Story by Merrill Shindler
The headline leaped off the page, a real eye-catcher in Nation’s Restaurant News. It read: “Surging Wine-by-the-Glass Sales Help Boost Dinnerhouses Profits.” Good news, great news—but not fresh news: The date on the story was January 7th, 1985. Three years later, on June 6th, 1988, the drumbeat continued with another banner headline, this one reading: “Wine by the Glass Is ‘Best’ Selling Tool.” It began with a quote from Kevin Zraly, who at the time was wine director of the ill-fated Windows on the World, stating that, “Selling wine by the glass is one of the best ways to bring money into your restaurant.” A line later, Alex Sebastian, owner of Wooden Angel in Beaver, Pennsylvania added that, “We are selling more wine by the glass than by the bottle.”
Three decades later, that comment is repeated by wine directors and sommeliers from coast to coast—sales of wine by the glass are on a roller-coaster ride that never seems to peak. The reasons range from the sense of value (or perceived value as some argue) offered by wine by the glass—to the simple pleasure of being able to order one wine before a meal, one wine with the appetizer, and one wine with the main course—for less than the cost of a full bottle. Value may or may not be there, but the fun of being able to leap from a Sauvignon Blanc to a Viognier to a Pinot Noir is undeniable. Wine by the glass, it would seem, is a win-win for everyone involved.
Everyone, that is, except for a number of curmudgeonly wine writers, who consider wine by the glass to be a personal affront. I asked food and wine writer—erudite, witty Alan Richman—where he liked to go for wine by the glass. And his e-mail cut right to the chase: “You asked just the wrong guy. I hate wines by the glass. To me, they’re a source of unearned and unrealistic profits. But I do happen to know that people are ordering more of them, feeling it’s more economical than a bottle.”
Richman isn’t alone in that opinion. Lettie Teague, wine columnist for the Wall Street Journal, once wrote a column headlined: “Glass Warfare” over the subhead, “In the mood to be overcharged and underwhelmed? Here’s a tip: Order wine by the glass…” Her point was not just a legitimate concern over the price points, but also over the manner in which the open bottles were stored. Which can be true—at many a restaurant, bottles just sit open behind the bar, waiting for someone to request a glass. But, needless to say, for many, technology has caught up with wine by the glass with bottles preserved with nitrogen, with argon—for all I know, there are restaurants using kryptonite, in the hope that Superman never wanders in for a glass of Merlot.
Interestingly, one of the hottest trends of the moment isn’t just wine by the glass, it’s wine by the half glass. That’s how the wines are served at the ultra-trendy West Hollywood bistro called Tesse, which offers a list of some 150 bottles, half red and half white/rose/Champagne, and about half of those offered by the half glass. And why?
According to the restaurant: “At Tesse, we’ve chosen to pour our wines by the half-glass. We’ve done this for a few reasons, most notably in order to enable you to try a multitude of varietals, and adventure your way through the list. We suggest ordering three to four wines to start your experience, and we will bring them to you in well-ordered succession. If you prefer a traditional pour, just let us know and we’ll be happy to oblige. Santé!”
The result, to consider just the whites, are wines by the glass that include a fine Albariño from Granbazan, Etiqueta Ambar in Rías Baixas, Spain, for $9 for three ounces. (Considering that a bottle holds 25.4 ounces, and the full bottle is $63, this is actually a bargain!) There’s a Chardonnay blend called Tertre Blanc from Château du Tertre in Arsac for $14 ($98 a bottle), along with a Chardonnay from Jean-Marc Brocard in Chablis for $8 ($56 a bottle).
The whites ramble on through two more Chardonnays by the glass, a Chenin Blanc, a Garganega (a great chance to taste a lesser known grape from Italy for $9), a Grenache Blanca Riesling, two Sauvignon Blancs, and a Viognier. Three of the eight roses are by the glass, four of the 16 “Bubblies.” Which is impressive. But it doesn’t compare with a wine-by-the-glass policy instituted some years ago by the fabled Meadowood Resort in the heart of the Napa Valley. (A policy that’s since been discontinued, though it’s still thought of with fond nostalgia.)
The resort decided that any wine—any wine at all—from its encyclopedic 125-page (125 pages!) wine list could be sampled by the glass for one quarter the price of the bottle. Which means that, based on the current list, a glass of the 1997 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, priced at $10,500 for the bottle, could be sampled for $2625. Which had those of us who can only dream of such things, trying to figure out how much that came down to per drop. This is not a wine you want to spill on your shirt. That would be a very expensive cleaning bill.
And a world away from the Copa de Vino line of wines by the glass, with the wines sold in pre-sealed glasses, several varietals, running $3 or $4 per glass. In the case of Copa de Vino, no one cries over spilt wine—you just grab another glass, and carry on.