2010 February: Taking Flight

You can add a new twist to your wine program by providing customers with more affordable options to drink wine than by the glass or bottle.

At most restaurants, a standard wine glass pour is five ounces. And in this tightening economy, the customer on a budget might not order more than one or two glasses.

Two-ounce pours of wine, priced at under $3 each, can help customers decide on a particular wine before they invest in a glass or a bottle. The pours can either be ordered solo or incorporated into a wine flight, which is between three and five pours and typically costs between $10 and $15. Your customers might view spending $15 on wine a real value simply because they are introduced to five wines instead of a sole option as they might be with one glass.

“They get a chance to try a few wines and if they want, they can order more of a wine they like,” says Lisa Ruzicka, manager of Humble Pie in Scottsdale, Arizona. At Humble Pie a flight costs $10; it includes three glasses filled with two-ounce pours, all different wines and ones selected by the customer from the wine list.

Wine flights are attractive not only to a customer new to wine (yet eager to explore); it’s appealing to the winesavvy customer who enjoys evaluating wines side by side.

At Bin 239, a wine bar and pizzeria in Prescott, Arizona, high-end wines are poured at a price that’s easier to swallow. The “First Class Flight” of wines ($65) contains highly regarded, but expensive, picks from wineries like Duckhorn Merlot and 100 Acres. “If you don’t want to buy the bottle, you can taste it this way,” says Karen Keller, who co-owns Bin 239 with her husband Kelly.

Having an approachable wine program that’s also affordable can turn your dining room into the kind of place customers will want to visit more than once in a while. “You can make it more of a place where people can come in with their friends and family on a regular basis,” says Angela Scott, owner of Sogno di Vino in Paulsboro, Washington. “We want to make it more fun. There’s always been this stigma about wine tastings, that they’re snobby and pretentious.”

Since opening in May, wine has been featured as prominently on Sogno di Vino’s menu as pizza. “They kind of go hand in hand,” says Scott. Bottles can be purchased from a retail wine shop inside the restaurant and the customer’s choice poured at the table –– with no corkage fee. Scott estimates there are about 100 rotating selections sold in the shop. In addition to 20 wines available by the glass (with a special focus on Italy, the Pacific Northwest and California), Scott developed six signature flights.

Typical restaurant mark-ups on wine range from 200 percent to 300 percent over the wholesale price. “You can’t continue that kind of mark-up in this economy anymore,” says Scott. “Our mark-up (on wine) is more like what you’d find in a store.” She says her current wine-pricing model is more profitable than at restaurants she previously ran in San Diego where she employed a traditional markup.

Keller expanded the food menu at her restaurant to also broaden the possibility that customers will order several wine pours. Her wait staff is coached in how to offer recommendations, such as a Sonoma Valley Sauvignon Blanc with an appetizer, a different wine with salad and a heavy red to drink with pizza or steak. “It’s fun,” she says. “They can have an array of different flavors without ordering a whole bottle.”

Pizzerias with successful wine programs have also figured out how to steer customers towards the wine list and not have it interpreted as an afterthought. One option is to feature specials on wine throughout the week. Humble Pie features a $5 glass of wine during its Happy Hour each evening.

Wine tastings at Bin 239 cost just $14 –– it consists of four wines “and comes on a lovely platter,” says Keller. Because weekday evenings are not as busy as Friday and Saturday nights, tastings are held during those times. Staff are not as occupied and can learn about the wines poured or pass their knowledge on to the customer. “It’s a nice little wine school,” says Keller. “People come in just for this. It’s an education every day.”

Every other Wednesday Sogno di Vino hosts a wine tasting. For a cost of $20 per person, five wines are poured and appetizers served. In December, Scott organized her first wine dinner where the winemaker was present and talked in depth about the vineyard’s wines.

Getting the word out about your wine program is important. Without an aggressive marketing push, you can’t reach regular customers –– or new ones either. A sign-up sheet is circulated at Sogno di Vino wine tastings with the intent to collect email addresses. Sending out emails is the best way to advertise wine events and tastings, says Scott. ?

Order Up!

Want to add your own wine flights to the menu? It’s a great opportunity to fl ex some creative-marketing muscles.

Wine flights are either organized by grape varietal –– but from different producers and regions, such as a Chardonnay flight that includes selections from Santa Barbara County, California, and Hunter Valley, Australia –– or have something else in common. The commonality is often abstract and at the discretion of the person writing the wine list, such as “little-known white grapes,” “bold reds” or “lots of bubbles” (could be sparkling wines that range from Champagne to Cava).

Give each flight a quirky, memorable name. An example is “Bad to the Rhone” at ENO, a wine bar in Chicago, where a few Rhone varietals are presented in smallersize glass pours (about two ounces each). Developing a cheeky name (and accompanying description) can help attract your customer to the wine list. And recounting the experience to his or her social circle will be much easier if there aren’t wine names to easily botch.

Kristine Hansen is a freelance writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.