Las Vegas’ wine directors have surely gone off the rails. At Carnevino, Craftsteak and Le Cirque, fine and rare wines are showing up on the by-the-glass menus, offering a few precious ounces of Opus One, Insignia, Château Margaux and Sassacaia for not unreasonable prices. This alone isn’t entirely new; restaurants have happily poured rare and expensive wines by the glass in the past, and happily charged exorbitant prices to make it worth their while. And there’s no telling how long the bottle’s really been open. Ranging from $25 to $575—depending on the wine and number of ounces—these new pours, however, represent some actual value.
So, what has changed?
Answer: It’s the Coravin, a “wine access” device with a slim needle that allows somms to extract wine from a bottle directly through the foil capsule and cork. As the wine pours, inert argon gas is simultaneously injected, after which the cork, which has natural expanding capacity, reseals itself. Greg Lambrecht, a medical professional with a background in engineering and patenting medical devices, designed the Coravin. An avid wine aficionado, Lambrecht faced an interesting conundrum when his wife gave birth and stopped indulging: There had to be a way to get a glass or two of wine out of the bottle without his having to finish it. And indeed, 14 years and 23 prototypes later, thanks to him, there is.
But let’s back up and talk about the problem the Coravin ($300) so efficiently solves.
Diners are more educated about wine (and wine-and-food pairing) than ever before. So they might not like that powerhouse Napa cab with their delicate crab salad. Also, they’re curious and eager to try new things. Restaurants have responded, adding by-the glass programs in increasing numbers. But despite the immediate savings and perceived value, that’s where wine consumers feel the greatest pinch. In that one glass, you’re essentially covering the bottle cost for the restaurant, which is hedging in case they don’t sell the rest. “Within the first third, you should pay for the bottle; two thirds should be the profit,” says Kirk Peterson, a sommelier and beverage director for B&B Hospitality Group in Las Vegas. “If it doesn’t sell out quickly enough, we have to dump it down the drain.”
Commercial wine dispenser/preservation systems such as Cruvinet and Enomatic have made it possible to keep open bottles viable for weeks. Vacuum pumps and argon gas sprays can achieve similar results. But no matter what, in removing the cork, oxygen gets into the wine and starts the clock ticking for that bottle. The Coravin is the paradigm shifter.
Peterson demonstrated the device for me a week after he launched seven Coravin-accessed wines by the glass at Carnevino on November 15. He clamped the Coravin (it looks like a Rabbit wine opener, if you’ve ever seen one) around the top of a 1999 Fontodi Flaccianello ($235 by the bottle); the hollow needle hovered just off center, so that you can pierce a cork multiple times without hitting the same spot. I pushed down, effortlessly sending the needle through the foil and cork. As I released the argon into the bottle and inverted the bottle over my wine glass, about 3 ounces poured forth. No longer fearing loss, Peterson can offer three ounces for $28, six for $56, where before the Coravin, he might not have offered this wine by the glass at all.
So far, Craftsteak offers the largest Coravin wine list in town, with 14 reds and four whites. MGM Grand wine director and master sommelier Joe Phillips started small, offering Caymus Special Selection by the glass in November, “but it quickly expanded into a more comprehensive list,” he says. Prices range from $25 to $130 for 6 ounces, with 14 incredible selections for less than $75.
Similarly, Bellagio wine director and master sommelier Jason Smith started Le Cirque’s Coravin program December 10, offering 2- and 6-ounce pours of six wines previously available only by the bottle. Labels range from Château Gruaud Larose 2003 ($32 for 2 ounces, $90 for 6, $345 for the bottle) to Château Margaux 2003 ($200 for 2 ounces, $575 for 6, $2,180 for the bottle).
Observing the ease with which Peterson accessed the Fontodi again, we fantasized aloud about a future where the Coravin is the industry standard, allowing restaurateurs to keep prices in the realm of the possible. Peterson envisions library collections “vetted” by top professionals instead of your plunking down $1,500 in the hopes that the wine you select is to your liking.
Save the gambling for the casinos.