In many restaurants that have opened in Pittsburgh within the past six months, small plates cost between $9 and $20, a range that matches the price of wines by the glass. While this may not seem particularly shocking, in a quick check on Eater.com's top 38 restaurant lists, it's on par with wine prices in New York and San Francisco.
When dining spots hike prices for wines by the glass, it can stifle diners' enthusiasm to explore wines in restaurants, the easiest place to do so in Pennsylvania. Tastings in state-controlled wine and spirit stores are lean to nonexistent especially when it comes to the more compelling vintners.
Rather than dropping prices per glass and cutting into profits, restaurants are getting creative by changing from the standard five ounces per pour and adjusting prices accordingly. Discounted house wine has been creeping back on menus while after-work and late-night happy hours remain common. Some restaurants have increased focus in training staff to educate diners. But the biggest push is to offer incentives for customers to buy bottles.
"One of the problems is that restaurants don't buy at wholesale prices as other states do," said Dave DeSimone, co-owner of Bridge Ten Brasserie on the South Side. Mr. DeSimone has been a radio host for KQV (1410 AM) and a wine writer for more than 20 years.
In other markets, he explained, restaurants have wiggle room to mark up wine between two and four times the wholesale price.
In Pennsylvania, restaurants get 10 percent off the retail price per bottle, which keeps the restaurant markup to 2 to 21/2 times the restaurant's purchase price.
One rule applies, no matter where a drink is served: "If you gouge them, they're not going to come back," he said.
Mr. DeSimone used to offer wine flights but stopped a few months ago. Now, he serves house white (2010 Capucine Les Ollieux blanc) and red wine (2011 Capucine Les Ollieux rouge) for $7 a glass or $23 a pitcher. Prices fall to $5 a glass during daily happy hour from 5 to 7 p.m.
His French-focused list features glasses from $8 to $22 and bottles from $36 to $110, with a broad selection in the $40 range. They include a 2011 Famille Sparr Pinot Gris ($14 by the glass and $55 by the bottle) and a 2006 Domaine David Renaud Burgundy ($15 by the glass and $59 by the bottle). He maintains that the best value for an interesting wine is by the bottle.
Sarah Thomas, sommelier at Bar Marco in the Strip, concurs. She said she has more to offer among wines that are "completely unique" when customers order by the bottle. They include the 2005 Camille Cayran Les Salyens, a Sauvignon blanc and Bordeaux blend with a deep color that alludes to its richness.
She can fetch unusual bottles by buying from wine reps closer to Philadelphia who will ship to local stores, such as those who sell from the David Bowler wine portfolio, which isn't available in Pittsburgh.
Ms. Thomas steers the wine pairings in Bar Marco's new wine room, a reservations-only 10-seat hideaway that features a 10-course tasting menu. With occasional seatings since January, the room will officially open for weekend service in March. The wine room is where she pours the most diverse and interesting wines she can find.
In the restaurant Ms. Thomas has recently transitioned from a short list of wines by the glass priced between $12 to $15 to four wines by the glass, each for $11. They're less expensive wines than those she had been pouring over the summer. Regardless of what she is serving, she emphasizes wine education, training servers regarding varietals, wine regions and background on vintners.
Holly Scott moved from Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar in Oakland three months ago to become the wine director at Casbah in Shadyside, where she offers old and new world wines ranging between $9 and $17 a glass.
Ms. Scott says a "big, buttery" Chardonnay Pinot Noir blend from South Africa is among the most unusual selections ($15). Her favorite red is the La Quercia Montepulciano, which she loves because it's funky. "The dirtier the better," she said.
Flights are also available -- three wines within sparkling, white and red wines categories from $11 to $12. The restaurant also holds weekday happy hours between 5 and 7 p.m. when select wines are $6 by the glass.
Ms. Scott's bottle list ranges from $38 to more than $500, listing familiar to valuable bottles of sparkling, rose, whites and red wines.
Other restaurants offer wine menus to draw diners seeking value, such as Union Grill in Oakland. Provided diners order $10 or more from the food menu, wines by the bottle are $10. Customers who stick to drinks pay $17.50 for bottles such as Chateau Bonnet Bordeaux blend that costs about $13 per bottle in the state store.
Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar emphasizes pour sizes -- a two-ounce taster, a four-ounce half glass, an eight-ounce glass and a bottle. These ranges allow diners to explore selections.
Bar manager Jonathan MacDonald, formerly at Butterjoint in Oakland, said that these days, he likes the challenge of selling white wines in winter. He cited the Marcel Giraudon Aligote among white wines he especially likes, a grape from the same region as chardonnay that translates to a high-acid, food-friendly wine.
Toast offers an all-day Monday happy hour and a Friday night happy hour from 9 to 11 p.m., during which select 8-ounce pours are $5.
"Pricing here is hard because we're all buying from the same purveyors and the selection is limited," he said. "But the question is a good one. When did it become normal here to charge $15 for a glass of wine?"