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The Finer Points of Building a By The Glass List
By Jessica Dupuy
Jan 23, 2018
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There’s nothing worse than ordering a glass of wine only to be delivered a stale, oxidized, pour that is tragically off the mark.  Sadly, we’ve all been the recipients of that glass at some point in our lives.  Sometimes, we may just grin our way through it, not wanting to be a jerk.  But if you’re a wine professional, often times we graciously offer a helpful comment or at least send the glass back. 

“By and large, most by-the-glass programs are such garbage; an after-thought area where a restaurant can make some money.  But I think we should do better,” says Master Sommelier David Keck of Houston’s Goodnight Hospitality, which recently opened Goodnight Charlie’s a honkytonk-inspired bar.  “We should see it as an opportunity, not a place where we just make bank.”

Prior to his latest venture, Keck was the opening general manager and wine director of the city’s hip wine bar, Camerata.  Here, in the trendy Montrose area, he built a unique by-the-glass program that changed every day with at least one-third of the list offering new and interesting wines or particular favorites from the permanent menu.  Guests were able to try Jamet Syrah, Occhipinti Frappato, English sparkling wines, Clos Rougeard before it was allocated by the bottle, and two-ounce pours of Gravner Bianco Breg Friuli from their mouth-blown glasses.

“This made it possible for both my staff and customers to try new wines, and it allowed for new conversations for our regulars,” says Keck who also built his happy hour program offering half-price glasses of bottles that had been opened the previous night.  “People could come in and we’d start by talking about what was opened in our chiller.  Depending on what we had, sometimes happy hour would last an hour, other times it might last the whole night.  But it made for a great testing ground and a way to move through some interesting inventory.”

Though Keck’s program was certainly progressive, his goal to filter in lesser-known wines is something sommeliers and beverage directors across the country have more aggressively been trying to balance in recent years. 

“In general, I think the quality of the wines we’re finding by the glass across the country has gone up considerably; and definitely in Chicago,” says Liz Mendez, Sommelier and CEO of Big Head Hospitality in Chicago.  “For one thing, there’s more availability of quality wines from around the world that as a buyer, make it appealing to place on a by-the-glass list for customers to try.  But it also helps that people are more adventurous in general and are willing to try a wine with a grape they’ve never heard of before, especially if they’re only buying a glass instead of investing in a whole bottle.” 

As sommelier for the former Spanish-inspired restaurant, Vera, which Liz co-owned with her chef husband, Mark Mendez, until the two started their own hospitality group in August, Mendez used her by-the-glass list as a conversation starter.  Amid a primarily Spanish and Portuguese wine list, those looking for a standard California-style Chardonnay or Argentine Malbec needed a little guidance. 

“We loved letting this be a way for us to find wine on the list that spoke to them,” says Mendez.  “Simply asking them a couple of questions about what they normally drink, we could say, ‘We’ve got something similar that you should try, let me bring you a taste.’ Once they felt like they had the ability to test-drive these wines, it kept them coming back the next time for another new suggestion.”

So what does make a good by the glass list? Is it quantity, variety, quality, price?

“I think it’s a good thing when guests can reap the benefits of trying a whole new world of wine, but when you get too obscure with your list, you wind up alienating them,” says Matthew Dulle, beverage director at San Francisco’s Lazy Bear.  “As wine professionals there’s this notion that we constantly need to offer something different; sometimes to a fault.  If you can’t find something dynamic and exciting made from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc -- or anything that falls into the category of classic varieties -- then you need to look harder.  Pour Sauvignon Blanc from Austria, Chardonnay from Auckland, or even Merlot from Coonawarra,” says Dulle, who has had great success with Hannes Sabbath “STK Klassik” Sauvignon Blanc from Styria, Austria. 

Sometimes, offering a high quality wine from a familiar grape variety allows more creativity in introducing lesser-known varieties to sprinkle throughout the list.  In a previous role, Keck was asked to offer Malbec and Pinot Grigio on the permanent by-the-glass menu, which to him may didn’t really fit the cuisine of that particular restaurant.  But they were wines he knew he could move, so he got clever.

“I found the best Malbec and Pinot Grigio I could find and we sold through pallets of them a week, which made it possible for me to get a good wholesale price on it,” says Keck, who then employed a sort of “Robin Hood” approach to the list.  “It also meant we made a ton of money selling those particular wines, which allowed me to put my most expensive glass pour, a Domaine Bruno Clair Rosé, on the list just because I liked it and wanted to introduce it to people.  We didn’t make as much money on that wine by the glass, but we were able to balance that from sales of the Pinot Grigio and Malbec.”

Accessible pricing on the by-the-glass list is also key.  Depending on the market you’re in, “accessibility” is a relative term.  Having worked in St. Louis, Chicago, Sonoma County, and now San Francisco, Matt Dulle says pricing a list for a specific market has to be on a case-by-case basis.  Where most mid-range markets hover in a $9-$15 price range, Dulle’s Lazy Bear list in San Francisco has glasses ranging from $15-$28.  But in his opinion the relative buying power one market might afford you over another shouldn’t hinder the ability to find good quality wines to build a good list. 

“There are great wines in either range, and part of the fun of building a program is finding those values and feeling that pride when someone freaks out over a wine that cost you $9/bottle,” says Dulle.  “You can’t think of your cost as a limitation, it’s more about knowing your lane and excelling within that.”

Aside from managing costs, there’s the issue of freshness.  Once a cork us pulled from a bottle, the clock is ticking on that wine’s eventual demise.  There are a number of ways you can combat the fight to sell through by-the-glass bottles including Keck’s day-after half-price happy hour idea.  Constant communication to service staff about what bottles are open and which wines need to be pushed to sell is certainly an important part of the strategy.  (Sayburn uses the “WhatsApp” app with his staff for real-time up-dates during service on wine availability.)  In Chicago, Mendez asks wine reps to leave her an opened bottle of wine from a tasting to test for its freshness the next day before committing to adding it to her list.

But if you’re managing more than 500 wines by the glass as Ronan Sayburn does at London’s 67 Pall Mall there’s really only one answer:  Coravin. 

“Coravin is a game changer.  We access about 127 wines per day; more than 5,000 a month,” says Rayburn who warns that it’s only worth having if you know how to use it correctly.  “Too many people forget to prime the needle with argon before using it and you’re just pumping oxygen into the bottle when you do that.  It’s a waste.”

For accessing older vintages, he stresses the importance of making sure the cork is solid, otherwise the device isn’t as effective.  In cases where the cork has started to deteriorate, Sayburn and his team employ a number of other safeguards to preserve wines including using silicon toppers to access screw cap wines and using a hermetically-sealed box and re-corking machine to re-cork older wines before accessing them with a Coravin.

But when most restaurants struggle to find enough climate-controlled cellar space to store their wines, not everyone has the equivalent of a secret science lab in their back-of-house.  Still, the Coravin has made all the difference.  For one, it allows for a wider range of by-the-glass options with rare and older wines at price that’s less impactful than the cost of committing to a full bottle. 

“I may put a wine on the list for $40 a glass without batting an eye,” says Dulle.  “But with the Coravin, I know I can access a bottle and not feel the pressure to sell that full bottle that night or pass along the cost of not doing so to the consumer.”

But even though this handy device has allowed sommeliers to broaden their range of by the glass offerings, it’s important to note that it’s not perfect.  “I think people can rely too heavily on the Coravin to protect their wines, but sometimes they overestimate its ability to hold wine,” says Dulle.  “Some wines simply won’t hold as long as others.”

This is particularly the case if the device hasn’t been used correctly, which is why people like Sayburn and Dulle stress the importance of having service staff taste the wines before serving them.  It’s an exercise that pays off as additional wine education for staff. 

In the end, familiarity, price accessibility, making a good margin and preserving bottles of wine once they’ve been opened are all key to a beverage director in devising a good by-the-glass list.  But while perspective and balance go along way, the ultimate goal is giving the customer a great experience. 

“Even if you have to play it a little safer with your list and pepper in a few lesser known, exciting wines, at the end of the day, our job is to make people happy,” says Dulle.  “And we need to have many arrows in our quiver to do so.”