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When to Pass on a Glass

June 7, 2009

You go to a restaurant.  Look at the menu.  Figure out what you want as an appetizer.  See what looks good as an entrée.  Then decide what you want to drink.  Likely you are there with at least one other person who is going through the very same process.

Unless you are like Dyson DeMara, but that’s a different story.

If you are with wine drinkers, now you are on the horns of a dilemma.  “Should we get a bottle, or order wine by the glass?”  There is something about getting a bottle of wine at a restaurant that is a bit more celebratory than wine by the glass.  Additionally, you have the option of choosing any bottle from the list – that falls within your budget of course.  And there may be some very interesting bottles on that list you would love to try.

But you would have to agree on one wine for everyone.  And generally, if you go the bottle route, someone is going to get the short straw and have a dicey pairing.

And wine by the glass offers such promise.  Everyone can choose the wine they prefer.  Plus you can have one type of wine for your appetizer, a second for your entrée, and possibly even a third with dessert if you plan on waddling home.  On top of it all, so many wonderful restaurants have developed interesting and thoughtful flights of wine by the glass to go with their multi-course tasting menus.

Wine by the glass couldn’t possibly be a bad thing.

And it’s not.  Really, it’s not.  But you need to be careful.  And make a few observations before deciding it’s okay to order wine by the glass.  Because there is one critical problem that you might face head on: the wine you are served may have been sitting around too long.

I am tempted to give a quick lesson about wine and air, but I’ll save that for another time.

Suffice it to say, wine has an arc.  You pour it straight from the bottle and it tastes one way.  You let it sit for an indeterminate amount of time (from three seconds to three hours or more depending on the wine) and it will usually taste better.  You let it sit for longer still and it will continue to change, but lose its vitality.

And all too often when you order wine by the glass the wine in your glass does not taste like the wine from a freshly opened bottle.

This happened to me recently, and it was very disappointing.  I composed my very own flight of Sauvignon Blancs.  Three wines.  Two were from New Zealand and the other was from California.  I really wanted to try the styles side-by-side.  I am very familiar with the Kim Crawford, which was one of my selections.  It smelled like the KCSB but it didn’t taste like much and was missing much of the wine’s zip.  The other wines were also limp.

I should have known better.

It is always a red flag when a restaurant has too many wines by the glass listed on their menu.  Yes, it may be a bummer if you go to a restaurant and there are only two or three wines by the glass to choose from.  But I’d rather have a limited selection of wines that were opened recently than a broader selection of wines that have been sitting too long.

Yes, there are ways for establishments to maintain a large selection of bottles for single glass offerings.  I believe the best to be the inert gas pump system.  It looks like a wine tap.  A gas that is heavier than air gets pumped into the bottle, keeping the wine safe from decay, and the pressure pushes out fresh wine.  But these are expensive and require periodic maintenance.

I was very encouraged to see a system like this at a local Albany restaurant.  But then I was just as disheartened to learn that they don’t use it anymore.  Apparently it’s just for decoration.  Although their list of wines by the glass does not seem to have diminished.

It is possible, given the economics of it, that a restaurant could toss a mostly full bottle if it has been open too long.  It would presumably be a restaurant that takes pride in its wine program, and that gives the wine a good sniff before sending it out to the customer.  If it is truly a fine restaurant, this is how the staff will behave.

The other big red flag is ordering wine by the glass in a restaurant that may not serve a lot of wine, period.  I was in a local Mediterranean restaurant with Mrs. Fussy and thought about having a glass of white wine.  I could actually see the glass refrigerator where the bottles were kept.  Looking around, there didn’t seem to be very many wine drinkers, and I never saw anyone go into the wine refrigerator to pour a glass from the already open bottle.  I demurred and ordered a beer.  It was a good call.

This was not the kind of place where I trusted that the server might actually smell the glass of wine just to check if it was acceptable to serve.

And that is probably the best guidance I can give.

That, and to consider ordering half bottles from the wine list in lieu of glasses if you encounter any red flags.  And feel free to berate them mercilessly if no half bottles are included on the list.  Bad bad wine director.  No Sauternes for you.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Spencer permalink
    June 7, 2009 12:32 pm

    Totally. Wally and I went to Paragon at the Claremont Hotel a few weeks back, a few days after I had tried like 50 Spanish wines at a tasting, and I ordered their Rioja by the glass to go with my burger. Tasted like it has been sitting next to a water-heater for a week.
    Sent it back for a beer.

    Also- Dashwood Sav Blanc from Marlborough, MZ – we had a bottle picked up at the Wine.com sale and it was excellent. Will try Kim Crawford.

    As for preserving open bottles, I cant afford an inert gas system, but I’ve been pouring the leftover wine almost immediately into an empty and clean used half-bottle and sticking it in the fridge. Seems to work for a day or two pretty well for most wines.

    Can I put another pitch in for halfwitwines.com? If you can get wine shipped to your state there is no reason you should not be buying from them. Huge selection of all half-bottles, good prices, free shipping if you spend over $65. I have no connection with them, I just love the service.

  2. June 7, 2009 9:24 pm

    As much as i love seeing a restaurant with a huge wine list with servings by the glass, you have it right on the mark, the majority of them do not take care of those wines. The hand pump units that supposedly remove the oxygen from the bottle do little to nothing to extend the life of a wine, especially a white after it has been opened. I am a huge fan of Sauvignon blanc myself, and within 30 minutes I think most of the New Zealand, south African and other Southern Equator New World wines lose their fruit and crispness.

    I’ve been the chef at a few restaurants where I took the wines at the end of the night from the bar that were opened that day and used them for different items in the kitchen. I think that is the best way to go unless they have one of the higher end by-the-glass systems.

  3. June 8, 2009 9:24 am

    Yay for not getting the glass of old wine!

    You should have a tasting with friends for wines to compare side-by-side. Then no waste! It’s one of those things I always think of doing, but ultimately never really settle up on.

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