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Choosing wine in restaurants has taken on a whole new dimension, thanks to the growing trend for smaller measures, says Fiona Sims
You may want to try a new and exciting wine with your meal, but not want a whole bottle at restaurant prices, in case you don’t like it. Or perhaps you don’t want to drink the wine your fellow diners have chosen, but you want more than just a glass of something else. Cue the carafe, the wine flight and the half-bottle – wine service has got a lot more interesting.
Will Smith is credited by many with kickstarting the carafe trend. The co-owner and manager of Soho restaurant Arbutus and sister restaurant Wild Honey got the bug after a visit to celebrity New York chef Mario Batali’s restaurant, Lupo, which sells dozens of wines by the carafe.
Most of the 55 wines on the list at Arbutus and Wild Honey are offered in 250ml carafes, while the more expensive wines are available in the 375ml size. Seventy per cent or more of diners order at least one carafe, and some order many more.
‘Customers appreciate the fact that they can share a carafe of something really nice and don’t have to fork out for a whole bottle’ Russell Norman, Polpo
‘A couple will come in here and share a carafe of something white to start, then order a carafe of red for their main, and another carafe of dessert wine with their pudding – we’ve never sold so much dessert wine,’ says Smith.
The carafe is also a core focus for Polpo, one of London’s hottest new restaurants. ‘We based Polpo on the bacari of Venice – simple spit-and-sawdust bars where they serve wine straight from the barrel into tiny glasses or carafes,’ explains owner Russell Norman, whose second Soho restaurant, Polpetto, opened in August.
‘It’s a smart way to offer wine. Instead of saying, “we can’t offer this expensive bottle because we don’t want the wastage”, restaurants need to trust that the customer will order the more expensive wines,’ says Norman. ‘It’s worked for us – they appreciate the fact that they can share a carafe of something really nice and don’t have to fork out for a whole bottle.’
Another brownie point for Polpo is that it doesn’t penalise diners for ordering in smaller measures. If a diner orders a 250ml carafe, it’s exactly a third of the price of a bottle, whereas many
places will whack on a bit more. ‘That really annoys me. And people aren’t stupid – they can
see when it’s happening,’ says Norman.
Dawn Davies, sommelier and wine buyer at the Wonder Bar in Selfridges, is delighted that a draconian rule preventing bars and restaurants from serving wine in measures below 125ml has been scrapped, paving the way for the Wonder Bar: a sleek, self-service Enomatic wine machine that delivers serves of 175ml, 125ml, and as of October, 25ml. She is promising to introduce interesting new wines: ‘Think old and rare, plus some funky grape varieties to highlight the idea of using the machines as tasting tools. I think that given the opportunity, customers are very adventurous – they have little to lose if they commit to a small measure, as it is literally a mouthful.’
Davies thinks the change in the law will have more wide-reaching effects. ‘As wine flights, and shops and bars with sampling machines become the norm, we will embrace the idea of giving the customer more choice and the ability to have more fun with wine – which cannot be a bad thing in an industry still perceived as stuffy and snobbish,’ she predicts.
Xavier Rousset just went ahead with offering smaller measures at his new venture 28°-50° Wine Workshop & Kitchen on the City’s Fetter Lane a few months before the law changed. ‘Technically, I could have been prosecuted, but I did ask first and they weren’t bothering,’ he says with a grin.
The 75ml pours have been going down a storm, especially when served in a flight. The ‘Flight of the Month’ features three wines from a different winemaker each month. In addition, Rousset offers 125ml glasses and 250ml carafes for his list of 15 whites and 15 reds, although there is a 60-strong ‘Collector’s List’ sold by the bottle.
‘The 75ml measure allows customers to try more quirky wines – wines they wouldn’t gamble on by the bottle. We’ve increased sales and customers get better value – what’s not to like?’ says Rousset. Indeed.
28°-50° Wine Workshop & Kitchen, 140 Fetter Lane, EC4;
020 7242 8877; www.2850.co.uk
Arbutus, 63-64 Frith Street, W1; 020
7734 4545; www.arbutusrestaurant.co.uk
Polpo, 41 Beak Street, W1;
020 7734 4479; www.polpo.co.uk
Wild Honey, 12 St George Street, W1;
020 7758 9160; www.wildhoneyrestaurant.co.uk
The Wonder Bar, Selfridges,
400 Oxford Street, W1; 020 7318 2476; www.selfridges.com