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Better Wine by the Glass

December 20, 2009

It feels like forever ago, but it was only back in June when I first wrote about the problems of ordering wine by the glass.

Since then, I had a reasonably and unexpectedly positive experience with ordering a glass of wine at a family-style Italian restaurant in Albany. Actually it was my mother who ordered the glass of wine, despite my protestations.  But that one decent glass gave me the hope to carry on.

Although I am afraid that hope was misplaced.

Recently I was at a fancier local restaurant with a significant wine program and thought I’d try a glass of their Sonoma County pinot noir.  It did not work out very well.  But it was not an entire loss.  I left that evening with a few additional strategies for how to get a good glass of wine when dining out.

First let me tell you a bit about the sad story of the pinot noir.

I swirled the wine around in the glass and took a deep whiff, only to find a big nose full of nothing.  Then I took a sip, to taste that signature California fruit, and came up empty.

With my trusty iPhone, I went and looked up tasting notes for this wine.  Could it be that I just ordered some stinker that the restaurant put on its list to make a buck?  Nope.  All reports said that this was actually a delightful wine.  That it exhibited tons of alluring character and charm, none of which were present in this glass.

I usually do not complain.  Generally I do not send things back.

But each passing sip of this wine just made me grumpier and grumpier.  And I realized that this was ridiculous.  The wine should be a pleasure, not a punishment.  So I called to the bartender, and I asked him:

F: Has this bottle been open for a long time?
B: No.  I just opened it in the last two hours.

Hmm.  I’m inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt.  But that wine was so vanquished of fruit and character it seemed like it must have been open for significantly longer.  Still, if that wasn’t the problem, I thought I would try again.  So I asked the bartender:

F: Could you taste this wine?  It seems off to me.
B: Sure.  [Tastes the wine.]  It tastes fine to me, but if you’d like a glass of something different, I’d be happy to get you one.

Really?  Fine to you?  In my mind, that is a much larger problem.  But I was satisfied with the result.  I returned my glass of wine, and was about to get another.  This time, I went for a warming zinfandel.

And this time, the bartender did something clever.  He poured me a taste, before pouring me the glass.

Because you know what?  This wine also tasted like it had been open for far too long.  But because it was a heartier wine, it still had some of its character remaining.  So, I told him it was better, and enjoyed that glass as best as I could.

Perhaps the bartender snickered to himself, thinking me foolish for accepting one long-opened bottle after rejecting another.  But we already know a thing or two about that fellow.

The thing that kills me is that not everyone is as self-assured in their wine knowledge as I am.  And I have to wonder, how many people are drinking that long-opened pinot noir and thinking that this is what the wine tastes like?  How many people are opening themselves up to the adventure of wine for the first time, only to come away thinking they don’t know what all the fuss is about?

I find it very frustrating.

But the golden lining is that I came away reminded of two more helpful tips for ordering wine by the glass.
1)    Ask for a taste of the wine.  The worst that will happen is they’ll say no.
2)    Go for sturdier wines that can withstand the rigors of being open for a while.

I think my mother’s earlier success had to do with getting a glass of cheap zinfandel at the Italian restaurant.  Those big red wines can take a lot of abuse.  Shiraz and cabernet sauvignon would be my other go-to varietals if I were unsure of the care taken by a restaurant with its wines by the glass.

But I’d still try to ask for a taste first.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Annie permalink
    December 22, 2009 7:26 pm

    Where on my trusted iphone do I have tasting notes? Please tell!

  2. December 22, 2009 11:57 pm

    Best (almost) local wine-by-the-glass selection: the CIA in New Paltz. Really very good, and excellent value at $5/glass.

    We need more Albany friends who care enough about wine to make opening the good stuff worthwhile :)

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