Half Glasses and Flights
Traveling to wineries and tasting wine where it was made is a remarkable experience. There is no better way to understand how the wine in the bottle reflects a sense of the place where it was grown. I have learned a lot about wine at wineries.
Wineries will give you tastes of almost everything they produce. This is helpful in figuring out which of their wines you like best. It is also useful for seeing if you can identify a “house style” that is consistent across every wine.
But in my opinion it is wine bars, and not wineries, that provide the best opportunity for the novice and expert alike to learn more about wine.
A good wine bar will offer half-glasses and flights, which provide much more fertile ground for building a broad base of wine knowledge, in addition to the opportunity to refining one’s own tastes.
Here is what I mean.
To learn about wine you have to drink it. And if you plan to learn a lot, well then, you have a lot of drinking to do.
A few months ago I wrote about putting together a structured tasting at home. But many wine bars have this already thought out for their customers, in the form of wine flights.
For the uninitiated, these are several short pours of hand-selected wines that are grouped together for a particular reason. A horizontal flight of wines would typically be bottles from the same vintage, region and varietal, but from different producers. A vertical flight of wines would typically be several bottles of the same wine, but from different vintages. Vertical flights are rare, and very special indeed.
Tasting a few very similar wines at the same time is a remarkable teaching tool. Not only does one get a firm sense of the bottles’ similarities, but the differences between each of the wines seem amplified. So while you may never have noticed mint or pine in a Zinfandel before, you will be much more likely to be able to suss out the aromatics when comparing a glass with others in the same family.
As opposed to conducting a tasting at home, you don’t have to own a significant quantity of stemware. Plus instead of buying $120 worth of wine, you could conceivably get the same experience in the quiet comfort of a wine bar for $20 per person.
The thing that makes this possible, of course, is half-glasses of wine.
Half-glasses of wine make me almost as happy as half-bottles of wine. Provided of course that the wine bar is able to properly maintain its selection of wines by the glass. Then instead of having a tasting with four full glasses of wine, which depending on the size of the pour could be the equivalent of an entire bottle of wine, you only are served half as much.
And because it takes plenty of time taken to compare and evaluate color, aroma and taste, those four half-glasses of wine can keep you busy for well over an hour.
Regrettably, as I discovered while scouring its website, our local wine bar has neither half-glasses nor flights on the menu. A regular patron assures me that they would likely oblige, if you were to ask one of the awesome bartenders. But that seems like a pretty bold maneuver.
Oddly enough, big chain restaurants are offering wine flights now too. I have taken advantage of this at Houlihan’s and P.F. Chang’s. The problem is that at these places the wines aren’t as interesting as those you would find at a wine bar. And the wines may not have quite the same turnover, which can be disastrous for a delicate wine like sauvignon blanc.
Half-glasses are great even beyond wine flights. If you are trying to expose yourself to a wide variety of wines, smaller pours are a wonderful low commitment way to experiment with new tastes.
If you don’t see half-glasses or flights on the menu at your local wine bar, or restaurant with a serious wine program, be bold and ask for them. The worst they can say is no. But if more and more people start asking, perhaps in time, half glasses and flights will work their way onto the menu.