"I remember when Dwayne Savoie was the sommelier at the Windsor Court," Ycaza says. "He opened a Chateau d'Yquem by the glass for $50 to go with a foie gras special they were offering. That's a classic pairing. A Sauterne with foie gras. That was really something special to offer guests, but way beyond the ceiling of what most people are interested in paying by the glass."
In a city that appreciates fine dining and loves its chefs, there is still some sticker shock when diners see wines by the glass topping $10. On a regular list, even a $15 glass can look like a big splurge. But a handful of local restaurants make higher-end wines a part of their glass offerings.
First and foremost, wine lists should go with the food a restaurant serves.
"It's all about matching the food," says Bryan Lambert, manager at Restaurant August. "Chef John Besh is doing a very high level of food, very delicate. We want to offer wines that stand up to the food."
At August, the list ranges from $8 up to the $18 Clark & Telephone Vineyard Pinot Noir by Belle Glos. The champagnes and sparkling wines include Pommery ($16) and Schramsberg's Sparkling Brut Ros ($14).
In rebuilding August's wine list after losing most of it to Katrina, Lambert started with Burgundies, which include many enormous tasting wines that are ready to drink without much aging. He's also building the list with more hard to find wines by smaller, boutique wineries.
"With the mystique of the restaurant, the ambience, people are coming here willing to try things," Lambert says.
Most area restaurants will offer 10 or fewer wines by the glass and rarely will one or two creep above $10-$12. Holidays like New Year's Eve may bring out more adventurous specials.
At Emeril's, the by-the-glass list is 20 wines deep and tops out with a $20 California Chardonnay and a $17 Napa Valley blend of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet called Rocket Science. Sommelier Steve Russett is also focused on having wines to match the menu's range of spicy to rich dishes.
"We try to have wines of every type, and different styles of wine within each. So we will have a dry Chardonnay and an oakey, buttery Chardonnay on the list," he says.
Since one of Emeril Lagasse's missions in the kitchen is to bring in new ingredients and expand his diners' palates, Russett tries to do the same thing with the wine list, including the glass list.
"If someone wants something different than Chardonnay, then they might want to try the Gruner Veltliner," he says. From Austria, Gruner Veltliner has become more popular in recent years among local wine enthusiasts.
While selling a $50 glass of Chateau d'Yquem may sound like a bonanza for the restaurant, the risk of not selling the rest of an opened bottle presents a costly risk.
Avoiding the waste of not selling all four or five portions from a bottle is why most restaurants are fairly conservative about opening more expensive wines by the glass. But if a restaurant is going to build an impressive wine cellar, it has to find ways to cultivate interest in it.
Before Katrina, Emeril's had a cellar with more than 1600 selections, which had earned the Wine Spectator's Grand Award, an acknowledgement of its depth and quality. Creating a wine cellar that large requires quite an investment. Supporting it requires cultivating customers and exposing new products to them. So Russett, as previous sommeliers at Emeril's, often opens new acquisitions by the glass, both to educate staff and get guests interested. Diners can always ask if he has something special open. Since he's not opening that many bottles of a new wine, he won't add it to the bar's chalk board list or printed list.
At August, Lambert will often open bottles off the regular list when customers express interest. He'd like to sell several glasses somewhere in the dining room when he does open something special, but more often than not he finds other interested guests.
At Cuvee, Ycaza uses the nightly degustation menu as an opportunity to open bottles off the regular list. The degustation is a prix fixe, generally six-course tasting menu. An additional slate of wines paired with each course is also available for a set price. Knowing that some diners are likely to opt for the wine pairing makes it easier to open higher-end bottles. Those wines are then also available by the glass to all diners. Ycaza recently pulled Elk Cove's Pinot Noir ($16.50) and Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) from the regular list to offer by the glass.
"The whole idea is to have a wine program that complements the dining experience," Ycaza says.