With wine service becoming more
sophisticated throughout the industry,
wine bars are leading the way to
better food-and-wine pairings.
WINE BAR MENUS
Mature Wine bars are having a renaissance, and this time
the food is as important as the wine
BY JACK ROBERTIELLO
s Americans increasingly adopt wine as an making process for people who want to have the
A everyday beverage, wine-bar restaurants are
ﬂourishing, going from odd outposts of vinous
geekiness to familiar dining destinations. Especially for
experience without managing the experience.”
the wine-curious, the format — casual settings where Many wine bars have built multiple pairing
sipping various-sized portions of different varietals, recommendations into their programs. At the Seattle-
vintages and regions — provides the best sort of wine based four-unit Purple Café and Winebar, tasting bars offer
class. Wine bars are also expanding geographically, from an extensive wine-and-cheese-pairing page as well as a
urban curiosities to ubiquitous operations. One company small-plate menu that includes 20 or so shareable items for
plans to have 50 airport wine bars up and running within $3 to $6, all listed with wine suggestions. The Seattle
a year or so. menu recently included root-vegetable chips with sea salt
paired with a rosé from the Loire and pork tenderloin,
PAIRINGS MAKE PERFECT arugula, fennel and Dijon vinaigrette salad with an
What makes individual wine bars stand out and succeed Argentinean Malbec.
today is the synergy between the ﬂavors of wine and food. Pairing suggestions, especially those including less-familiar
Just as brew-pub operators learned to keep their customers but particularly food-friendly wines, absolutely help sales, says
satisﬁed with tasty dishes complementing the beers, wine- Harry Miles, culinary director for Heavy Restaurant Group,
bar owners realize that plates of cheese and charcuterie are which owns the Purple Café and Winebar and two Barrio
the equivalent of a wine list packed with Chardonnays restaurants in the greater Seattle area.
and Cabernets — good, perhaps, but nothing special. “Every pairing is a result of some pretty extensive
Placing smart food-and-wine pairings on the menu is a tasting. Sometimes food and wine from the same region
widely accepted way to demystify wine, but that wasn’t the don’t ﬁt, but wines from halfway around the world do.”
case 10 years ago, when Chicago’s Bin 36 opened. Expanding the reach of wines is part of the wine-bar
“That was a huge component for us; we felt very evolution; at Purple Café, a recent pairing menu included
strongly that you couldn’t have just a menu of food and a wines from Slovenia and the Republic of Georgia.
separate menu for wine without integrating them,” says
Brian Duncan, co-owner and wine director. EVOLVING TASTES
Wine bars that don’t do the heavy lifting of providing Just as customers have embraced once-unusual foods, their
pairing recommendations can leave inexperienced guests tastes for wines are open to change, creating a market for
at sea, he says. “[Integrating is] an easy, one-stop decision- wines from almost anywhere.
www.flavor-online.com Winter 2010 FLAVOR & THE MENU 103
“We’re constantly getting into the science of food pairing, it’s a
evolving, because it’s fun way to show people how a sip of one wine
At Aroma Winebar in clear to us that our customers have grown changes the overall ﬂavor of some dishes
New York City, the food with us, and we have the ability to really be more than another.”
has moved beyond olives
and cheese to full dinners
ahead of the curve,” says Bin 36’s Duncan.
and chef’s menus based The tasting-bar concept — small glasses of FOOD MOVES FORWARD
on customer demand. wine and small plates of food — has branched Increasingly, at many bars, food is usurping
out to the tables at many wine bars with wine’s prime position, and not just via small
dining rooms. Purple Café’s bar services the plates. At the intimate Aroma Kitchen &
entire restaurant through its tasting bar. Winebar in New York City, the all-Italian
“It’s deﬁnitely gained in popularity, and wine selection with small plates initially
guests who never sit in the tasting bar order appealed to customers, but appetites changed,
from that menu,” says Miles. explains chef and co-owner Vito Polosa.
Wine bars typically offer full glasses as well “Things evolved because we had a high-
as 2- or 3-ounce pours singly and grouped in proﬁle chef and started offering things that
ﬂights; many also offer half glasses. Serving really interested our customers, were
many small plates encourages customers to memorable and created great word of mouth.”
opt for the smaller wine portions as well. So today, most of his customers, rather
“I love to offer ﬂights of 3-ounce pours, so than snacking on small plates of olives, cured
that if someone is trying a bunch of small meat, cheese or arancini, opt for full dinners,
plates, we can pair a wine up with each plate,” whether at tables or the bar.
says Jason Meringolo, general manager and Elevating the level of the food has built a
sommelier at Vinifera Wine Bar & Bistro at regular clientele that thinks of Aroma as a
the Westin in Reston, Va. “That really restaurant with a great wine selection, rather
enhances the overall experience and, without than a wine bar with food. Customers also
104 FLAVOR & THE MENU Winter 2010 www.flavor-online.com
trust the staff’s vinous recommendations, no
matter what the food.
WINE AND BITES ON THE FLY
Even travelers awaiting takeoff at airports
around the country want a chance to browse
a by-the-glass menu. The national wine-bar
chain Vino Volo, with units in Seattle, Pairing Beef and Wine for Proﬁt
Sacramento, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia
and New York area airports, develops wine
Advice from The Beef Checkoff and Karen MacNeil,
lists for each location, with signiﬁcant input
author of “The Wine Bible”
from the local staff. The chain’s food menu
The marriage of beef and wine used to be as simple as pairing steak
went through a slight revision after opening,
with something rich and red. While that idea remains a classic,
says Carla Wytmar, director of development
today’s menus offer a brave new world of possibilities. Now, beef
and marketing for Vino Volo, which plans to
might mean anything from Thai steak salad to Tuscan braised short
open several dozen more places in airports
ribs, and there are thousands of wine brands now available in the
across the country over the next few years.
United States. So how can you make sense of all the options?
“We started with small plates speciﬁcally,
There are no rigid rules; rather, great matches are born from
but in response to a particular customer need,
instinct, imagination and a lot of fun experimentation. When they
we rolled out an entrée side of the menu as
happen, “wow” moments of beef and wine are like sensory
well.” Customers now can order all wines and
ﬁreworks and inspire upsale opportunities galore. More than 50
foods in two portion sizes at Vino Volo shops.
percent of full-service restaurants surveyed said steak has a positive
Small plates may not always work for other
impact on wine sales, according to a “2007 Volumetric Assessment
reasons, such as the lack of a cultural or
of Beef in Foodservice” study conducted by Technomic, Inc.,
industry-standard portion size, says Duncan.
funded by The Beef Checkoff.
“The way our crowd works, they prefer to
have shareable things like hummus or
charcuterie instead of small plates. At many
restaurants, we’ve found there’s no standard Put it in Print: Feature one or two wine recommendations on the
in terms of quantity of small plates, and menu, adjacent to beef menu items; consider one that’s by the glass
customers often have a poor perception of the and one by the bottle.
value-price ratio. You never really know how
much you’re going to get.” Taste & Taste Alike: Conduct waitstaff tastings of great beef and
As the wine-bar concept has expanded and wine pairings; the more your staff enjoys a pairing, the more likely
food becomes a more-important component, they will be to sell it.
chefs and sommeliers have been working
Learn the Lingo: Train staff to get in the habit of suggesting by-the-
together more closely. Sommeliers once were
glass offerings with beef dishes, and provide descriptive language for
almost uniformly forced to chase the food
them to bring the pairing to life: “We’ve got a really juicy, soft
when building wine programs, but at many
Zinfandel that’ll be perfect with that, for $X a glass.”
contemporary wine bars with seasonally
shifting menus, that’s not an option. At First Sip Free: Offer a taste of a by-the-glass wine when a beef dish
Vinifera, chef Bo Palker and sommelier is brought to the table. An actual tasting is worth a thousand words
Meringolo develop their menus together. and will likely lead to a sale.
“Bo brings to the table a base wine
knowledge, and we’ll sit down and work Compare & Contrast: Offer wine ﬂights of three or four small
around a menu item to match [the food and servings so guests can experience the interplay of several wine
wine],” says Meringolo. “He’ll tweak a recipe ﬂavors with their beef dish.
to match some wines, based on our
collaborative tasting.” Compare & Compare: Pair two different wines with two different
The process has energized Palker. “When beef cuts for a “small-plate-and-sip” option.
Jason brings in something new that I’ve never
tried, something will come to mind. I’ll think,
www.flavor-online.com Winter 2010 FLAVOR & THE MENU 105
“The unique opportunity we have here is
that I am a sommelier originally trained as a
chef who makes wine as well, so we both
understand wine, from the grapes in the
vineyard to the ﬁnished product. Every time
we taste wine, we think of food and vice
versa; they are pretty seamless transitions.”
With vineyard experience, Berthold has
the advantage of a wine-focused sensory
memory that helps him develop
complementary or contrasting ﬂavor proﬁles.
A recent wine dinner began with a wine made
from Rousanne grapes, which for him evoked
honey, resin and wax qualities, giving rise to
similar ﬂavors in peaches and rosemary.
“Because of this, it’s easy for me to think
about how the components of a dish and wine
At Chicago’s Bin 36, for instance, ‘This will go great with a dish play off each other,” he explains.
diners can opt to eat in a with ginger in it.’” His own Syrah made it onto the opening
tavern setting or have a
And if Meringolo can’t pair a wine with a menu at RN74, paired with herb-roasted lamb
nibble at the cheese bar.
All menus list wine dish to their satisfaction, Palker willingly loin with red-wine-braised lamb shank,
pairings and ﬂights, and moves the ﬂavors in a different direction. turnips, fava beans, porcini mushrooms and
tasting-sized pours are “I have a lot of respect for wine. You can tarragon.
encouraged. really botch up a good bottle of wine or a nice “Syrah goes particularly well with lamb,
meal by not pairing things up correctly,” says and my Syrah, which is very aromatic, went
Palker. great with it,” says Berthold. “It was one of
the best matches we came up with.”
A WINEMAKER IN THE KITCHEN Developing a wine-centered culinary
It may seem a no-brainer, but it’s not always approach can take extra effort, but when a
easy to place someone wine-smart at the helm restaurant’s concept depends on dishes
of the kitchen. At San Francisco’s RN74, a matching well with a variety of wines, it’s
French-focused, Michael Mina wine crucial.
bar/restaurant, chef Jason Berthold runs the “I want them thinking about wine when
kitchen and happens to make his own wine. they create every dish,” says Miles, who has
That’s one of the reasons Berthold got the removed dishes from Purple Café’s menus if
executive chef post, says Wine Director and they were difﬁcult to match or too assertively
restaurant partner Rajat Parr, who himself seasoned. “We try to keep the ﬂavors linear,
makes wine, including two blends he crafted singular and easy to partner with wines. Wine
for an RN74 proprietary label. doesn’t really match well with extra-
As Berthold says, “I don’t have to
TAKE-AWAY TIPS supercharge the food with a lot of spice or
intense sauces or a lot of acid. I can let the
MAKE MATCHES: The new breed of bar menus puts the food-and- ingredients speak for themselves, and then
wine pairings in print
the spectrum is wider for what someone like
BUDDY UP: The kitchen and sommelier(s) need to work together Raj can do.” &
for best results
GET IN LINE: Food with simple, linear, singular ﬂavors are easiest to
pair with wine JACK ROBERTIELLO writes about spirits,
KEEP SIZE IN MIND: Offer at least two portion sizes for both pours cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn,
and food N.Y.; he can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
106 FLAVOR & THE MENU Winter 2010 www.flavor-online.com