For everyone involved, a wine-by-the-glass program at a bar or restaurant (hereinafter referred to as WBG) is just a royal pain, except when it isn’t.
At first glance, WBG is a terrific idea. The selling establishment has the opportunity to expand its wine list’s approachability and provide the patron with a variety of styles in smaller than a bottle, less costly volumes, while the patrons dine, sample around a few items or just sip.
The patron has the opportunity at a reasonable cost to try different items that maybe they would otherwise not glance at twice. If you don’t know _______ (fill in the blank with a wine you have been curious about), well, for just a few dollars you can try something that will acquaint you with a new grape, a new style or a new spot on the globe.
The restaurant or bar, at least in theory, will sell more wine and patrons will increase their beverage selection knowledge. Peace will reign upon the land. Cue: puppy dogs, cuddly lambs, smiling babies, and soothing harp music.
Oh, if only it were that easy.
First of all, offering wines by the glass invites staff pilferage and spoilage. An open bottle of wine, left out of a friendly temperature-correct environment, can denigrate pretty quickly. Often in less than 6 hours. Even stoppered, the wine bottles that have been subject to the vacuum treatment meant to get the air out will spoil.
When that happens, and it happens fairly often, the advantage goes to the seller. Most consumers don’t know when a wine has lost its “stuff.” They will happily drink the wine without noticing, or they will form a negative opinion about the wine and vow never to order it again. “I really did not like it.” But still, the consumer pays.
That drives winemakers nuts. They go to a lot of trouble, and create special pricing for WBG programs, then to have someone taste a wine that has seen way too much oxygen, oh; it is not a “Happy Day.”
Most restaurateurs and bar owners have some idea where the quantity limits are with their list of wine offerings. It’s usually a matter of cost and storage. How many of these bottles can I afford to keep and just sit on the wine list? Where am I going to store the product on the premises waiting for my patrons to order the bottle?
By necessity, WBG programs have to be pretty broad as well as defined. If the owner of the establishment wants to offer a popular wine, like a chardonnay, what styles should they stock? Where should the wines be from? How long do I have from the time the first glass is ordered to the time the last glass in the bottle is ordered before all that’s left goes bad and no one wants it except the chef to create a new sauce for the special fish dish of the day?
Many restaurant people are backed into an uncomfortable position due to consumer expectations. “Surely a restaurant of this caliber offers a sparkling wine by the glass.” Given the possibility of spoilage and/or pilferage, a program may not even make any money and it can take orders away from more profitable cocktails. Nasty double whammy!
My attitude has always been if one person can do it, then everyone should be able to do it. That, by the way, does not apply to my tennis game. Nadal and Federer can play tennis like I can only dream about. I can’t do what they do. It is small solace to know that very few people on the planet can play tennis like they do. But I digress.
If one restaurateur or bar owner can successfully offer a WBG program, then everyone should be able to do it. Surprisingly, such is not the case. Lack of product knowledge, lack of good business sense, lack of staff training and lack of desire to serve the customer’s needs all play a role in failed WBG programs.
What works is just the opposite. Surprise! Teach the staff to explain the wines properly. Get them enthused about what’s on the list. Store the wines properly. Take a page out of the Baskin-Robbins playbook and let people have a small taste before ordering. Prominently display the wines offered. Be certain the wine list is up to date, correct and enticing. Change the list at least monthly, keeping the most ordered items and deleting those that had no support.
This is not rocket science. This is common sense with a profit reward at the end of the transaction.
Most of our major restaurants here do a great job of offering WBG. Some implement outstanding programs.
I was just over at G.W. Fins, as fine a seafood restaurant as there is anywhere in this country. They have a load of wines by the glass. Most, if not all, of the wines they feature on their extensive wine list are available by the glass.
Now they have gone a step further. There is a high-end WBG program. Four wines only. But these are wines that you hardly ever, if ever, see by-the-glass. The lowest bottle cost for these special wines is $85. But at Fins, they are available in smaller doses at pretty reasonable prices.
The program is a huge success. Patrons love to try these wines that are just too dear to order an entire bottle without an expense account, but a glass or two, easily done.
I enjoy ordering WBG, like a glass of sparkling to begin the meal. Then a nice white, maybe from New Zealand. On to a light red, from Oregon or Russian River. And finishing with a heavier red from Sonoma, Napa or even Bordeaux.
That sort of variety can’t be done ordering a bottle or two. I enjoy sharing bottles, but I do love the variety of WBG, when done correctly.
Tim McNally can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.