Premium by-the-glass programs—ones that offer a handful of high-end, pricey wines by-the-glass—have become more prevalent as wine directors look to differentiate their lists and preservation technology improves. If built correctly, a premium BTG program can allow guests to experience luxury pours they wouldn’t typically have access to and open their eyes to new brands and regions—all while allowing a beverage director to stretch their creative wings and boost revenue.
“It’s great for us to have guests try regions, varieties, and producers that they may not otherwise invest in,” explains Amy Racine, the beverage director for JF Restaurants, which is based in New York City. “It’s great for the world of wine because all these programs are educating our guests and broadening their wine world. It helps build trust, too, and typically that leads to increased future spends.”
Trevor Stough, the assistant beverage director at Charleston, South Carolina-based The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, agrees. “We want to offer our guests something a little more elevated and of higher quality or pedigree, and, to that point, we are seeing some guests travel outside their comfort zones, more so now than ever,” he says.
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But how can a restaurant build a premium pour program that will strike a balance between satisfying guests, maximizing profits, and minimizing waste? The answer is a bit complex.
Strategically Pricing a High-End Program
It’s important to factor in sticker shock when building a premium BTG program. To combat this, Bernadette James, the sommelier at Stages at One Washington and The Living Room in Dover, New Hampshire, recommends offering premium pours in different sizes. This helps consumers feel more comfortable with trying a new wine, she says, as sometimes the pricing can be off-putting, even if guests aren’t committing to a full bottle.
“Rather than a full glass for $50, we may offer a two-ounce pour at $16 or a 3.5-ounce pour at $25,” she says. “We might also adjust more entry level [pours] to a higher markup and adjust those more expensive bottles to a lower markup to balance out.”
Roland Micu, MS, the director of beverage at the Ocala, Florida-based Stirrups, located in the World Equestrian Center & The Equestrian Hotel, explains that offering a premium pour program can bring in more revenue for a restaurant, but only if it presents the consumer with a value proposition.
“It must be priced at a lower mark-up to ensure the guests understand the opportunity before them,” he says. “It must be good enough for them to order a second glass without hesitation.”
Choosing the Right Preservation System
Minimizing waste is important for any BTG pour, but it’s particularly crucial for premium pours, which cost more and sell more slowly. That’s why wine directors often turn to preservation systems to extend the life of their high-end bottles once opened.
A few key options exist: Multi-bottle wine preservation systems, which are typically permanently installed behind a bar and temperature controlled, such as those from WineKeeper and Wineemotion; the Coravin, which is smaller and can move from bottle to bottle; and vacuum wine pumps, which uses a vacuum system to protect wine from oxidation rather than argon gas. Price, space, and premium pour volume are all factors to consider when deciding which preservation system is right.
Racine says she prefers to work with a Coravin system (trade members get 20 percent off retail prices; the Timeless Eleven retails for $549) for expensive by-the-glass pours, as well as special reserve selections. She also has vacuum wine pumps available at several locations, but she’s not convinced it makes more of a difference than a cork would.
Many of Stough’s properties use Coravin as well, but some also rely on a Vacu Vin Wine Saver. James also feels that these vacuum wine pumps work well at her establishments.
“I’ve worked in several restaurants that have used a temperature-controlled wine dispensing system that is supposed to keep wines fresh for two months, and for the amount of space it occupies, it’s extremely impractical,” says James. There’s also a huge difference in price; a six-bottle WineKeeper system starts at $3,095, while the Vacu Vin Wine Saver costs just $16.99 for the vacuum pump and two vacuum stoppers (and is often on sale).
Amelie Derrieux‑Sable, the director of marketing for Champagne Henriot, has worked with many wine preservation systems, but she now prefers the Coravin Sparkling system ($399 at retail), released in fall 2021.
“With Champagne, it’s really about preserving the combination of the wine and the freshness,” she says. “[Coravin] is the one that we found the most effective and reliable of all of those systems.” This tool is especially effective in supporting premium by-the-glass programs for top establishments offering high-end, vintage Champagnes, she says.
Developing Systems to Minimize Waste
Not having an upscale system doesn’t mean a restaurant can’t have a premium by-the-glass program. Micu says it is possible to build a premium by-the-glass selection by keeping sharp track of when bottles are open and how fast they sell.
“The most significant factor in keeping wines as fresh as possible for as long as possible is keeping the wines at a cooler temperature—whites, sparkling, and Tawny Port are kept in the refrigerator. We date all of our bottles, so we ensure we do not serve wines which have been opened for too long,” he says.
For sparkling wines, which tend to lose effervescence if handled incorrectly, his trick is to stay away from using a stopper during service. “Every time you remove that stopper, it shoots out a significant amount of carbon dioxide, which accelerates flatness,” he says. “It’s crucial to place the stopper once service has concluded, but you would be surprised how much this strategy keeps your bubbles bubbly.”
Even where there are systems in place to avoid waste, accidents happen, explains William Eccleston, the general manager and wine director at Panorama in Philadelphia, noting that beverage directors should take this into consideration when pricing wines. James has backup options in place so that if wine oxidizes before it sells—even a premium pour—nothing goes to waste. She’ll create a sangria or wine-based liqueur for cocktails, or will choose to give it to the back of the house for cooking wine.
Swap Out Offerings Mindfully
Because wine directors aren’t typically stocking up on premium BTG pours in multi-case drops, these programs rely on the consistent turnover. However, the cadence in which they are swapped may depend on a number of factors, such as how well something sells.
Racine changes her offerings on a seasonal basis at the very least. Exceptions are made if a bottle is not selling well, or if the restaurant is able to purchase a small allocation of a particularly special wine. “If we’re ever trying a more experimental offering, we are reserved in our initial purchase so we aren’t stuck,” she says.
Micu tends to change offerings often—from once a week to once a month—but availability is usually the most important factor in his decision. Drastic wholesale price changes can also impact when he switches up the premium offerings. “Sometimes a wine’s cost shoots up aggressively, taking it out of its price category,” he says, knowing that passing along a price markup that much will deter customers. Keeping a reliable back-up option in mind, perhaps even a customer favorite, is one of the ways he mitigates this.
Presenting a premium pour as a limited-time offer can prompt guests to act now and try something new—all while minimizing spoilage for the restaurant. At The Essex in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, wine director Katey Taylor offers a special Coravin night once per week; she recently poured the 2020 Kistler ‘Les Noisetiers’ for $35 per glass, for instance. “It’s important to have a system where we rotate out the offerings, making sure to sell what we have on hand so that there’s minimal waste,” she says.
But, there is one downside of swapping offerings—guest expectations. When a consumer falls in love with a premium pour that is no longer available, they may feel as if nothing can measure up. Derrieux‑Sable explains that beverage directors can combat this by choosing different vintages or offerings from the same producer.
“Bringing a new wine or Champagne, but working with the same house or producer, allows consumers a better and deeper understanding of a brand they may love, while not being confused,” she says. “It allows restaurants to build some consistency, but also brings opportunities for exploring different wines as well.”
Educate Staff on High-End Selections
Micu says educating staff about the premium pour selections is where the investment will truly be seen. If the staff is passionate about an offering and can speak on it with poise and confidence to guests, the sales will follow.
“The wine world is endless, and it can be overwhelming for those who do not share the same passion in the industry to speak with confidence on deep and expansive programs,” says Micu. When speaking to guests, the staff compares premium BTG pours based on flavor profiles and textures, but they keep it simple and clear. From there, if interest is piqued, region and history are included in the conversation.
James says that her tactic is to speak to her staff in a conversational tone and manner, so they can echo this with her guests, allowing those choosing to spend on a premium selection to feel confident in their choice.
“I explain the story behind [the wine], the tasting notes, the intriguing things about it, and of course let them taste it, with food off the menu if possible,” she says. “If I can sell the wine to the staff, then they will have true, honest passion when they are selling it to their guests.”
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Emily Cappiello is an experienced travel, food and beverage writer, often writing about the intersection of delicious bites, sips, and travel adventures.