The "graze craze," which began with sampling such nibble-size foods as sushi and spread to the sale of fine wines by the glass, is beginning to uncork sales of better sparkling wines.
"It ties in with this phenomenon of grazing we've been seeing," said John Fredrikson, president of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a wine consulting firm in San Francisco. "You can graze on food, and now you can graze on wines."
Grazing offers champagne makers a way to reach a new market, said Michaela K. Rodeno, marketing vice president for the French-owned Domaine Chandon vineyard in the Napa Valley town of Yountville. "You have very little to lose when you sample a glass rather than a bottle."
Domaine Chandon pioneered the sale of its two French-style sparklers by the glass eight years ago at a few bars and restaurants in San Francisco, Rodeno said. The winery's thrust now is national.
The winery's promotional efforts coincide with development of champagne bars over the last few years, ranging from Nipper's in Beverly Hills to Pops for Champagne in Chicago, Sweeney's in St. Paul, Minn., and Jacqueline's and Petrossian in New York. "The red wine market is flat, white wine is about the same, but the champagne market is just through the roof," said Horatio Lonsdale-Hands, co-owner (with Arthur von Wisenberger) of 4-year-old Nipper's. "Business is really good." Nipper's pours five of its 75 exclusively French offerings by the glass--about half of all the champagne it sells--at prices ranging from $6 to $12.50, Lonsdale-Hands said. The Beverly Hills outlet has just doubled its space, and, within the next year, Nipper's branches will open in Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Aspen, Colo.
On Chicago's North Shore, Tom and Linda Verhey operate 4-year-old Pops for Champagne, which also is expanding. Pops stocks 70 different sparklers--including Domaine Chandon from California--and pours at least 16, and sometimes as many as 32, of them by the glass, Tom Verhey said. The bar sells up to 100 glasses of wine on a weekend night at prices ranging from $6 to $15 for a 5-ounce serving, he said.
Both Nipper's and Pops offer light foods for grazing--including caviar, cheese, pate and desserts.
Aside from these specialty retailers, sparkling wine is being sold by the glass in more than 1,000 bars, hotels and restaurants, Domaine Chandon's Rodeno said.
The winery itself is in the second year of a three-year promotional contract with Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels, for which Chandon bottled a special Hyatt cuvee, or blend, as the 80-unit chain's "signature" champagne.
A major obstacle to persuading non-specialty outlets to begin offering sparkling wine is ignorance of how to proceed and fear of losing money on wines that go flat once the bottle has been opened, she said. Chandon, which is owned by the French champagne maker Moet et Chandon, countered by offering training and resealers to keep the bubbles tucked cozily into uncorked bottles overnight.
At its training sessions, servers learn how the traditional methode champenoise distinguishes French champagnes and premium sparklers made in California, New York, Spain, Italy and Germany, among other countries, from the "transfer" and "bulk" methods characteristic of less expensive bottles, and how the quality of the grapes accounts for much of the higher prices charged for the better methode champenoise sparklers.
They also are taught such oddities of champagne tradition as extra dry , meaning sweetish, and demi-sec , meaning even sweeter (with brut and nature at the bone-dry end of the scale).
The servers are taught, too, how to open the wired-cork closures safely and in such a way as to present the wines at their sparkling best--letting the pressure of the bubbles ease the cork out with a sigh rather than a nerve-rattling pop!.
The sessions also demonstrate the "Chandon pour"--a one-handed serve with the thumb thrust into the hollow punt at the bottom of the bottle.
"There's no question that you make money selling champagne by the glass," Chandon's Rhonda Savitz recently advised servers attending a training session at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Los Angeles. "If you sell 10 glasses a shift, you will make $1,500 in a year," she estimated.
Sparkling Wine Sales Up
"Everyone wants to drink champagne," she said. "They just don't know it."
Sparkling wine sales have increased from next to nothing 10 years ago to 20 million cases last year, or 7% of total U.S. wine sales, consultant John Fredrikson said.
"Chandon has done incredibly well" in its 13 years of existence, he said. "In the '70s, everyone laughed at their announced goal of hitting 100,000 cases within 10 years. Now they're over 300,000."
That puts Domaine Chandon second in sales among premium sparklers behind century-old Korbel with sales of more than 1 million cases.
By far the largest domestic seller is the bargain-basement, bulk-process Andre, produced by Modesto-based Gallo, which sold 5.9 million cases of its bubbly wine last year, a 29% share of the market.
Future in Premium Wines
But the future growth lies with the premium, methode champenoise wines, Fredrikson predicted. French and Spanish champagne makers have staked out vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and San Luis Obispo counties, he noted.
"We expect this to be a very competitive environment," Fredrikson said. "There are going to be lots of players." Piper-Heindsieck's Piper Sonoma, already in the field with Chandon, will be joined this summer by another French offshoot, Domaine Mum.
Sales of California methode champenoise sparklers increased 13% last year, he noted. This upward trend only can be helped by rising French champagne prices--thanks to a poor harvest in Champagne, tighter inventories and a stronger franc relative to the dollar.
"We're a carbonated culture," Fredrikson said. "People are brought up on soft drinks and drink a lot of beer, so there is continued growth potential for all these beverages, and the whole moderation trend overlays this--drinking less, drinking lighter and drinking better."