OK, smile and say “Cheers.”
What are we celebrating? A massive improvement — in quality, quantity and value — in by-the-glass wine offerings at local restaurants over the past few years.
Fueled by many factors — assiduous importers, inquisitive customers, more and better technology and an improved economy, among others — local eateries, especially in the core cities but also in some surprising non-metro spots, are offering a much wider, ever-changing range of by-the-glass (BTG) pours.
“It’s like an ice cream shop that used to have five flavors and now has 50: blue, purple, orange, everything you might like,” said Alfonso Aiello, general sales manager of local distributor Wine Merchants. “Ten years ago, restaurants were skewed toward Napa and Sonoma wines with big-name recognition: Mondavi, Sterling, Caymus. Now you can get wines from Italy or Spain from a family that has been making it for four generations, unique wines that have character and layers.
“I mean, how many chardonnays can you drink? People are finally discovering these unique varietals like falanghina, pecorino, roussanne. People go, ‘Omigod, these wines are good.’ There are more choices, a lot more.”
Annette Peters, portfolio director at wholesaler Bourget Imports, had a similar observation.
“You’ve seen the by-the-glass lists in many restaurants go acid-driven, better with food. There are fewer of those big wines that I call a-meal-in-a-glass, like ‘OK, I had that, and now I’m sated.’ ”
The wines that have taken over many restaurant lists are more acidic, and thus more food-friendly, than the jam-o-rama fruit bombs of yore.
The trend hews with another movement: the emphasis on the best ingredients and sourcing at many of these restaurants.
“Steakhouses need their cabernets, but I’m seeing fewer heavy reds in many places,” said Christine Chovan, sales consultant with the distributor Grape Beginnings. “For an all-over American-style restaurant, having an eclectic list is great. That means more European cool-climate wines.”
Also, with so many restaurateurs and consumers decidedly more interested in the origins of food and other buying choices, the back stories in the wine world have more impact.
“It has been easier for us to tell the story of these small family wineries,” Peters said, “with the idea that it’s happening in other arenas of people’s lives, in produce shopping, for example.”
Youth is served
While people of all ages have become more interested in the pedigree of their purchases, the younger set has had the strongest influence on wine lists in general and BTG options in particular.
Millennials, according to Southern/Glazer’s on-premise (restaurant) district manager Rikki Iglesias, “are so much more open to diversity.” Especially, as Aiello put it, if “it’s a wine nobody has heard of.”
That mirrors yet another recent movement on the beverage front. “Craft beer, that can’t help but spill over into wine,” Peters said. “Some [craft-brew aficionados] have the attention span of a gnat, seeking out new flavors. People are asking ‘What’s new, what’s new, what’s new’ in the world of wine. You constantly have to be on that cusp.”
Especially when brand loyalty means little or nothing. “My generation would go, ‘OK, it’s a Burberry coat,’ ” Peters said. “But the younger generation is like, ‘Hey, if it tastes great and it’s also a bargain, I don’t care if it has pedigree or not. I don’t need Burberry.’ ”
Consumers, young or not so much, are not the only people driving this progression. Further up the supply chain, importers, restaurant buyers and waitstaffs are doing more than their part.
Minnesota has an outsized (at least for a landlocked state) number of wine importers. Having the same outfit import and distribute wines provides a “pricing advantage,” said Joe Kotnik, president and founder of Rootstock Wine Co. “In a national program these wines would be at a price point higher.”
With at least a dozen importers, Kotnik added, “we have a really vibrant wine community who make many trips to go and find stuff.”
That means that not only are new wines constantly entering the market, but that many of them fit what the restaurants want: small allocations of unusual wines at friendly price points.
Kotnik and partner Marc Mackondy thus can delve deeply into Europe’s wine regions, knowing that many restaurant buyers back home have “a new willingness to get off the beaten path, experiment with less-known grape varietals and regions, wines from Corsica, from Jura [in France], even South Africa, and digging into the Loire Valley.”
Even when the prices are bit higher, he added, “there’s been a big expansion in aggressive buyers who are choosing wines that might be pushing the limits of costs, but I believe they are finding that their decisions are being warranted by guests who appreciate having those wines.”
Patty Douglas, on-premise sales manager for the Wine Co., also has noticed by-the-glass prices that would have been unheard of even a few years ago, during the depths of the Great Recession. “People are not scared of offering things at a higher price point,” she said. “It used to be maybe Manny’s would have $15 or $18 glasses. Now you see so many $12-and-over wines in restaurants.”
Even though the improved economy means that “people have been able to put higher-end wines on the glass list,” as Chovan noted, that doesn’t mean that diners automatically think it’s OK to plop down $15 for a glass of wine.
Many folks need some persuading, and that brings in the final part of the people chain: the restaurant staff.
“It’s about the ability of the staff and the restaurant itself to market the wines,” Kotnik said. “Training definitely is a big part. We have more high-level education in wine, and servers are taking this training as opposed to just a restaurant manager.”
These days, Douglas said, “you can almost be guaranteed someone on staff has training.”
New and improving
Restaurants have other tools at their disposal to make a deeper array of glass pours work, much of it technology-driven but some of it in more traditional realms.
Like printers. “People used to spend hundreds of dollars” on a laminated menu/wine list, Aiello said. “Now they hand you a piece of paper. They can print their list every day.”
Like the list itself. “Nowadays you see more lists set up by taste characteristics,” Douglas said, “so people can say, ‘Oh, so this [obscure varietal] is crisp and fresh like I might find in a sauvignon blanc or a pinot grigio. I’ll try that.’ ”
Like tools from schools. The Bachelor Farmer will open any bottle if a customer agrees to drink and pay for half of it; then an employee puts the wine’s name on a chalkboard to be offered by the glass. Other restaurants reportedly are poised to follow suit.
Like customer service. “A lot of places are almost overgenerous in their offering to give you a taste” of a wine you’re unsure about buying, Peters said.
And like the actual glasses. “Restaurants now understand,” Douglas said, “that serving in a really nice glass definitely makes a difference. It’s a better product all the way around.”
Other enhancements are more cutting-edge. New and improved coolers allow the content of opened bottles to be preserved much longer. The Coravin, which extracts wine and replaces it in the bottle with argon, keeping the cork basically intact and the wine fresh, is showing up all over the place.
Hither and yon
While many of these cool lists are in urban “chef-driven” restaurants, they’re not exclusive to such venues.
In Ham Lake, T-Box Bar & Grill has stellar offerings, many of them stored in Enomatic coolers. At Domacin Winebar in Stillwater, servers will open almost any bottle to sell by the glass, Iglesias said.
Even at the Mall of America, something is afoot. Both Cedar + Stone at the JW Marriott and FireLake at the Radisson Blu are bringing it when it comes to BTG pours.
Further afield, local distributors cited the Burntside Lodge in Ely, Tutto Bene in Bemidji, the Grandview Lodge in Nisswa and the New Scenic Cafe in Duluth as having outstanding BTG offerings
Back in the Twin Towns, some unexpected spots have embraced the trend.
W.A. Frost & Co. has had a fabulous flights program for years. At Red Cow, Douglas said, “you get the best kind of glass, the wines are served at the perfect temperature, and it’s a great selection for a hamburger joint.”
Even more surprising, she added, is the way that the chefs at two Asian restaurants, Ngon Vietnamese Bistro in St. Paul and Sen Yai Sen Lak in northeast Minneapolis, bring out their most popular dishes when a sales rep calls on them, literally choosing wines (to be offered by the glass) on the basis of the optimum pairing.
“They buy their wines based completely on their food,” Kotnik said of Sen Yai Sen Lak. “Frankly, I don’t think there’s enough attention to that.”
Meaning that, as great as things are, they can always get better.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.