Beverage director Jason Wagner wants Fung Tu—on New York City’s Lower East Side—to be known for more than Chinese food. While the menu does dance around soy sprouts, fried rice, and pickled vegetables, each dish is a modern take on cuisine dating back many centuries. “The cuisine we do here is somewhat unfamiliar to people,” says Wagner. One such example is Chinese Spätzle with Sichuan Pork Sauce, which he pairs with Agnes & Rene Mosse Anjou Blanc (Loire Valley, France). “The Anjou has a touch of sweetness and some richness that counterbalances the heat and the heft of the Spätzle,” Wagner says.
Naturally, with this focus on reinvention, the wine list was poised to shine, if only customers’ palates were educated in the art of pairing Chinese food with wine. Last spring, Wagner—who cut his chops developing the wine list at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and A Voce—came up with a brilliant idea to encourage more wine-by-the-glass orders. He designed a six-course tasting menu, priced $65, with an additional $30 for wine pairings chosen by Wagner, and it is now served daily.
This approach positions Fung Tu as a wine-lovers’ destination, and customers have responded enthusiastically. “People aren’t [accustomed] to seeing Chinese food presented in the context of having it with wine,” Wagner says.
“They want us to take them on a journey. The food itself tends to be low in acid when compared to Western cuisine. When I can, I try to get wines that have a salty, nutty, caramel (quality).” Wagner also shies away from tannins and opts for wines with medium to high levels of acidity with great structure.
The tasting menu is often the gateway for new customers to become regulars. “A lot of people who are curious [about wine] do it, and people who are enthusiastic about wine, too. When they enjoy [the tasting menu], they start coming back and exploring the bottle list,” says Wagner. “It’s lifted the restaurant up to a second tier of people.”
At the Hilton Chicago O’Hare, the clientele shifts continuously as thousands of people fly in and out each day. Dante Nicastro, in charge of wines at the hotel’s Andiamo eatery, realizes the clientele won’t ever be steady. But he’s still pushing wines by the glass for the ongoing crop of solo business travelers—and doing so with a team-wide effort. All employees are in on the challenge to pair a dish with a glass of wine, especially the servers, who have the most customer contact. “We want the servers to feel more comfortable than we [the managers] are,” says Nicastro. “We’ll do a blind vote with the servers as to which wine pairs best.”
Nicastro knows that the average solo traveler, even one who has savvy wine knowledge, isn’t likely to spring for a bottle of wine. The money is in the by-the-glass list, where there are 21 selections. “We have a variety of customers who fly in and out of here, and our typical stay is one night. Business folks have a more educated palate,” Nicastro says.
To make it easier on the customer, pairing suggestions are printed right below menu items. For example, seared salmon fillet pairs with a glass of Silver Palm Chardonnay from California’s North Coast.
“We want to take the snooty out of wine. There really is no wrong wine. It goes back to ‘What do you like?’” Nicastro says. In the two years since launching the pairings on the menu, wine sales have increased by 5 percent.
Similarly, at Steak & Whisky, in Hermosa Beach, California, Scott Young, the restaurant’s director of operations, aims to make the wine list accessible. The steak-focused eatery opened in February. “We don’t need to make it more snobby by making things less accessible,” he says. A dozen each of red and white wines are poured by the glass, as are 10 sparkling selections. Using Coravin—a device that extracts wine from the bottle without uncorking it—allows the by-the-glass list to expand. “It allows us to go outside the box with pouring,” he says, and it is particularly useful with pricey wines like Amarone from Italy.
Varietals are described in tasting notes on the menu, and Young encourages diners to explore the list by comparing varietals, such as a Scarpetta Barbera from Piedmont, Italy, to a Famiglia Bianchi Malbec from Mendoza, Argentina.
The addition of a nine-seat bar has also helped coax many wine-by-the-glass sales. And under Young’s tutelage, bartenders are trained to ask, “What do you feel like tonight?” to launch a conversation designed to satisfy the customer’s palate, maybe following up with questions like “Do you like plums or cherries?” Small pours are available on request, too.
Charles Redmond,the maitre’ d and a Level II Certified Sommelier at Orchids at Palm Court, in downtown Cincinnati, also likes to court customers through glasses of wine. The nightly tasting menu—where each of five, seven, or 10 courses is paired with a 2-ounce glass of wine—is a huge draw. The tasting menu also boosts wine sales on return visits, after customers have had an opportunity to home in on a few selections they like. Additionally, the restaurant compiles notes for repeat customers regarding the wines they try, so the wine selections are not repeated on future visits. Because the tasting menu is redesigned weekly, there is a big focus on innovation—and this includes the wine choices.
Building the tasting menu is Redmond’s pride and joy. “Each wine is selected to highlight or complement certain things [in the food],” Redmond says. Recently he paired 2013 Raymond Vineyards Reserve Chardonnay (Napa Valley, California) with lemon-marinated halibut with branade, yuzu shallots, sea beans, and popped corn purée. “The new oak really highlights that popcorn purée and breaks the sweetness of the fish, which is really lovely,” he says.
Redmond views the tasting menus as a way to demonstrate his knowledge of wine. Recently he matched difficult-to-pair artichokes with 2011 Assyrtiko from Domaine Sigalas Santorini in Greece. “It’s nice to dispel some of the myths that people have about wine. I’ll pick wines that are off the beaten path and really unfamiliar to most people,” he says. When built into a prix fixe menu, customers more easily step outside of their comfort zones, as opposed to picking a familiar wine from a wine list.
This rang especially true with a recent menu when Redmond paired a 2-ounce pour of the 2013 Dr. Loosen Blue Slate Kabinett Riesling (from Germany) with a course featuring veal sweetbreads with celery salad, soy-braised shiitake mushrooms, and smoked paprika vinaigrette. “The Riesling is really screaming in high acidity, but the sweetness tones down the spiciness of the smoked paprika,” Redmond explains. “The weight of the wine pairs beautifully with the texture of the sweetbreads.”