To say that Bill Ahern has a passion for food and wine is putting it mildly. As co-chair of the International Wine and Food Society's Hong Kong branch, he has wined and dined at some of the world's best culinary hot spots. Although he says Hong Kong offers some of the best gastronomic experiences, what baffles him is the scarcity of wine bars with a decent list of wines by the glass.
'Hong Kong has fantastic wines,' Ahern says. 'We're spoilt for choice. You get South American, Kiwi, French, Australian, North American wines all on the same list - yet the number of wines offered by the glass is just pathetic.'
The city's wine culture has developed during the past decade, with a growing number of locals keen to refine their palettes and try new grapes. There are about 200 wine suppliers who can source wines from virtually any part of the world. But despite the burgeoning wine scene, bar and restaurant owners have done little to upgrade their offerings of wines by the glass.
'For some reason, the industry prefers not to sell wine that way,' Ahern says. 'But there should be no excuse for not doing it. It's no harder than anywhere else, and Europe's bars and restaurants are exploding with wines by the glass.'
Almost half the wines available at Enoteca, a bar in SoHo, can be bought by the glass. Managing director Kim Minards says the nature of the Hong Kong wine market makes it easier to offer a selection from around the world. 'In wine-producing countries, the price discrepancy between imported and local wines is huge,' he says. 'But in Hong Kong, everything is imported, so everyone is on a level playing field.'
Industry insiders say part of the reluctance to offer wine by the glass is the extra work required. 'Managing closed bottles is obviously easier than portioning out the wine,' says Richard Feldman, owner of the Annexx, which offers 24 wines by the glass. 'With an extensive wine-by-the-glass list, you need to do more research in selecting your wines, particularly because it gets updated seasonally.'
Minards, who owns Enoteca and Bacar with her husband, Robert Cooper, says that managing an extensive by-the-glass list is a full time job. 'The biggest challenges are to keep up with drinking trends, to keep the list interesting and to make sure staff are properly trained.'
A wide choice requires staff to be well versed in wine management, dating each bottle that's opened, tasting each wine every day to ensure quality, vacuuming the wine and being unforgiving about sending old bottles to the kitchen for use in cooking.
Minards and Cooper regularly send their staff to wine courses. DiVino wine bar staff attend tastings and talks about viticulture and vintages so they better understand what they're serving.
'We've trained our staff to know little details about wine that other waiting staff wouldn't normally know,' says Massimo Gavina, operations manager of DiVino and restaurant and bar Goccia. DiVino offers more than 50 wines by the glass, and Goccia has a large list of champagne and sparkling wines by the glass.
Another problem is that not all restaurateurs have the know-how to set up and manage a wide selection. 'You need to have confidence in yourself and be very knowledgeable about wines,' Gavina says.
Good wine bars let customers sample their wines, serve generous measures and, crucially, are affordable. Even though this squeezes margins, wine enthusiasts who have turned restaurateurs say it's worth it.
'We choose to take that hit because we want to offer the variety,' Minards says. 'It makes our list more interesting.'
Michele Senigaglia, corporate chef of DiVino and Goccia, says that the more expensive the beverage, the less margin they can make. 'There would be a bigger margin if we sold Coca-Cola, for example, but we're wine-lovers so we'd rather offer customers greater choice and make less,' he says.
Although concerns about costs, wastage and storage dissuade many restaurateurs from improving their meagre offerings, there are ways around these problems.
The Annexx, for example, pumps nitrogen into its bottles to extend the life of the wines. DiVino's temperature-controlled storage vault maintains about 1,000 bottles in perfect condition. If space is a problem, bar owners could follow Minards' lead by keeping a minimum stock and getting suppliers to replenish bottles daily. By using technology to keep a close eye on the sales of each wine, unpopular grapes and vintages can be detected quickly.
As the city's wine culture develops, there are signs of a change in attitude. 'It wasn't so long ago when people would just order white or red wine,' says Feldman. 'Restaurants and bars are now a lot more specific about the types of wine they're offering, and people are much more aware.'
Minards agrees that things are improving. 'People are thinking a lot more about grapes and variety and are offering more interesting wines.'