Aug. 11, 2008
It's a familiar dilemma. A bottle of wine is too much for the couple perusing a restaurant's wine list, but a glass each is too little. At a nearby table, a large group of friends are enjoying a girls' night out. They are ready to indulge but can't agree on whether they want Pinot Grigio or Chianti and ordering a variety of different wines is a bit pricey.
Operators are realizing that it doesn't have to be that way. Providing a greater range of amounts in which wine can be ordered is how some Italian restaurants and pizzerias are seeking to meet the needs and pocketbooks of their customers.
At Quartino, an upscale restaurant and pizzeria in Chicago, customers can order wine by the glass or bottle, by the 250-milliliter carafe, by the half liter or by the liter. The restaurant carries 140 different wines.
"Given the economy and all of the challenges, people are adjusting their lifestyles," said John Coletta, executive chef and managing partner at Quartino. "They appreciate having options."
A carafe at Quartino costs between $4 and $12 and a liter is between $16 and $70.
"If you're getting together with six of your friends, a liter is going to do it," Coletta said. "It will quench your thirst and you'll get a quality wine at a good price."
Offering more choices
Although wine by the carafe is a small portion of the wine served across the nation, David Henkes, vice president at restaurant consulting firm Technomic, sees attitudes changing.
"Operators want to offer ways for customers to experiment and to remove the intimidation factor of wine," he says. "The trend certainly seems to be moving away from wine by the bottle."
According to Technomic's research, carafes account for 7 percent of wine occasions. Wine flights, or sample servings, are 6 percent, wine by the bottle is 20 percent, and wine by the glass makes up the greatest share, 81 percent. (The total is more than 100 percent because each occasion may include ordering in various amounts.)
If given the chance to try different wines without having to make a large investment, diners will seize it, Henkes said.
"We see the trend toward experimentation. You're seeing wine flights and operators wanting to let diners to try new varieties," he said.
Max Spesanelli, general manager and co-owner of Terroni in Los Angeles, agrees. Terroni features the traditional cooking of southern Italy.
In addition to wine by the glass or bottle, his restaurant offers quarter-liters which amount to about two glasses, and a half-liter which is about three glasses.
"For people who don't want a bottle it (lesser sizes) makes sense," he says.
Ninety percent of Terroni's sales in alcoholic beverages are from wine. A quarter-liter sells for about $13.
"We can offer a better wine and people don't feel like they are spending a lot," Spesanelli said.
Striving for authenticity
Quartino and Terroni both import all of their wines from Italy. And while many of the wines the restaurants offer may not be familiar to Americans, both Coletta and Spesanelli agreed their customers are interested in trying them.
While some wines at Quartino are priced as high as $400 a bottle, the restaurant offers many superior Italian wines that are not as expensive, Coletta said.
"We've chosen wines that cost less and which represent the essence of Italy. It's very hard to find a bad wine in Italy," Coletta said.
Coletta goes twice a year to Italy on buying trips.
"Our customers are driven by authenticity," he said. "They want a Pinot Grigio that's from the Veneto region (of Italy). That's not to say it's better than any other wine. It's a point of authenticity."
Coletta says Italian wines are produced with the notion that they will be consumed with a meal.
"The wines of Italy are to be drunk with food," Coletta said. "That's not the mentality of California wines."
Creating an intimate experience
Restaurants with smaller tables would likely benefit from offering wine in other sizes than by the glass or bottle, Spesanelli said. A table for two may shy away from ordering a bottle.
He advises anyone considering offering liter sizes "to select a few wines and see how it works."
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Having an educated staff who knows what the restaurant serves and how to sell it to customers is also important.
"You need a wine program," Spesanelli said. "An average pizza place doesn't have one. You might want to work with wines where you will not lose so much if it doesn't work."
When all else fails, he can always use leftover wine for cooking, he said.
Selling wine by liters increases his restaurant's feeling of conviviality, Coletta said.
"Our inspiration comes from a hunger in the marketplace," he said. "People want to share. They want to engage with each other and be a little friendly. When you're sharing food and wine, the experience is more intimate."
And when the bill arrives at their tables, Coletta said his customers walk out the door feeling even better.
"We've taken the adage that our wines are cheaper than water," he said. "Actually, we're not giving it away, but we're not gouging customers either."