The glass ceiling of by-the-glass pricing

I had a great conversation today with a successful restaurant owner who has never priced a wine above $10 a glass, but was considering such a “…bold move! But do you think my customers will flee??”

His verbal handwringing was obvious.

Here’s a short list of what justifies a higher price for a glass of wine:

  • Good to great stemware. This is the easiest thing to recover the cost of, and if you happen to have foot traffic (and thus eye traffic) in front of your joint you HAVE TO UPGRADE to good stemware. In another city two weeks ago I stopped at three wine bars only because walking by I saw great stemware being used; it was an immediate neon sign for WE TAKE WINE SERIOUSLY. There is no longer any excuse for cheap, thick, stupid looking stemware.
  • Lower the cost while upping the quality of the wine … which, yes, means you don’t recover the cost of the bottle on the first pour. Use a simple litmus test. Does it make you say ‘WOW!’ and dive in for a second sip? There you go. This isn’t rocket science. Think of it more like pizza science. And a slice of pizza doesn’t pay for the pie, does it???
  • A good server. And by this I don’t mean a Charlie Trotter primped and primed professional. I mean a server that can look me in the eye and tell me four words to describe any by the glass wine … that’s all it takes.
  • A fantastic vibe. Take a hard look at what your restaurant looks like to the new patron walking in. Is there groovy music? Good surroundings? Be honest with yourself … there are PLENTY of restaurants I don’t like to hang out in, and it has everything to do with things that can be changed: music, seat comfort, sightlines, a TV on (or off?) at the bar, good servers, some bar appetizers at a good price. Give me a good seat, a plate of well prepared tapas, and some cool tunes and I’ll be happy to pay $13 for a glass of Petite Sirah.
  • A focus on a particular region, style, country, or category of wine. If you specialize in Italian wines, Rhone wines, or Australian wines you’ll get far more curious customers than just saying ‘We serve wine.’ One of the latest (and most successful and ‘sustainable’ – pardon the pun) concepts is only serving ‘green’ wine. Check out this wine bar – one of my favorites in San Francisco. Narrowing your focus and finding your specialty makes ‘price ceilings’ irrelevant.
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