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From a wine lover's standpoint, there's a lot to like about restaurants that offer wine by the glass.
This option lets you enjoy a small portion of wine with your meal when you're dining alone or with a non-drinking companion ... or makes it possible to sample a variety of wines with the meal: Maybe you'll have a white with the appetizer, then switch to a young and tannic red with your steak, and savor a glass of dessert wine to finish up.
But wine-by-the-glass service also raises issues that the skeptical wine lover needs to address.
First, there's the issue of cost. The significant markup that most restaurants assess on wine in bottles is usually even higher for wine by the glass. While markups vary widely from one locale to another, the widespread custom is to list wine in bottles at three times the wholesale price restaurateurs pay, which works out to roughly double the retail price at wine shops. If a bottle of Gallo of Sonoma Chardonnay sells wholesale at $6 or so, expect to see it in your wine shop for $10 and at your local eatery for $20 a bottle.
For wine by the glass, the usual rule in many places is simple: "Make your money back on the first glass sold." In other words, sell that Chardonnay for $6 a glass, covering the wholesale price of the bottle with the first customer. (A full bottle should serve four to six glasses - raking in $24 to $36 - depending on how generously the wine is poured. Which raises an interesting consumer strategy: Check the establishment's relative price of a glass and a bottle. If the glass is listed at more than about one-fourth of the bottle price, then you're paying a particularly high premium.)
But the other big issue about by-the-glass service may be even more significant. A recent E-mail question framed it well: "How long do restaurants, on average, keep an open bottle of wine they serve to the public before they discard it? How do I know they are not serving me a glass from a bottle opened up two weeks ago?"
This is a very good question ... unfortunately, there's no simple answer. The quality of wine-by-the-glass programs varies dramatically. Some establishments take great care not to serve wine that has oxidized or otherwise "turned" in an open bottle. But others, unfortunately, simply don't seem to care.
Some first-rate wine bars use commercial-grade Cruvinet-type systems that keep wine and dispense it under inert-gas pressure; and even then, they don't keep it too long. But many use less effective preservation systems or simply stick the cork back in the bottle and leave it on the bar. Many simply depend on quick turnover, which may actually be an effective alternative IF the bottle is emptied on the same night that it is opened.
What is a wine lover to do? First, if you are served a glass that's obviously around the bend - flat and dull or, at worst, oxidized to the point where it reeks of cheap Sherry - you have the right to insist on a replacement from a fresh bottle, and you should do so.
It is also entirely appropriate to ask before ordering how long the bottle has been open. A good server or bartender at a quality restaurant should give you an honest answer, or offer to open a fresh bottle.
If you suspect that the restaurant isn't overly careful about wine service, consider choosing from the less-expensive selections, which are more likely to turn over rapidly than pricey rarities. Bear in mind that whites are likely kept under refrigeration, while reds are not. Refrigerator temperatures retard oxidation in the open bottle, so you have a better chance of a white being in reasonably good shape for at least a couple of days.
If you would like to read (or contribute to) an interactive discussion on this topic in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group, you're most welcome to click
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All the wine-tasting reports posted here are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores and accept no samples, gifts or other gratuities from the wine industry.
Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.