Uncorking Wines by the Glass

by Francoise Villeneuve
Antoinette Bruno
April 2011

Sommelier Sebastian Zutant of Proof doesn’t do things by halves. He wants his customers to try to enjoy different wines—a pretty basic tenet when it comes to wine programs. He loves offering wine by the glass. Again, not groundbreaking. But by merging those two ideas he’s created one of the most singular wine programs in the Capital City. Zutant offers a constantly rotating wine list with 16 by the glass options for red wines and 16 options for white. And we’re not talking “sure thing” picks like New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs and California Chardonnays. His list includes vintage picks, like 1960s Madeiras, as well as rare varietals, small production gems, and approachable sparklers. Zutant started a new sort of happy hour where the crowd hangs around for more than Proof’s spot-on cocktails. They linger for something a little different in the wine section of the menu. And the program still has that certain something that draws the trendy Capitol Hill type as much as it does the serious oenophile.

Of course not all wines by the glass programs are centered around the wine. When Boat Street Café and Boat Street Pickles Restaurateur Renee Erickson opened Seattle oyster bar The Walrus and the Carpenter in fall 2010, her goal was to open an approachable, unpretentious neighborhood place that showcased oysters in all their glory without the pompousness of caviar and champagne. Part of what keeps the restaurant packed every night is the casual vibe, where sipping a glass of wine and ordering a few oysters carries none of the pressure of a white tablecloth restaurant, where you might feel you had to order a bottle of wine and an entrée. With 29 by the glass options, Erickson offers an impressive array of oyster-friendly wines. Small plates are the name of the game here, and because of the variety of wines available, there’s one to go with every dish, and then some. Whatever their foundations, by the glass programs are profitable when given some attention—it’s just a matter of thoughtfully incorporating them into your restaurant concept.

Common Cents

By the glass options allow customers to drink more expensive wines than they might otherwise order. After all, when you’re talking about $15 for a glass of high-end wine, it becomes accessible to your average diner the way a $100 bottle of the same wine might not be. It’s also a sure-fire way to get customers to experiment with those carefully sourced gems you spend so much time finding, without the anxiety that comes with a pricey bottle purchase.

By the glass programs typically sell a glass of wine for the same price the restaurant paid for the bottle. Zutant runs a rather different program. He picks more unusual wines that cost a little more, and picking only 30 percent of the wines by the glass based on what his customers prefer, the remainder being his choices. He expands the palates of his customers, eating a small amount of his profit for the opportunity. Sixty to 70 percent of Zutant's wine sales are by the glass, proving that running a wine by the glass program doesn't have to be by the book to be successful. While Erickson sells more wine by the bottle than by the glass at dinner, lunch service drives by the glass sales. She selects wines based on her own preferences, with a penchant for “white wines that are dry, unoaked with good acidity and minerality.” She finds having a wine by the glass program helps the bottom line. “People generally try many different wines,” she says, and of course this means a better profit margin than a bottle purchase.

Having affordable wines by the glass on your wine menu is a great way to tack a beverage sale onto a food sale. But that doesn’t mean the cheapest wines are necessarily the biggest sellers. Zutant estimates that low to medium profit margin wines sell the most, but adds “I have a frescati on by the glass. The stuff is cheap. It’s like seven bucks for a glass of wine, and I don’t sell any of it because people have never heard of it. I would make a ton of money on it.” Zutant occasionally gives up an opportunity for profit to introduce his customers to something special and hopefully change customer preference. Erickson’s approach is similar—while she admits that the unusual finds don’t sell as well, she includes them because “it is great for the guest who wants to try something new ... and also great for staff to learn about new and unusual wines.” Most of her wines by the glass are at a low price point though, between $5 and $10 per glass to keep dining affordable.

A Packed Bar at The Walrus and the Carpenter

Working with the Menu

If you’re eating at a burger joint, you don’t want to fork over $30 for a glass of wine, right? Wine prices should make sense for the restaurant concept and budget. When it comes to offering spot-on pairings with different menu options, wine by the glass programs allow you to accommodate diners at the same table with different preferences or dishes. And don’t forget about dessert. “I’d say that our dessert wine sales are pretty solid,” says Zutant. Perhaps the reason is that while dessert wine sales nationally are low compared to wines with entrées, a by the glass program gives you the opportunity to finally make dessert wine accessible and affordable.

Erickson admits her dessert wines don’t sell well. This could be because of the casual concept of The Walrus and the Carpenter—customers typically order a small plate or two and a glass or two of wine, rather than a full meal with an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. As a result, her wine list is geared toward affordable wines that pair well with seafood. “I would say I pick wines that I think represent the best in a price range and that follow rules that I set regarding farming practices, how the wines are made, and most importantly, that they are well suited to our food,” says Erickson.

Exposure and Education

A big part of a successful by the glass program is educating your staff so they can sell esoteric finds. Zutant does daily tastings with his staff, whom he describes as opinionated. “It’s an education-based program. My restaurant’s pretty unique in that everybody who works for me is a weird little wine geek,” he says proudly. A well-informed staff can also help push sales of lesser known varietals or even trendy varietals from less familiar areas. “Malbec’s been really kind of destroying wine sales for the past year now and that’s why I started selling the Cahors stuff. I was hoping to get a little education in.” Erickson regularly holds staff meetings where the wines are sampled. She also encourages wine rep visits so they can discuss the estates with the staff, and sends employees emails with facts about the wines, winemakers, and tasting notes.

Zutant estimates he sells Pinot Noir three-to-one compared to other red wines, especially Pinot Noirs from Oregon. If anything, it’s the varietal name wines like Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Grigio that are popular, so much so that they sell themselves. Zutant still feels that customers drink what they know but adds that because of the accessibility of European wines on the East Coast, “people [in DC] are more willing to explore because there’s so much variety.” Erickson sells a lot of recognizable varietals but her sales are budget driven. For example, she sells a lot of Muscadet because it’s part of the Happy Hour program. Rosé, Grüner, and Spanish whites like Albariño are also big sellers. But less obvious choices like dry Austrian whites sell well ... and the ever-popular Pinot Grigio is a big seller, albeit sold by its alias Grauer Burgunder (Diehl, Grauer Burgunder, Troken, Germany 2009).

Proof’s Bar and Enomatic Wines by the
Glass Storage System

Storage: Size Is Everything

Adding a wine by the glass program to your restaurant may be a great move economically, but if you don’t keep a close watch on your pours, you can easily pour away your profits. Zutant deals with this by using an enomatic system that dispenses measured pours and tracks inventory. Proof also doesn’t offer tastes of wines by the glass the way they do a bottle of wine. But Zutant tastes for defects himself. Erickson disagrees, and is fine with a taste for customers, perhaps because her role is that of a restaurateur first and foremost, and customer satisfaction is, after all, important. But she does keep an eye on measured pours. She fills a glass with water and bitters for servers to compare with the wine pours and has a mark oon the wall to help them be certain about each pour (when a glass is held up to it, the mark shows where a 6-ounce pour ends).

Whatever your tasting policy, storage is always an issue in a by the glass program. Enomatic systems like the one at Proof take unsealed bottles and store and dispense at the same time, replacing oxygen with argon. This system was a major breakthrough because it eliminated the problem many restaurants face at the end of the night: a half dozen oxidized bottles of wine (with no oxygen contact, wines won’t oxidize, obviously). Other storage systems that do well in oxidation tests over time include Vacu Vin, which is a reusable vacuum wine storage system that halts the oxidation process.

Erickson, who doesn’t have an enomatic system in place, dates the by the glass bottles when they are opened and uses them for two days. They spend the night in the fridge and reds are pulled out before service to come to temperature. Luckily, she doesn’t end up throwing away any over-oxidized wine, as drinkable leftovers are used in cooking. And every few weeks Erickson goes through her entire stock of wine, so high-tech storage systems aren’t really necessary.

However you store your wine, some experimentation and research are in order. There’s no point in spending months developing a great by the glass program only to have the wines oxidize. Zutant and Erickson and the success of their different restaurant concepts prove that all it takes is a little patience and care—and pairing creativity—for a wines by the glass program to benefit any kind of restaurant. Once your program is installed, sit back, pour yourself a glass, and drink up the profits.

Tips: How to Build a Successful Wines By the Glass Program

Sommelier Sebastian Zutant of Proof – Washington, DC

1. Think outside of the box with varietals. There are too many wines by the glass programs out there that are Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Sauvignon Blanc for whites, and Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Malbec for reds. There’s tons of other stuff out there where you can offer much better wine at a much fairer price.

2. Spend where it counts. It’s important to include some affordable options, but there’s no such thing as good cheap Pinot Noir. It pretty much all sucks when it’s cheap. It’s important to work with more avant-garde parts of the world—not avant-garde countries, but find the little local varieties that you can pick up.

3. Vary your vintages. Ask your purveyor for different vintages of a wine, so you can demonstrate what age does to a wine, and so customers understand why certain wines are worth more if they’re aged. People don’t spend enough time looking for stuff. Wines by the glass programs are often an afterthought.

4. Start where you don’t expect to start. Don’t start in California and Napa. Start with Oregon wines. Don’t start in Veneto looking for Pinot Grigio, start in Alto-Adige. Don’t start in Napa looking for Sauvignon Blanc, try Sancerre. There are amazing wines out there that people aren’t educated about. A lot of our country still thinks Chablis is made by Robert Mondavi, but there’s great Chablis for 10 bucks. Greece has amazing white wines (the red wines are delicious; they just need some age). Spain does amazing white wine—look for Txakoli. It’s the Grüner Veltliner of Spain, except with super ramped up acidity.

5. Don’t overreach. A bigger list isn’t always better because it’s a lot of work. It’s a lot more difficult to maintain, structure, and keep track of. It’s difficult to always have 16 whites by the glass. You can get into “too big” territory, because at some point, someone can’t know something about everything. However, if you have a wine by the glass list that’s too extensive, you can develop your knowledge because it forces you to learn more about wine.

Restaurateur Renee Erickson of The Walrus and the Carpenter, Boat Street Café, and Boat Street Pickles – Washington, DC

1. Travel, drink a lot.

2. Read about wine making, regions, and learn about why they are different.

3. Learn to have an opinion and realize that yours matters. Don't wait to hear what everyone else thinks about it.