Why have wine pairings become popular additions to restaurant menus?

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wine glasses for tasting menu

Have you noticed? Increasingly, Bay Area a la carte restaurants (restaurants that allow ordering one dish at a time) are offering wine pairings on menus. Whether it’s to attract diners or industry attention, or help provide a cushion to the bottom line, wine pairings are a thing, and progressively so outside of fine-dining establishments, where one would customarily expect to see them.

Poring over the subject, I interviewed Lauren Feldman, wine director for CALA, in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. “Wine pairings offer a way for a restaurant to offer more interesting bottles that otherwise might be out of reach of a by-the-glass placement”—too expensive for the typical by-the-glass (BTG) list. Restaurants are able to pull from their more extensive wine list without worrying about selling the entire bottle in a single night. “If you only pour one glass from a nicer or more unique bottle, you’d have to dump out the rest [of the bottle] if the wine doesn’t taste good the next morning.”

“At a more affordable price point, the benefit for the customer is that they’re able to try more interesting wines and have it be more of an experience that is customized with what they’re eating,” says Feldman. For the restaurant, it’s attractive because it provides an additional reason to message or market to its patrons, especially in the case of a special wine dinner, and allows for the venue to “be able to open and make a profit off of more obscure bottles that it may otherwise have trouble moving.”

“[At] CALA, we do Winemaker Takeovers, where one or two winemakers will essentially take over the role of floor sommelier for a night. We redo the list so that only (or at least mostly) those winemakers’ wines are showcased and the winemakers help guests decide what to drink,” Feldman continues. This allows winemakers to not only highlight their own wines already listed on the wine list, but also to introduce patrons to an extension of their portfolio, or more limited-release wines that they don’t typically offer to the public. “The pairings offered that evening allow guests to taste through the best of what’s on offer with explanations of each wine coming from the person who made it. It’s a fun way to connect with the product and ensure that you’re going to have a genuinely unique experience. There is still the possibility to just order wine by the glass, but we use the pairings to encourage maximum engagement,” says Feldman.

“A lot of this goes along with the experience-philic generation that we are a part of. Customers want to be taken on more of a journey than ever before. And they trust the experts and want to learn about what’s new—this is quite different from my parents’ generation who considered themselves the experts and just wanted to drink what they want to drink. People are more experimental with their dining now, and restaurants want to keep pace.”

Curious to hear another perspective, I caught up with Austin Ferrari of Hillside Supper Club in Bernal Heights. “I believe wine pairings have become more popular because the customer or guest always wants the opportunity to taste more wine, and having a wine pairing to go with whatever food they may be eating allows them to explore the world of wine and not be restrained to just one thing [glass or style].” For Ferrari, it’s an exciting time for guests to venture further afield in their dining (or drinking) experience. He believes diners may get more value by tasting multiple wines versus one glass or bottle.

“From the restaurant’s point of view, it could be a great way to make more profit in the beverage program if the margins are well-managed. Plus, depending on the type of restaurant, it allows the guest to see why wine is so important with the food we eat and how it can inspire what they decide to drink the next time they’re cooking at home.”

A little closer to home in Noe Valley, I spoke with Michael Molesky, my fellow proprietor of Douglas, a café and corner market that offers wines at retail and by the glass.

“I’m always excited to learn about wines as part of a greater plot line; pairings are a beautiful way to build on the flavor arc of a whole meal,” says Molesky. “I might otherwise miss some of the inherent brightness of one course, or the earthiness of another, and I’m more willing to suspend my regular wine preferences than if I were ordering a single glass. Selfishly, as a wine buyer I get to enjoy this regularly through industry tastings, where you start to viscerally understand the story of a region, a winemaker, or even an importer’s palate, by enjoying a broader selection side by side.” 

Mid-tier restaurants are onto something. As diners become more savvy about the food they’re consuming, naturally they’re inclined to expand that curiosity into wine. As Molesky says, “[Wine] pairings are that much faster of a way to learn which wines resonate with you personally, and the more approachable we can make the experience of tasting, all the better for every one of us, as diners and cooks.”