Francis Schott of Stage Left in New Brunswick, NJ, on the return of Champagne and top-shelf spirits - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Francis Schott of Stage Left in New Brunswick, NJ, on the return of Champagne and top-shelf spirits

What’s the biggest change you’ve noted in recent months?
Champagne has come roaring back. It was like a dirty word for eighteen months. There was a serious decline in luxury goods—something that was maybe not as much about the money as it was about not being in the spirit of things. I mean, it feels funny, maybe, to order a bottle of Champagne when your friend has been laid off. But now, tasting menus, Champagne, luxury spirits: they’ve all come roaring back.

The category we’ve seen with the biggest comeback is spirits. We’ve been doing cocktails since 1993, when Dale Degroff came and did an event. But luxury straight spirits hadn’t really come back until recently. We launched an event—The Spirit Project at Casa Lombardi—featuring a single bottle of some friggin’ extraordinary spirit—something that would wholesale between $105 and $900 a bottle—and we open it up at 6:30 on a Thursday. We sell it in one-ounce portions until it’s gone. It’s usually gone within an hour and a half. I Tweet it and put it in our weekly email, and now we have a super-excited group that shows up every Thursday. It’s terrific, because then they stay, they have dinner, and it’s lifted luxury spirits and wines across the board.

Do you Tweet a lot?
Our weekly email has been our most effective marketing. In 2008, it was do-or-die time, so we did what we did but turned it up. But I did a hurricane Tweet back when we had that hurricane; all of our reservations had just disappeared, so I Tweeted some wine specials. And last year I did a few snow specials; it catches a few.

You do really well with Italian wines. What regions do you find people gravitating toward?
It used to be Tuscany, Piedmont, the Veneto; now people are open to Campania, Basilicata, Sicily. I credit it to the level of proficiency out there among wine servers, store clerks, everyone: There is more real wine knowledge out there than I’ve ever seen before. Customers aren’t just willing to trust; they are asking, “What’s next? What’s next?”

It looks like you do well with riesling, too.
It’s the most suggestible category. People don’t think about it but they are very open when you suggest a German or Austrian riesling. And the price-value relationship is amazing; you can get a ’94 Kabinett for under $50. And it’s nine percent alcohol, totally quaffable; you can be done with it by the time you’ve finished ordering and it doesn’t interfere with the rest of dinner. Some of these cabs…

What’s the story behind the Poppy Pinot Noir that did so well?
I have no idea. It’s delicious, and inexpensive, $15 a quartino. What can I say?

Do you sell a lot of wine by the quartino?
We do everything by the quartino. It solves all the problems. We used to sell by the glass. But then the bartender’s girlfriend comes in, she gets an extra large glass; someone else comes in, they get a smaller pour; it’s all mushy. We used to serve wine in these beautiful Schott Zwiesel glasses, and give a five-ounce pour, and people would say, “Hey, can I get a full glass of wine?” If I filled it to the rim, that’d be 21 ounces of wine! So I ended up getting two sets of glasses: one for bottle pours and one for glass pours. But then knowledgeable diners would say, “Hey, why do I get the kiddy glasses?” Going by the quartino, it’s simple: You get 250 milliliters of wine, one-third of a bottle for one-third of the bottle price.

It also got rid of price resistance. People would say, “$35 for a glass of wine—that’s ridiculous!” A segment of the population is offended by an expensive glass of wine. That disappeared with the quartino. It’s so easy to explain the pricing. And it gives my captains the ability to open any bottle they want, as long as they can sell the rest of it.

A Vintage Port leads your Port list.
People ask for the Port list, rather than a glass of Port. The Port drinker tends to want a Vintage. I like to push Tawny, but when people are used to the fruitier style, Tawny is something different. We sell a lot with our cheese course; we started our cheese course in 1994, after a visit to Chanterelle where Roger Dagorn served a cheese course like I’d never seen before. Now, if I sell you cheese and you don’t have any wine left in your glass, you’re going to have Port or Madeira. Blandy’s 15-Year Madeira and The Rare Wine Company’s New York Malmsey—I kill it.

is W&S’s editor at large and covers the wines of the Mediterranean and Central and Eastern Europe for the magazine.