Romancing the Pour

Jeffery Lindenmuth / April 2005

Jeffery Lindenmuth reports how some American restaurateurs are taking a creative approach to affordable indulgence, adding value to wine service.

At one time, diners had to splurge on a 1982 Bordeaux in order to be served the crystal stemware. Now, increasingly, every diner and every wine is receiving the royal treatment. By pouring affordable portions of precious sips and offering grand presentations, with skillful wine service as a focal point, wine directors are supplying tastes of luxury previously reserved for rock stars and pharmaceuticals execs.

At Sona Restaurant in Los Angeles, wine service literally takes center stage at a massive decanting table carved from a six-ton granite boulder by Japanese sculptor Yoshikawa. An ikebana adds to the room's Zen vibe. "I think the nice thing about the decanting stone is that even though the room has 90 seats, everybody has a view of the stone," says sommelier Mark Mendoza. "It's definitely the show part of the wine service. And, in fact, the stone actually helps the wine maintain a constant temperature because it's so cool to the touch."

Given such a grand platform, Mendoza takes full advantage by decanting any red, "from Pinot Noir and up in intensity," as well as "virtually all the white Burgundy." He finds that younger wines, while they might lack sediment—whose presence is the primary reason to decant wine—often benefit from aeration. No one objects to the show. And at a customer's request, Sona chef David Myers is willing to let wine lead the way in his kitchen. "Mark will either bring me back a taste of the wine or he will explain what nuances it has that can impact on my food. I will then suggest to him what I'm thinking, and he'll give feedback," he explains.

To ensure that each of the over 1,000 wine selections tastes its best, Sona uses an array of varietal-appropriate Riedel crystal, all washed in a high-temperature dishwasher without soap and hand-polished. Mendoza is preparing to add about 300 additional wines to the list. "It's my intention to give value where it's due. That's why I've added so many half bottles and a three-ounce pour. If somebody doesn't want to spend a lot of money with me, that's OK. It's important that I can offer a less expensive option."

At Silverleaf Tavern in Manhattan, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants offers by-the-glass pours in a size to fit any budget or thirst. Patrons can opt for a Sip (three ounces), a Taste (six ounces), a Discover (a full bottle), or a Drink (a bottomless glass that is priced higher than a full bottle).

Once you've determined the volume, you may choose from three price tiers, with several bubbly, white, and red selections in each. For instance, for $8, guests can sip three ounces of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, Miner Family Vineyards Chardonnay from Napa, or Chalone Vineyard Syrah. A bottomless glass at this upper echelon costs $83.

"We've gotten a lot of press on the bottomless glass, but in reality we sell far more of the Sip. A lot of people prefer the Sip because they can create their own tasting," says Kelley Jones, Kimpton's vice president of restaurant operations and creator of the Silverleaf program.

Another potential pitfall of the bottomless glass is that age-old ploy of sharing the buffet. "We err on the side of caution when we see people sharing a bottomless glass and just let them do it. We're still in the hospitality industry," says Jones.

Part of the goal at Silverleaf is to enlighten wine lovers, and, for Jones, that means keeping the list of 21 by-the-glass wines fairly static. "We're into training our staff on the body, flavor, and history of each wine. We try not to change them all that often, because that becomes a training issue and then a service issue," says Jones.

Wine has become more affordable even at Kimpton's Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco. Residing on the same list with 18 selections from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (some of them approaching $4,000) are such food- and wallet-friendly finds as half bottles of Siduri Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2002 ($55) and a Honig Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($22). There are 38 half bottles in all, but not all are geared toward bargain shoppers. (Château Léoville-Las Cases St.-Julien 1982 is $450.) In addition, every by-the-glass wine can be ordered by the half pour for precisely half the price. "It was important to get more affordable wines that are still superb finds on that list. It's about experience, and most people feel they experience more with two bottles of $90 wine than one bottle for $200," says Jones.

Kevin Brady, maître d'hotel and director of wine at The Ventana Room in the foothills of Tucson, has returned the air of luxury to this once lagging Loews Hotel property. "When I arrived here, the wine bottle sales chart looked like a lightning bolt," says Brady. "So I created a Champagne cart to offer choices that are available in most places by the bottle only."

On any given night, Brady's cart includes 15 to 20 Champagnes by the glass, with prices ranging between $18 and $175 per glass, including a half dozen Tête de Cuvées like Roederer Cristal and Salon. "The cart is very popular, and even people who don't know Champagne get very excited," he says. Waste is rarely an issue; once opened, even the most expensive Champagnes are meted out for staff education. "The staff receive two lessons—the taste, terroir, and profile of the Champagne, and also how important it is that they sell the rest of the bottle," quips Brady. "We still have fiduciary responsibility."

About two years ago, The Ventana Room created three signature tables: a chef's table, a fireside table, and a wine table—potentially a tough sell in a restaurant where diners vie for the panoramic views. But because the tables are offered without surcharge, they have become some of the most coveted seats in the house. The cedar wood wine room seats six and remains at correct cellar temperature, so the restaurant is forearmed with pashmina shawls and jackets to warm the chilly shoulders of the unprepared. Surrounded by wine bottles of all types and sizes, these diners have their real fun via the free education, as Brady and the staff pass through to retrieve wines throughout the evening. "People in the room get to learn about each wine, along with who's having it and how much it costs," says Brady.

At Cyrus, the newly opened restaurant in the Les Mars Hotel in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, helmed by San Francisco star Nick Peyton, formerly of Restaurant Gary Danko and The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton, the wine list carefully balances international scope with local flavor. Wine director Jason Alexander ventures out of the cellar to do local reconnaissance, working directly with area winemakers to bring boutique wines to his list, even before they're widely discovered.

"Being in Sonoma, we can offer difficult-to-find Pinot Noir and very small producers. I made a push to visit everybody, every producer in Sonoma County, to let them know we want to present the best wines of our region," says Alexander. "One of the most exciting small producers is Brogan Cellars, from Margaret Wierenga, the daughter of the founder of Williams Selyem. I've never seen anyone selling these wines, so they are an incredible experience for our customers."

The Cyrus Champagne cart typically carries about six selections, accompanied by a variety of caviar that the sommelier weighs out on a balance using an ounce of real gold bullion as counterweight. Regardless of such gilded moments, the opening list of 600 selections offers such accessible entries as a bottle of Hanna Sauvignon Blanc Slusser Road Vineyard for $24. "Our bottles start in the mid-20s, and the most expensive is $3,200," Alexander reports. "I think it's about the comfort of the diner. By putting your low price point at $60 or $75, it's prohibitive, and for guests who celebrate once a year, well, they should have an opportunity to feel comfortable and have a great time."

Value can also be found in the list of 75 half bottles, including selections not just from California but from Germany and Austria as well. "I think half bottle popularity is just now growing internationally," Alexander observes, "and the demand is driven by sommeliers and wine directors."