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Wine & Spirits

Sound of bubbly? Ka-ching!

October 04, 2006|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

THE sommelier glides up to the table just as you sit down: a glass of Champagne to start?

If you find a Champagne aperitif irresistible -- and who doesn't? -- brace yourself. Champagne-by-the-glass prices are soaring, as restaurants pour an expanding array of luxury Champagnes. A $20 price tag for a glass of Champagne is standard these days; $40 and beyond is becoming common. At the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a 6-ounce flute of 1999 Louis Roederer Brut Cristal will set you back $123.75. Yes, for one glass.

Yet even at these steep prices, Angelenos can't get enough Champagne by the glass. It's a hot seller at the Polo Lounge, says Micah Paloff, beverage manager for the restaurant; Champagne accounts for one-third of all wines sold by the glass there.

Nationally, Champagne sales are soaring. In 2004, the U.S. imported 2.2 million cases from France, up 10% from the record-breaking 2 million cases sold during the millennium year of 1999. According to Jeff Nelson, regional manager in Southern California for Laurent-Perrier, the pace hasn't let up.

Though it may seem outrageous to pay more than $100 for a glass of anything, these new higher prices are in line with wine-by-the-glass pricing that has long been at play in restaurants. With both sparkling and still wines, restaurateurs generally attempt to recoup the cost of each bottle with the first glass they pour. In other words, if they pay $20 for a bottle of Veuve Clicquot yellow label, they'll charge $20 for a glass. They expect to pour four 6-ounce servings or five 5-ounce servings per bottle.

At most of the 80 Los Angeles area restaurants surveyed for this article, these standard 5- or 6-ounce pours are offered for prices that work out to approximately half the retail price of the bottle. A handful of restaurants, including Spago, price their glasses of Champagne at roughly one-third the retail price of the bottle. Sommeliers are quick to point out that spoilage -- leftover wine in a bottle that cannot be resold -- is significant.

Wholesale prices for wine generally represent a discount of 25%, which means restaurants need deep discounts to get their prices in line with the "first glass" formula. And they usually get them. It's smart marketing for the winery or Champagne house. More people taste these wines, creating a greater opportunity for future sales.

Most of the pricier by-the-glass offerings around L.A. are well-known non-vintage Champagnes such as Krug, Perrier-Jouet, Moet & Chandon, Taittinger, Laurent-Perrier and Veuve Clicquot that retail for $30 to $50.

For the Cristal, a vintage tete de cuvee (a Champagne house's most prestigious bottling), the retail price is closer to $230. Paying $123 for a glass of that at the Polo Lounge may sound exorbitant, but it's actually a better deal than many inexpensive still wines by the glass.

For instance, at Morton's, a West Hollywood restaurant, as well as at the Lodge steakhouse in Beverly Hills, a glass of Poppy Pinot Noir is $10. Poppy is widely available for $10 a bottle.

Still, with expensive Champagnes, restaurants make a tidy profit if they sell more than two glasses per bottle. If the Polo Lounge sells four 6-ounce glasses of Cristal, it charges $495. That means even if it paid just 25% below retail (without the benefit of a deal with Roederer), the profit would be $322.50 -- just for opening a bottle of Champagne and pouring four glasses. Any restaurant kitchen would have to do some pretty fancy, labor-intensive cooking to make that kind of profit.

Once upon a time, a glass of Champagne was a glass of Champagne. Now it can mean just about anything. At Sona in West Hollywood, sommelier Mark Mendoza pours 3-ounce tasting portions as well as 6-ounce glasses of Champagne. At ll Moro in West L.A., Valentino in Santa Monica and Ford's Filling Station in Culver City, a glass means 4 ounces.

Big is beautiful at the Lodge, Capo in Santa Monica and Mastro's, where 7 ounces is a glass. La Terza in West Hollywood, meanwhile, supersizes Champagne -- there they pour an ultra-generous 8 ounces of non-vintage Billecart-Salmon brut reserve into a fatter-than-normal flute. The restaurant charges $14, while a bottle retails for about $41, making it among the best Champagne by-the-glass values we found in town.

The wide variation can create confusion. Recently at the Lodge, a bartender poured a 4.5-ounce serving of non-vintage Krug Grande Cuvee, insisting it was the restaurant's largest by-the-glass pour available, listed on the wine list at $42. Sommelier Caitlin Stansbury later apologized, saying the bartender used the wrong glass. (For this article, we relied primarily on statements from sommeliers and wine directors regarding the volume, in ounces, of their Champagne servings.)

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Priced to impress

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