Purple Café & Wine Bar, with four locations in Washington state, offers an expansive menu of wine flights as well as a flexible approach when it comes to tastings and half-glass portions. Photo courtesy of Heavy Restaurant Group Capturing the accessible and casual spirit of the modern wine era
By Robin Schempp
Americans consume more wine by volume than any other country, a good portion of it in foodservice venues. And while our per-capita consumption lags well behind other countries, the rising trend continues. Whether it is due to the end of an overindulgent economy, better education and availability, or the influence of a new generation demanding more egalitarian options, the approach to wine is becoming more casual, food friendly and democratic — even in formal establishments. “Accessible” is the word bantered around, and that is not a code for “inexpensive” — it’s the attitude of the program, the style of service and approach to pairing. Savvy operators understand wine is an important component of the dining experience and have begun treating their programs with as much care as they do their menu.
Meanwhile, the competition is experiencing a menu metamorphosis. Those informal bars and comfortable bistros — where it was always possible to discover a great new wine or enjoy several bottles with a group without breaking the bank — are no longer taking the food for granted. Wine bars are upping the ante, taking advantage of the popularity of casual menus, the trends in small plates and the willingness of chefs to show their goods in a less formal atmosphere. World-class chefs like Daniel Boulud, Scott Conant and Tony Mantuano are converting white-tablecloth restaurants or opening new wine bars at a steady clip.
Whether you are transforming your wine program to match a more casual menu or renovating a menu to be more vino-centric, here are the ins and outs of the modern approach to wine.
IN: Smart Splurges
OUT: Trophy Wines
In contrast to the extravagances of recent past, sensitivity to the economic downturn has given rise to wine restraint. Wine drunk in restaurants, even for special occasions, is more about value than conspicuous consumption. Waiters in certain high-end restaurants report that still-flush customers now ask for extra discretion when whispering their order for that cult Cabernet, aged Bordeaux or vintage Champagne. Over-inflated wines by celebrity producers with price-driving private collections are simply unfashionable — even for those who can afford it.
Modesty, however, doesn’t mean cheap; it is easy to find great wine at high prices. The trick for both the list builder and the drinker is to find “reasonably priced” great and nearly great wine that represents a value at any range.
Consider a return to the cellar value of French wines (taking advantage of recent Euro difficulties) and styles from less prevalent regions such as Spain, which produces many wines that blend familiar cultish varietals like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon with Spanish varieties.
The move toward trading in long-cellared, precious vintages for wines with present-day quaffability is an operator-friendly trend, valuing movement over investment and saving space.
Nevertheless, it’s probably good to reserve a few spots for cultish, blockbuster wines that will satisfy the unashamed aficionados and special occasion diners — or just the curiosity of someone like me who will save up to try a few those lauded 2010 Burgundies.
IN: Natural Character
Much like diners, enlightened wine drinkers are looking for wines that reveal the true character of the grape varietal and terroir. Wines that are adulterated, overworked, over-synthesized, over-toasted, sweetened or acidified are falsifications. Be it fruit, oak or alcohol, restaurateurs should be embracing the turn toward wines with less, making them more session-able and food friendly — which equates to more sales and less intoxication.
Sales of un-oaked or low-oak Chardonnays (still the United States’ best-selling varietal) have skyrocketed in the last year or two as that once-standard “buttery” Chardonnay has become passé among winos and out of younger, hip drinkers’ wheelhouses.
So too with those once-beloved yet over-extracted, overripe “fruit bombs” — they are giving way to more palate-friendly, elegant and balanced choices.
Most of all, the move is toward wines below 13 or 14 percent alcohol by volume, with styles that are more reserved and complementary to food or a night of sipping.
OUT: Red-Focused, with Some Chardonnay
While there are still guests who only drink reds, and white drinkers who still prefer their buttery Chardonnay, wine drinkers in general are lightening up. Lesser-known but more interesting white varietals can be a more welcoming option for food, warm weather and wallets.
Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are a necessity, but the section that falls under the moniker “Other White Wines” necessitates expansion to include varietals and regions from Austria to Zimbabwe (see sidebar).
The rise in un-oaked Chardonnay has been exponential in the last few years, and it deserves a rightful spot on the glass list. However, the coolest cats are starting to fall somewhere between heavy and no oak, knowing a little oak aging is not a bad thing for Chardonnay.
I have for years been quaffing dry rosé whilst exchanging an insider’s wink with other passionate swillers, sharing the knowledge that rosé is a delicious, affordable and affable choice for aperitif, appetizers, meals and a table outdoors.
Still and sparkling dry rosé blends and those single varietals from Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Pinot Noir will continue to expand.
IN: Multi-Format Service
OUT: Exclusive Bottle Service
According to the Wine Market Council’s Consumer Tracking Study, two of three Millennials said they frequently or occasionally purchase a new brand of wine. With older Millennials, sampling unique wines is an integral part of their wine-drinking experience.
Tap in to all drinkers — especially the new set of commitment-phobic winos — by not only offering more pours by the glass, but options from little tastes and flights to half glasses or bottles and carafes of house-tapped, boxed or private-label bottles.
A new faction of wine professionals will firmly say that it is not the reserve list but the by-the-glass offerings that are the true measure of a wine program. A diverse wine list with additional options for tasting and flights reveals attentiveness to trends, food pairings and clientele.
Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, a chain that has built its reputation on good steaks and an amazing 100 wines-by-the-glass presentation, offers a half-glass option — perfect for that “I need a few more sips to finish my steak” or “I’m sure my blind date will be here in a minute” occasion.
While venerable farm-to-tavern Back Forty restaurants in Manhattan have a carefully curated list of only about ten reds and whites, plus a few rosés and sparklers (some offered by the glass), Chef Peter Hoffman and his staff make a special effort to thoughtfully choose a red, white and rosé suited to each evolving menu. They offer it by the 8-oz. quartino, encouraging sharing of two small glasses for successive course pairings, or a generous glass-and-a-half for a single.
San Francisco’s newly opened wine/beer/nosh bar, St. Vincent, offers a 100-plus bottle list with several glass selections, but if a guest is intrigued and willing to commit to at least two glasses, they will open anything. Keep the bottle — or give it back and it will be sold as glass pours on a chalkboard list. The system inspires adventurous drinking, inventive pairing and, ultimately, sells more wine.
IN: Socially Responsible
OUT: Social Branding
This movement incorporates all the buzzwords: clean, green, sustainable, organic, biodynamic, ethical and local. More producers are adopting conscientious methods, techniques and technologies in the growing, making and distribution of their wines. Organic, sustainable and biodynamic farming of wine grapes continue to gain both attention and sales. Vineyards eschew the use of artificial fertilizers, often turning to centuries-old methods for encouraging growth and controlling pests — and limiting additives. Plants often use sustainable energy and are increasingly LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified. They use recycled or up-cycle-able packaging and watch their carbon footprint — favoring local destinations. Many have even found ways to contribute to local communities and charities.
Consumption of organic and sustainable wines is on a steady rise. Many European wine producers have practiced organic, sustainable and biodynamic winemaking for centuries. These practices are publicized more frequently now because they have become selling points. Certification is tricky, and each country and even DOC often has its own rules.
Every state in the country now makes some wine, from New York and Virginia to award-winning Texas and New Mexico. Even my tiny state of Vermont boasts more than a dozen vineyards and its own association.
Now all the rage: direct-from-winery kegs (pumped with argon or nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide) that hold about 130 glasses of wine, decreasing spoilage, packaging, stocking, waste and increasing speed of service and local presence. In Seattle, Proletariat Wine Company produces nearly 15 high-quality wines tapped for glasses and carafes in more than 30 locales, including its crisp, clean, “oyster killer” Sauvignon Blanc, made to showcase that other local delicacy.
Encourage wine tasting by offering creative, small-plate pairing programs. IN: Broadly Pairable Wines and Foods
OUT: Precise Wine Pairings
Food and wine geeks know that there is no reason to remain bound by archaic food-and-wine-pairing guidelines, just as we are no longer bound by tradition in menus, course progression or dishes. Communal dining, casualization, ethnic influences and big flavors mean that all but the most general of rules are moot. Consider the rules limited to these three: look for balance (in both the food and wine); taste, taste, taste; and drink what you like. When in doubt, take advantage of technology (such as WineAnswers.com, PairItApp.com or SocialGrape.com).
Light is in — lighten the approach to both the selections and the wine list itself. Intimidating, heavy-bound books with overpriced, pretentiously categorized reserve selections and expensive or limited glass pours have given way to a more lighthearted, effortless style with both diversity and range of varietals, regions, prices and formats.
Demonstrating match-ups is one way to show off the prowess of your food and wine. Suzanne Goin’s revered Los Angeles wine bar AOC demonstrates food and wine match-ups with “Flights & Bites on Monday Nights,” an experiential trip through a different wine region or theme. The program offers two inexpensive flights of wine accompanying small plates of the same region.
There is a backlash against wine reviews, scores and blogs. Savvy listmakers are doing interesting things to determine wine compatibility with their menu. For instance, some have chosen to follow a provocative approach suggested by wine writer Eric Asimov, who wrote in The New York Times about pizza as the universal pairing for determining affinity for wine or beer. The theory is a semi-scientific approach to putting wine-tasting on a neutral scale, with pizza as a baseline. Test the theory: Find a universal dish on your menu and try every wine destined for your list with it.
IN: Food-Friendly Varietals
OUT: Wine-Friendly Food
Adding less-traditional varietals to the by-the-glass list can not only make your selection more appropriate to a wide variety of foods but also more accessible — while increasing margins. These are some of the most versatile:
> Multiple sparkling choices for festive sharing plates, appetizers or almost anything rich, salty, fried or fun
> A brut or extra dry (i.e. cava or Sofia in the can)
> A pink or red sparkling Pinot or Lambrusco
> An off-dry or slightly sweet (Brachetto or Moscato)
> Ultra-versatile dry rosés are great with anything from tuna tartare to tacos, banh mi to bouillabaisse
> Grüner Veltliner, Trebbiano, Seyval Blanc or other high-acid whites, which commonly match up with most cuisines
> Dry or off-dry Riesling, Gewürztraminer or Chenin Blanc for spicier, global and Asian-inspired dishes
> Chablis, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Torrontés or White Burgundy — fuller whites that can augment or stand in for traditional Chardonnay
> Picpoul or Muscadet for delicate shellfish, finfish, vegetables and salads
> Nerello Mascalese or Austrian Zweigelt — lighter reds stand in for Pinot Noir for heavier fish and veggie dishes and lighter poultry and meat selections
> Red Grenache/Garnacha, Barbera and/or Montepulciano — youthful but juicy, from light to medium weight, which will not overwhelm pasta, grilled meats and veggies but stand up to barbecue
> Blends — designed for easy drinking and superb matching, blending is a renewed art, especially when vineyards are replanting and rehabilitating heritage, site- and climate-appropriate grapes.
With these guidelines, wine menus should offer accessibility to all patrons and palates, a signature approach to the operator and a boost to the bottom line.
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