Masses of Glasses

Jeffery Lindenmuth / May 2007

Tailored to your particular clientele, a freewheeling by-the-glass program can cement the foundation of a profitable wine list.

While many restaurants pride themselves on their mighty reserve wine lists, it's actually the wines served by the glass that do the heavy lifting on the front line of hospitality. A well regimented by-the-glass wine list, offering variety and value, is the best way to blaze innovative food pairing trails, interweave wine education, and showcase wine as integral to a vibrant dining program. At Ara Wine Bar, Ari Ellis, co-owner with his sisters Ananda and Rehana, uses his list of about 40 wines by the glass, served at cafe tables where couples are free to canoodle, to set the intimate Ara apart from the cocktail-centric big box restaurants that currently reign in Manhattan's meatpacking district.

Wines on Ara's list cost from $7 to $14 per glass, with about half of the selections priced $10 or less. The list includes familiar producers (Bogle and Toasted Head from California) as well as the occasional wine from India or New England to waken the more adventurous. "Wine, much like art, can become inaccessible," says Ellis. "And really, you just need to know what you like. With 40 wines by the glass, I wanted to give people the option to try whatever they wanted."

Another facet of Ellis' adventurous outsider spirit (he's primarily a real estate professional) shows in the menu of small plates that go beyond the obvious Mediterranean wine bar favorites to include Indian pizzas, crisped naan topped with a choice of coriander chutney and sliced tandoori chicken or tamarind chutney and sliced lamb kebabs. "If you don't overwhelm someone, spices and wine have this wonderful symbiotic relationship. Spice separated from heat is about complexity. The more complex the food the better the relationship with wine. There are more chemicals interacting," Ellis explains.

Even as he prepares to expand into a newly renovated 4,000-square-foot subterranean vault space jutting beneath Ninth Avenue, Ellis trusts the wine list will continue to define Ara for the wine lovers and local hospitality workers who flock there for a late night glass of Port or dessert wine. "You can create vibe with the menu. You hand people a wine list with 40 wines by the glass, and it's already the wrong place for some people but perfect for others," says Ellis. To reinforce his enophilic positioning, cocktails at Ara, intentionally discreet, are priced at a premium over the wine.

Wine by the glass has also proven an effective tool for attracting the right people at Onda Ristorante & Wine Lounge at The Mirage Casino in Las Vegas, as the casino consciously alters its f&b course to suit a younger clientele. "People in their 30s really understand wine now, and Onda is about attracting people ages 35 to 45. We used to be the grandmother of the MGM bunch, but with concepts like this, we're now more like a hip single mother," says Christina Clifton, vice president of food and beverage.

Believing imitation to be the sincerest form of flattery, Clifton says she explored top wine destinations across the country, like Los Angeles' A.O.C., where she loved the "darkness, intimacy, and extensive wine by the glass." Onda offers a full menu of Italian classics as well as house-made charcuterie, perfect for snacking in the inviting lounge area with its list of over 30 by-the-glass selections.

District, newly opened in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood, offers a wine program featuring 30 wines by the glass, each of which is also part of 10 tasting trios with conversation-sparking names like "Bubbles Around the World" or "Oak Versus Stainless." Sommelier Caterina Mirabelli says, "My flights tend to guide and educate people to better understand their own palate, whether they like citrusy, dry, or vanilla. With aromatic whites, for instance, I try to demonstrate how they aren't always sweet, a common misconception."

Setting prices from $7 for Hummingbird Hill Sauvignon Blanc 2004 from California to $21 for Taittinger Champagne Brut NV, Mirabelli also revels in offering wines that are rarely available by the glass, like Movia Pinot Noir 2002 from Slovenia ($14). "I earn very little on those glasses, but it's good to have people able to drink great wine for an affordable price. For a 25 or 30 year old couple who can't afford a $200 bottle, I still want them to have a great experience," she says.

The capacious 22-ounce Stölzle German crystal glasses at Napa & Co., in Stamford, Connecticut, leave no doubt that this restaurant is serious about wine. However, the name is slightly misleading: while the restaurant celebrates the food and wine culture of Napa, the wine list by Mary Schaffer, co-owner and sommelier, traverses the globe. "I actually toyed with having no Chardonnay and no Cabernet. Then I gave up on that and said, ‘Let's do Chardonnay and Cabernet and be more food-friendly.' I also put them at the end of the list so you have to peruse the list first. Napa and Sonoma are beautiful, but I can't always find good value there, so I include Spain, Argentina, South Africa, and Chile," says Schaffer.

Typically offering 45 selections by the glass, the list is revised and printed daily to ensure that vintages are up-to-date and all wines in stock. A generous seven-ounce pour makes a strong impression, even in a glass capable of holding an entire bottle. Prices range from $6 for Dog Tail Chardonnay California 2005 to $65 for Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley 2003.

Wines by the glass at Napa & Co. are grouped by flavor profile, with several food pairing suggestions from the menu of chef Bill Taibe for each group: For whites classified as "Just enough sweetness to make your days," Schaffer writes, "These wines love foods with a kick or a touch of sweetness, such as our pork, duck, cheeses, and foie gras." Schaffer says these suggestions act as a "mini sommelier" and have been well received by diners. "It also helps to make the customer feel more comfortable on a date or business meeting."

At Ted's Montana Grill, an upscale casual eatery with 50 locations throughout the United States, the wine list is updated yearly rather than daily, but it still reflects consumers' demand for a greater selection of quality and taste, with 25 wines available by the glass. "When we first started just five years ago, we had about 10 wines, and we now have about 35, 30 of which are available by the glass. We've been adding smaller wineries with high-quality products, while avoiding the wines you see when you first walk into the grocery store," says Randy McAdoo, director of purchasing. Large production, yet very reliable, producers like Covey Run, Rancho Zabaco, Hogue Cellars, and Cline Cellars form the foundation of the list.

In addition to the sweeping by-the-glass selection, Ted's Montana Grills distinguish themselves by offering only American wines and categorizing wine by flavor profile rather than grape, a tack more commonly taken in independent restaurants and wine bars.

"We felt as though we were losing on sales after getting a lot of feedback from guests who wanted to try a product but didn't want a whole bottle," says McAdoo. Now, it's the decision to offer all wines up to about $50 per bottle by the glass that raises the most toasts in celebration. "We began offering as many products as possible by the glass and that's where the biggest increase in wine sales has come from. Now six people at a table can all order the wine they want." Making everybody happy.