Caxton Grill, London.

Wine-Flight Wonders

Creative samplings encourage wine lovers to sip adventurously.

Admittedly, I make snap judgments on a restaurant’s wine menu based on the number of wines—and the global breadth—available for a small pour. If I have to plunk down a few twenties to try a wine that’s only sold by the bottle, it narrows the chance my palate leaves satisfied.

One of my favorite ways to discover a new wine is sipping through a flight at Thief Wine Shop & Bar in Milwaukee. Co-owner Phil Bilodeau draws upon his wine knowledge to group unexpected offerings within a flight, like “Aromatic Whites” or “Earthy European Reds,” getting me to taste outside my comfort zone without shelling out a lot of cash.

I’m not alone. Many wine-loving customers want to sip more for less. Wine flights, generally 2- or 3-ounce pours of three to four wines that are served either as a set group or created by the customer, meet this need because the typical flight price of $10–$25 is a little more than a glass but a lot less than a bottle.

“It’s a really good value because they get four pours of 2-ounce wines,” says Scott Harper, Master Sommelier and wine director at Bristol Bar and Grille in Jeffersonville, Indiana. The four flights on the menu are rotated every six weeks.

In this cash-crunched economy, it’s a win-win situation: Wine lovers get to try a lot of wine without racking up the bill. “You wouldn’t necessarily buy a bottle of wine and then another,” says Gemma Wren, catering and sales manager at Caxton Grill in London, where there are six flights nightly, with stylish names like “Elevation Flight” and “Velvet Flight.”

At Cornelia Street Café in New York City, which opened 35 years ago but debuted wine flights six years ago, beverage director Michael Manuppelli incorporates approachable wines in the flights. “You want to be diplomatic in creating flights—fruit-forward and higher in acidity, more so than nuanced, higher-priced wines,” he says. Blends are a very popular inclusion in the café’s wine flights.

Peter Kasperski, owner of Cowboy Ciao Wine Bar & Grill in Scottsdale, Arizona, claims to “have accidentally invented the wine flight,” while working at the now-shuttered Steven Restaurant during the early ‘80s. “We had this dessert that just wasn’t moving—a chocolate-candy piece, glazed grapes, and a dessert taco. I suggested we put a trio of dessert wines with it,” he says.

And the lesson lives on: Cowboy Ciao—which boasts an eclectic and expansive 1,800-selection wine list—offers between 13 and 20 flights at any given time. Presentation is key, says Kasperski. A flight is delivered via a special board with information about each wine and slots for three glasses plus indentations for three 3-ounce decanters (allowing the customer to pour his own wine). Flights help move esoteric varieties such as Pineau d’Aunis from France’s Loire Valley out of the cellar, and allow wines with small allotments, like LaPonza Wines Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley, California), which only produces 58 cases, to be shared with the masses.

Tasteful Pours

Wines priced by the bottle aren’t going away, but flights provide an economical tasting opportunity. “Instead of committing to one glass you get to try more but it’s the same volume of wine,” says Jason Miller, owner of The Wine Kitchen in Leesburg, Virginia. “We try to [present] wine as accessible, instead of putting it on a shelf. We pour just about everything by the glass and by the taste as well. Any way you slice it, you can get the wine you want.”

To jazz up the beverage menu at Café Del Rey in Marina Del Rey, California, a 19-page wine list and solid reputation as a wine-centric Southern California destination was enriched with the addition of flights. “They really took off,” says general manager Adam Spier, adding the metal carriers that flights are brought to the table in quickly became the talk of the town.

Giving customers something to talk about is always a hit. “The experience of going to a restaurant is like going on vacation,” says Tony Westmoreland, who handles the wine list at Flight Restaurant & Wine Bar in Memphis, Tennessee—where “Flight’s Picks” borrows a chapter from bookstores with staff favorites clearly noted, helping to personalize the business. And options abound, with seven red wine flights and seven white wine flights, in addition to several wines with a taste-size pour that allow for a custom flight.

Running a wine-themed restaurant means customers expect each server—not just the sommelier or wine director—to be knowledgeable in grape varietals and wine-growing regions. “People in New York are definitely into knowing more about wine,” says Manuppelli. “They want you to spend a few minutes and tell them about the wine—create an experience for them.” To that end, staff training is held weekly.

“They want someone to share their experience with,” agrees Edgar Poureshagh, co-owner of 3Twenty Wine Lounge in Los Angeles. A minimum of 40 wines—plus at least five sparkling wines and five dessert wines—are dispensed from Enomatic wine-tasting machines in 2-ounce pours, which allows for flexibility and constant change to the lounge’s wine selections. “If you actively engage the customers as they’re using the machine, they find it very comforting.”

Engaging customers is a hallmark at the Vintner Grill in the Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin, where Chris Bennett, sommelier and assistant general manager says the staff is encouraged to taste and talk about every wine within a flight. Beyond this, it’s expected that they also offer food-pairing suggestions. “A blind wine tasting is held for staff every Saturday and, over time, they gain this nice wine knowledge,” says Bennett.

Similarly, The Wine Kitchen’s Miller says, “All servers are able to suggest pairings and the flights open the door to education. There can be a lot of engagement or minimum engagement, depending on the customer.”

Purposeful Selections

Flights should be eclectic and interesting, maybe even correct preconceived notions a customer may have about a particular grape varietal. In selecting what to add to the machine, “we blend the expected with the unexpected. We’re all about that ‘aha’ moment,” says Poureshagh. “We only serve wine from family-owned wineries. There’s a lot more love that goes into the bottle.”

Naming flights is another way to personalize your restaurant or wine bar. Kasperski isn’t afraid to push the envelope. “It’s usually some wacky, cheesy name that I’ve come up with,” he says. Yet it never strays from his mantra, which is to introduce Cowboy Ciao customers to a new wine they’ll fall in love with. “We did a Planetary Pinot Parade, with a Pinot Noir from New Zealand and a Slovenian Pinot Noir,” he says.

Spier, who has always loved wine, enjoys the challenge of coming up with new flight names. His favorite thus far is the “Indecisive Flight,” for that customer who can’t settle on a wine, and probably won’t blink an eye about trying full-bodied wines such as a Zinfandel from Lodi, California and a Tempranillo/Grenache blend from Rioja, Spain.

Seizing the moment, Spier also uses wine flights to capture email addresses—customers who sign up to receive emails about wine-related events at Café Del Rey receive a free wine flight. “I give away between 15 and 20 flights a week,” he says. It’s as successful as his other promotion: “Fright Night Flights” (a play on the show “Fright Night Lights”) where all flights are $12, a deep discount from the normal $15 to $19.