In a setting often dominated by cocktails and spirits, the bar has traditionally not been a standout venue for wine. Instead, wine sales are usually stronger at dining tables, where wine can enhance a meal. But some bars do see steady interest in wine—largely by the glass—as consumers embrace exploration in their drinking choices. Wines from California, specifically, are making a push in their home state and further afield, as bar guests look for new flavors and varietals from a familiar locale.
“We’ve noticed guests are more interested in the variety of wines offered, specifically by the glass,” says Faith Norris, the general manager of the Emeryville, California Trader Vic’s restaurant location. “We have more guests asking about our house wines, and what the varietal is, and where it comes from, before choosing what to order.”
Of course, California wines are strong at Trader Vic’s bars because the concept has always been committed to wines from its home state, as it was among the first in the country to have an all California wine list years ago. Today, the company has diversified its offerings, but still maintains a solid California-centric wine list. Norris estimates that at her restaurant, roughly 80% of the bottled wines offered hail from California, and 12 of the 18 glass pours are from the Golden State. Still, cocktails and spirits maintain a much larger share of beverage sales.
“More frequently, guests are looking for wines by the glass that are less common,” Norris explains. She points to glass serves of Chenin Blanc, Riesling, and Syrah trending up as people expand their palates beyond Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, though she notes that California Cabs have a longstanding history at Trader Vic’s.
That sense of exploration is also true at Melanie Wine Bar in Los Angeles, where consumers are moving beyond wines from Napa and Sonoma in favor of labels from Paso Robles and the Central Coast. Melanie beverage director Stephen Sherry says guests at his wine bar are seeking out Rhône varietals and Central Coast Pinot Noirs, adding that Melanie lists ten California labels among its 50 total wine offerings, and glass pours generally do better than sales by the bottle.
“Although our list is Old World dominant, California wines do well here,” Sherry says. “We carry more California wine than ever now.” He adds that it’s younger consumers who often gravitate toward California labels at Melanie Wine Bar, because they’re seeking out flavors that are more approachable and fruit-forward. Going forward, he says California winemakers should focus more on complexity and less on new oak and fruit bombs. “Consumers appreciate wines that make their heads turn, and wines they have to think about,” Sherry says.
Approachability is key for attracting new drinkers to wine. Ty Raju, the co-owner and wine director of Bene Hospitality, which operates two restaurants in South Carolina with a third on the way, believes Napa and Sonoma could both do a better job of having fun with their wine marketing. He notes that producers from both regions should work to reverse the current optics of their wines seeming “stuffy” and expensive.
Bene Hospitality operates the fine dining Italian eatery Savi Cucina + Wine Bar and the Spanish gastropub Sommba Cocina. Raju says cult California labels have a place at Savi, but adds that many guests are looking to other California regions for their perceived value. Meanwhile at Sommba, Cabernet Sauvignon is popular, as are blends that incorporate the varietal. Company-wide, Bene Hospitality lists upwards of 50 California labels, and Raju says those wines make up about 75% of the venues’ domestic wine sales.
“Consumers are starting to explore areas like Paso Robles, where they can get more bang for their buck versus Napa,” Raju says. “We’re seeing movement toward Zinfandel because people want that big, bold California flavor, but at a less expensive price point. And blends are also on-trend, to get the price down. The younger demographic here seems to think Napa wines are too expensive, and they’re looking for something more approachable, inviting, and fun.”