Buy This List!

Jeffery Lindenmuth - May 2006

More and more, diners are requesting bottles of wine to go, and resourceful restaurateurs are responding with a mutually gratifying "Yes!"

It's not unusual to see someone walk into a restaurant cradling a bottle of wine, especially if it's a bring-your-own-bottle establishment or one that is corkage-friendly to wine collectors. But a few restaurateurs have found creative ways to turn the tables, raising both their standing and their bottom line by sending patrons out the front door with a newly discovered bottle.

In many states, on-premise is on, and off-premise is off, and never the two shall meet. But with some creativity, there are opportunities to sell bottles of wine without ever popping the cork. "I have every state license: restaurant, Sunday, off-premise," explains Michael DiBianca, chef/owner at Moro Restaurant, tucked into a small side street in Wilmington, Delaware.

To take advantage of his retail options, DiBianca dubbed his wine to-go program Moro Cellars. Now immediately following his wildly successful monthly wine dinners ($80 to $120), he makes the evening's wines available for sale directly to the still enchanted diners. At a recent dinner, they snatched up 35 cases of the featured labels.

Initially, nightly diners were presented for perusal with a Moro Cellars to-go list while they chatted between courses or sat sipping coffee after a meal. However, when two-tier pricing of the 900 wine selections became onerous, DiBianca opted to simply insert a promotional page stating that wines from the Moro list are available at a discount, usually about 30 percent off the restaurant price, for carry-out. Once the selected wines are added to the dinner check, they are expedited to the patron's car in Moro branded wine cartons.

For Moro customers it's an opportunity to lay hands on some of the strictly allocated bottlings that mere mortals normally spot only on restaurant wine lists. And given DiBianca's obvious passion for Napa Valley cult Cabernets, which number around 260 on his list, there's plenty of temptation to be found. "I think of it more as a convenience for my customers," he says. "We have a lot of wine collectors who come in because they want access to wines sold almost exclusively in restaurants, and this is another way I can share them."

Among the suggested wine six-packs to-go at Moro, diners can opt for the Chef Pack ($320), a six bottle treasure trove of DiBianca favorites representing California elite like Nickel & Nickel Branding Iron Cabernet 2001, Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet 1998, and Peter Michael Belle Côte Chardonnay 2001.

At the original Bin 36 in Chicago, take-out wine sales have been part of the business strategy since its opening in 1999. According to partner Dan Sachs, the law allows for "incidental retail sales" as part of their restaurant license. Bin 36 Market features 75 wine selections, all of which are available in the adjacent casual Tavern, more formal Cellar dining room, or at the Wine Bar. "The purpose is not to be an everyday wine shop. The selection is actually smaller than what you would find in even a shabby wine shop," admits Sachs.

In place of breadth, Bin 36 offers convenience and instant gratification, virtues appreciated by the young professionals it courts as future wine lovers. Because the same wines appear in the restaurant's repertoire, it's both possible and permissible to offer a free taste of any wine in the Market. More often, the Wine Bar, where 50 wines may be ordered by the glass, drives the take-away bottle sales, as people indulge in a glass and then purchase a full bottle for a party later that evening or dinner the next night. "It used to be that when you found a wine you liked, the waiter would scribble the name on the back of your check, and you took that to a wine shop. Now we add the price to the front of the check, and you can take the wine with you," Sachs smiles.

The typical purchase is usually between one and three bottles, and on a busy weekend night Bin 36 might sell 50 to 60 bottles of wine. "It's a reliable percentage of sales," says Sachs. "But we don't think of it in terms of success from a financial standpoint. Promotionally speaking, it's a huge contributor."

In March 2005, restaurateur Drew Nieporent and his partners in Myriad Restaurant Group (see Cave Men) surprised New Yorkers by announcing their next project was not a restaurant at all but a stand-alone retail wine store on East 57th Street named Crush Wine Co.

Although state liquor laws prevent Crush from mingling product or even warehouse space with Myriad, Crush parallels its on-premise siblings in both aesthetic and philosophy. Over 5,000 wine bottles are displayed on their sides in a meandering back-lit wine rack. And the dedicated tasting room offers high-backed black leather chairs, soft lighting, and a basic kitchen, perfect for private events. "Operating Montrachet in TriBeCa for the last 20 years and with 12 years at Rubicon in San Francisco, we've bought millions and millions of dollars worth of wine, so this is an extension of that," says Nieporent.

According to Crush wine director Lyle Fass, he enjoys the same autonomy as a restaurant wine director, eschewing popular brands and big volume sellers in favor of about 700 mostly Old World and artisanal producers. "We are constantly changing, so it's much more like a restaurant wine list than a retail store. If something better comes along, I'm not loyal to any of these brands," says Fass.

Crush offers free tastings daily, with wines changing weekly. And despite the legal hurdles, the apron strings to Myriad remain: in one-upping the ubiquitous retailer tasting, Fass conducts food and wine tasting seminars featuring sushi from Nobu or food prepared by Stephen Lewandowski, executive chef at Tribeca Grill. Tickets for the intimate affairs of eight to 18 guests cost between $60 and $600.

There is also some overlap of wine with the various Myriad restaurant wine lists, in particular with Montrachet, helmed by Fass' kindred, Troy Kinser, with whom he regularly exchanges research and ideas. Patrons are permitted to transport any bottle of wine purchased at Crush to Montrachet, Tribeca Grill, Centrico, and Pulse and avoid the corkage fee. The program has been well received, although Manhattan geography prevents it from being hugely popular, leading management to consider expanding the program to include all the Myriad Group restaurants. "It's like street cred. As restaurants, we have the lists and the wine and the people, so we have wine cred," says Nieporent.