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R&IEditorial Archives2004 — November 15 — Food

Rising Activity
Operators promote sparkling wine by highlighting its value and affinity with casual food.

Blueberry-infused vodka and sparkling wine highlight the Blue Ferrari at Paragon Restaurant & Bar.

Pop a cork and the fun begins. For operators, the affordability of sparkling wine and the level of quality and variety available provide opportunities to market a daily party. “There’s something in a glass of bubbles that turns the ordinary into something special,’’ says Brian Duncan, wine director-partner of Bin 36 restaurants in Chicago. To prove his point, he often pairs simple items, such as the egg-salad sandwich on the lunch menu, with an American sparkler.

Paragon Restaurant & Bar in San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., showcases domestic sparkling wines. Three selections are rotated, with affordable prices ($7.50 and up) complementing the casual restaurant concept. “We’re an American brasserie, not French. Champagne is associated with special-occasion or high-end operations,’’ says Tim Harmon, CEO of Mill Valley, Calif.-based Paragon Restaurant Group.

Selections from California, New Mexico and Washington State take the mystique out of sparkling wine while bartenders use a splash in Paragon’s most popular cocktail, the Blue Ferrari. The crisp edge of sparkling wine is ideal to cut the richness of the liqueur-based cocktail. Served in a martini glass, the Blue Ferrari sells for $7.25 with a 20% cost.

By Popular Demand
The terms and categories of sparkling wines can be confusing. Just because wine has bubbles doesn’t mean it’s Champagne from France, says Kevin Zraly, wine authority and vice president of New York City-based Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group. Techni-cally, the term Champagne refers to wines made within the borders of the Champagne region in France. The term “sparkling wine” refers to those that contain pressure, either through natural fermentation or added carbon dioxide. Sparkling wines are made in many parts of the world, and grape type and production method are not mandated.

49 million
Number of bubbles per bottle of sparkling wine, according to Kevin Zraly’s “Windows on the World Complete Wine Course: 2004 Edition.’’
(Sterling Publishing Co., 2004)

Zraly and Duncan agree that well-trained servers know the differences between varieties and are prepared to explain them. However, not every customer cares, says Duncan. “People often come for fun, not classroom learning,” he explains. He educates through tastings, classes and information on menus.

Flights are mainstays of his wine program. The sparkler flight includes four 21/2-ounce portions for $15.95. They’re an easy sell because they pair well with foods, even red meat, lamb, ham and sushi. Sales of sparkling wines are up 20% since Bin 36 opened five years ago.

Every December, Duncan jumpstarts the holiday season with an evening devoted to sparklers. “It’s when we offer popcorn sprayed with truffle oil.’’

Temper the Pitch
The rules that apply to serving, storing and pouring Champagne apply to all sparklers, says Zraly. Keep explanations simple. “In restaurants with wine stewards, the customer usually knows a bit about wine. In other operations, using words such as cava (Spanish sparkling wine) or sekt (German) can confuse people. Just explain ‘a sparkling wine from Spain similar to Champagne.’”

Growing popularity of sparkling wines combined with an increase in domestic production and imports fuels awareness. As a result, more varieties are available, with total shipments of sparkling wine to the U.S. market growing 5% to 28 million gallons between 2002 and 2003, according to the Wine Institute in San Francisco. Total production of domestic sparkling wine rose 2.6% between 2002 and 2003, accounting for 18 million gallons. “Quality and variety give operators a lot to discover and market,’’ adds Duncan.

The elongated shape and narrow opening of specialty glassware preserves bubbles in sparkling wines.

Red Bubbles
When Jon Bonnell discovered “red champagne” from Australia, the chef-owner of Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine in Fort Worth, Texas, knew he had found the right wine for the restaurant’s third anniversary. The cabernet blend is “as dark as cabernet but with bubbles,” he says. Served chilled, it catches guests by surprise. “It’s for that customer who says, ‘Give me something different’ or ‘Surprise me.’” Bonnell sells bottles for $60, with a $25 cost.

The sparkling category intrigues him with its variety of tastes and styles, from bold to delicate. The restaurant’s list of 220 bottles includes four sparklers, and 16 wines by the glass include one sparkling variety from Spain. Waiters describe it as a sparkling wine from Spain similar to Champagne. “We’re committed to educating guests,” Bonnell says. Splits sell for $6, with cost of $2.50. “For guests unfamiliar with sparkling wines, splits are not intimidating.”

Though Smith & Wollensky is a destination for lovers of American wines, it also offers a short international list. “When people request a specific house or brand, cost is not a factor. Two out of 10 know exactly what French Champagne they want,’’ says Matthew Moore, wine director at the steakhouse chain’s Chicago location. While French sparklers usually are a third more expensive than domestics, he sees the gap between imported and domestic is narrowing. “American producers are aiming to create a French-style taste.’’

  • Blue Ferrari

Food Fit

Sparklers have an affinity for food. “They’re great with fried items such as french fries, even popcorn,’’ says Brian Duncan, of Bin 36, Chicago. At the restaurant’s cheese bar, he pairs bubbly with triple-cream cheeses from France and Italy and goat cheese. It also matches well with sushi, lamb, seafood and cured meats, including ham.

Chef Jon Bonnell uses the crisp edge of sparklers with rich demi-glace-based sauces and wild game. One American sparkler with a taste similar to tart green apples complements most vinaigrettes, says Bonnell, chef-owner of Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, Fort Worth, Texas.

Sterling Service

When serving sparkling wines, present the cork and pour a taste for approval, says Andrea Immer, master sommelier, author and consultant. Other suggestions:

  • Stemware: There’s a reason why flutes or tulip-shaped glasses are used. The elongated shape and narrow opening are designed to prolong the release of carbon-dioxide bubbles. The small capacity also minimizes the warming of the contents. Remember those flat, wide glasses called coupes? They expose too much wine to air, hastening bubbles escape.
  • Opening: Be sure wine is chilled, which helps contain pressure. Hold bottle with both hands and away from people. Place thumb or palm over the cork and loosen wire cage. Keep pressure on the cork and turn bottle in one direction. The pressure inside will push the cork out. Resist popping it, which results in the loss of carbon dioxide.


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