Bull Market BTG

Merrill Shindler - September 2009

Counter to the sagging economy, surges in by-the-glass sales are being reported by sommeliers across the country.

According to 1,600 restaurants surveyed by the National Restaurant Association, nine out of 10 have made wines by the glass part of their beverage strategy. As 2009 NRA convention chair Lorna Donatone puts it, "Even in this tough economy, consumers still make wine, beer, and cocktails part of their restaurant experience."

It's not that wines by the glass is a new concept; it's been a growing trend for the past quarter century. But these days, sales of wines by the glass are on a roller-coaster ride that never seems to peak. The reasons range from the sense of value (or perceived value, as some argue) offered by wines by the glass in difficult economic times--to the simple pleasure of being able to order one wine before a meal, a different one with the appetizer, and still another with the entrée--for less than the cost of a full bottle. Value may be there--but the fun of being able to leap from a Sauvignon Blanc to a Viognier to a Pinot Noir is undeniable.

It's very possible that no one sells more wines by the glass than Marian Jansen op de Haar, national wine director for Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. For 10 years now, she's spearheaded a BTG program called Fleming's 100. Seventy of the 100 are chosen by Jansen op de Haar, with the remaining 30 selected by managers of the individual restaurants--64 restaurants in all, ranging from Alabama to Arizona, from Connecticut to California, from Florida to Massachusetts to Nevada. "We used to sell four or five times as many glasses as bottles. Now, it's up to six or seven times," says Jansen op de Haar. "In hard times people feel more secure ordering by the glass. But our customers have also come to realize that there really is no need to order a bottle. They like to drink different wines with their meals. They expect to drink like that at Fleming's."

With a hundred wines by the glass to deal with, you'd think Fleming's would use a high-tech Cruvinet system, which for years has been the state-of-the-art for wine by the glass. But instead, their system is admirably retro. "We use reach-in bins that are temperature controlled--64 degrees for reds and 45 for whites. We open only one bottle of each selection at a time. With four glasses in each bottle, we go through most of them quickly. And those that we don't finish, we top with a blend of argon and nitrogen at the end of the night, which blankets the wine," explains Jansen op de Haar. "There is no downside. Critics who don't like by-the-glass are taking a very old-fashioned view. In the old days, they sat on the back bar next to the cash register, where it was nice and warm. I wouldn't like that either. But that's not how it's done. And since we charge one-fourth the price of a bottle for a fourth of a bottle of wine, the profit is the same no matter how you order your wine."

Jansen op de Haar is also looking into the brave new world of boxed wines: "I think it's interesting that the bladder system is the best preservation system on the market. A box may take away the romance, but there's always a vacuum, never any oxygen." She's also been considering a new system called Vinfinity: "It takes the air out of the bottle with a compressor, quickly with a nozzle. You can do it after every pour. The only cost is electricity, which is minimal, and the system automatically measures to see if it's done correctly."

Almost as new is the Enomatic system, which is quickly becoming the darling of the world of wine by the glass. In the case of the Italian-made Enomatic, bottles are encased within the machine, so that drinkers can see what they're consuming (like the Cruvinet). But unlike the Cruvinet, the wine can be served by staff or self-service.

This is the Horn & Hardart approach to wine by the glass. And it's a system much loved by Peter Birmingham, former sommelier for Norman Van Aken's Norman's on Sunset and now wine director of a wine bar called Pourtal near the beach in Santa Monica, California: "What's new is not just wine by the glass, but wine by the ounce.

The more you taste, the more educated you become. And the Enomatic, which serves by the ounce, allows that. Here in California, it's been sanctioned by the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to be self-service. So, consumers can use it at their own pace. That allows the drinker to look at the bottles, look at the labels."

Birmingham keeps 65 wines on hand at any given time. And he says the Enomatic keeps them in perfect condition. "They're constantly being flushed with argon, the most neutral gas in the periodic table. It's completely inert. It doesn't affect the wine. The wines stay fresh from first glass to last. And the machines allow us to keep our bottles at exactly the right temperature.

"Wines by the glass are on the rise thanks to the economy. And of course, 90 to 95 percent of our wines are by the glass. And we've been introducing our customers to something new from Enomatic. The Enomatic card has a memory chip. When you get a taste of wine, it's downloaded onto our Web site. If you're out buying wine, all you have to do is sign on to our site from your PDA and find the wine you tasted. Our tasters are always connected with us."

Birmingham is also intrigued by the brave new world of wine in the box, feeling that "it's a big part of conservation--the elimination of bottles and corks may be inevitable. There are some very impressive wines being sold in boxes, $40 to $50 a box. You get a lot of wine for that price; it comes to $8 to $10 a bottle. We just have to change the mind-set. We have to move to a different vehicle."

Brian Cook, sommelier for Sonoma, Redwood, and Blue Ridge in the Washington, D.C. area agrees that "by-the-glass sales are definitely up, up at least 10 percent over the past year. We serve 20 wines by the glass, using the WineKeeper system. It's a nitrogen-based system, very easy to work with. Nothing turns a customer off more than wine that's gone bad. People have reasons not to like wines by the glass served at room temperature, with nothing done to maintain freshness. No one likes old wine that tastes like old wine because it was sitting behind the cash register. Right now, the WineKeeper works best for us. But we're always on the lookout for what's new."

Though there's lots that's new on the market, Shad Martin, wine director for Volo Restaurant & Wine Bar in Chicago, is very happy preserving his wines the old school way: "I use a wine pump. I pump the air out by hand. It's worked very well for us. I open a bottle I've pumped out, and I hear that satisfying ‘foop' sound. I know there was no air inside." Martin takes pride in his many wine flights--recently a Bubbly Flight, a Spring White Flight, a French White Flight, a Spanish Reds Flight, an Italian Reds Flight, and a Washington State Flight. "That's the real direction wines by the glass are taking. Flights are exploding in our restaurant. People love tasting a variety of wines. They get educated about wine while they drink. To me, that's more important than the argument about argon versus nitrogen."

And he may be on to something. Earlier this year, Sunset magazine reported on an experiment conducted by the magazine to test a variety of wine preservation systems. They tested 54 bottles, using three systems--Private Preserve (which allows you to remove oxygen from the bottle using inert gas); VacuVin Wine Saver (which pumps out the oxygen); and a sort of non-system system, in which the wine was poured into a smaller bottle, then recorked. As a control, bottles were also simply recorked.

The result? There was no difference. Even with wines that had been left open for as long as four days, there was no difference. In fact, some of the wines that had been left open were preferred to those that had been preserved. Which may mean that we've wandered, yet again, into the wonderful world of wine mythology. And that those bottles left out at room temperature, sitting next to the cash register, may have tasted bad because they were bad to begin with. I'll drink to that.