommelier Seth Roskind of 4th & Swift. "However, in Georgia, everything is supposed to go through our tiered distributor system, which is amazingly restricting and archaic." For other somms in smaller markets, pouring large format bottles may not always make sense.

Large format bottles weren't always successful at Bar Boulud, either. It took Madrigale's enthusiasm and energy for educating guests and sniffing out gems—combined with a little marketing know-how—for the program to take off. But if you're a somm in a market or restaurant with a potential for a large-format sweet spot, Sommelier Brooke Sabel of Ninety Acres Culinary Center says there's no choice: "Go big or go home."