- Newer technology such as Coravin at the top end and kegs at the lower levels are driving sales.
- Diners are loving to splurge on luxury and older vintage pours.
- Importers and distributors fight to get on BTG lists – and stay there.
- Takeout and delivery BTG have opened up a whole new sales channel.
- The main competitors for wines BTG are “beverage lists” that include cocktails and beer.
- But with all that, restaurants differ on what makes a wine list with variety.
As American consumers once again leave their homes and takeout meals and once again head out to dine in restaurants, wine by the glass – BTG - is proving to be very fruitful for winegrowers and importers, distributors and restaurateurs. And the benefits keeps on growing.
Most of the basics remain the same. While some restaurants are offering gigantic, third-of-a-bottle, 250ml (8.5oz) servings, most still propose 150 or 180ml (5 or 6oz). This means that establishments that normally apply a markup of three times the wholesale cost of the bottle can raise that to four or five. The extra profit, however, has to cover the cost of possible wastage or of Coravin or Enomatic/Cruvinet style preservation devices.
From Non-expensive Wines to Mondavi
Wine by the glass (BTG) has been around since significant numbers of Americans began drinking wines with meals in the 1970s, but initially the contents in the glasses were mostly less-expensive fare served at the bar or at the table. Robert Mondavi, who in the l970s became the face of American wines with his Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays, helped accelerate BTG sales over the following decade when he launched his everyday ‘Woodbridge’ brand wines from the Central Valley. That meant anyone could drink Robert Mondavi – if not at the more premium level.
Flights of three wines were briefly popular in the 1980s and 1990s as hundreds of new examples suddenly became available. But pouring flights was time-consuming for bartenders and sommeliers, and the practice has mostly been abandoned except at wine bars.
“The BTG sector was lagging by around 2000. It wasn’t very hip any longer.”
“The BTG sector was lagging by around 2000,” says Scott Ades, East Coast president of Dalla Terra importers. Customers complained of stale wines from bottles opened the previous day, plus the 1990s saw the resurrection of cocktails and the advent of craft beers. “It wasn’t very hip any longer,” Ades says.
There are no reliable statistics as to how much wine in restaurants is sold by the glass and by the bottle (BTB), but beverage directors estimate that today anywhere between a third to two-thirds of their total is BTG. Chain restaurants tend to buy low-cost, high-volume wines for all of their outlets, while individual restaurants are more-willing to add smaller producers to their BTG menu.
Technology to the Rescue
“Coravin revitalized wine by the glass,” Ades says, of the system introduced in 2013 that allows any wine whose cork can be pierced with the instrument’s needle to be poured ‘fresh’ by the glass. More recently, there are Coravins to handle sparkling wines as well. And while Coravin is smaller and portable, Enomatic and similar dispensers provide temperature-controlled unit that can handle multiple bottles in place. Neither option come cheap however. Enomatics cost thousands of dollars to buy, while the argon capsules in a Coravin cost 30-50c per glass. No problem for a top Bordeaux or Napa Cabernet, but questionable for lesser fare.
Some premises economise by spraying argon from large canisters into bottles at the end of the day. This is less effective than either Enomatics or Coravin which offer permanent protection from oxygen, but may still be worthwhile for any wine that will sell over the course of two or three days.
"Wines by the Keg"
A different type of dispensing system – the wine keg – is gaining popularity in restaurants that serve high volumes of wine BTG at affordable prices. However, importers and distributors are split on whether to convert brands to kegs. “Our rolling 12 months of keg sales is up 55%,” says Todd Nelson, VP of marketing and communications at Winesellers, Ltd. Among accounts are Morton’s Steakhouse in Chicago, which has the Santa Julia Reserve Malbec on tap, and the City Works restaurant chain features Tiamo Rosato.
If kegs are appealing to cafes and restaurants because of the time and effort saved in not having to open bottles, they may also require space to be created for them. The conversion costs restaurants have to undergo to accommodate kegs explains why Ades has not yet introduced them for Dalla Terra’s wines.
With the advent over the past decade of wine-preservation systems, the sky is the limit for what can be – and is – served BTG in gourmet restaurants. “We offered Ornellaia at $187 a glass and sold 13 bottles in two months,” Sorrentino says. The typical customer, he adds, is a businessman at the bar who might order a modest meal, “then decide to treat himself with a great glass of wine.”
“Truthfully, every winery, even Opus One, tries to create wine by the glass customers,” says Doug Frost, MS, MW, who heads the wine program at The Restaurant 1900 in Kansas City.
“We served Thierry Allemand Cornas a week ago for the fun of it at $75 a glass. In the world of Coravin, it’s becoming more frequent for restaurant to offer expensive wines by the glass.”
That includes back vintages as well. “We’ve seen top restaurants have a lot of luck using a Coravin to dispense by the ounce [back-vintage] wines they source from us,” says David Parker, CEO/Owner of Benchmark, a leader in sales of vintage bottles.
“You cannot go into an on-premise account with a shotgun approach.”
“You cannot go into an on-premise account with a shotgun approach,” says Michael Miller, U.S. VP of sales and operations for Frescobaldi. “The wines need to be specific for the needs of the restaurant and the consumer,” he says, citing how Frescobaldi’s Alie Tuscan Rosé is successfully competing with Provence pinks.
Tara Empson, CEO of Empson USA, tries to place both BTG and BTB in the same establishment for client wineries. “We suggest an entry BTG wine at the right price point for it to have good turnover,” she says, “and then place a higher end by the bottle on the wine list.”
And BTG continues to be a good way to introduce a new brand. Ades says, "We had great success with Surrau's Vermentino from Sicily when we first introduced it by the glass."
Return of the Ritual
When restaurants re-opened after lockdowns, smaller staffs and Covid concerns caused many to pour at a bar and bring the glass to the table. Now, sommeliers report, they are back to pouring at the table, and offering a sample taste as in the past.
BTG to Go
Some restaurants survived Covid lockdowns with food takeout and delivery, but many states also for the first time allowed cocktails and wines to be sold for off-premise consumption. Now, most still allow that lucrative restaurant sales channel to continue.
"Currently, there are about 30 states that permit to-go cocktails, and about 10 of them also allow wine by the glass,” says Mike Whatley, VP of state affairs for the National Restaurant Association. “It makes sense to permit wine by the glass if you permit individual cocktails,” because, as in restaurants, parties are split on which wine to order. “The husband wants red, the wife wants white. One is having beef, one is having sole.”
Whatley says this market looks bright. “New York first let [the new rule] lapse, but then re-instated it,” he says. “This is a huge opportunity for restaurants– a whole new market.
If there is a dark cloud on wine BTG’s horizon, it is cocktail and craft beers, says Rob McMillan, CEO of Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division, pointing out that restaurants not only pared down wine lists following the pandemic, but also introduced mixed-beverage menus, adding cocktails and beers to wine BTG.
But most observers are optimistic. As Evan Goldstein, CEO of the consultants Full Circle Wine Solutions, sums up the situation. “I do believe that between tasting menus in higher-end spots and the reality that people go BTG in more casual establishments probably suggests that the category is alive and well.”