Apr 1, 201012:00 AM
Happy Hour

All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans

Wine By The Glass (Maybe You Should Pass)

Wine-by-the-glass programs seem appealing in theory but are often disappointing in reality.

I love wine-by-the-glass programs in restaurants and bars –– although from the headline, you would not have arrived at that conclusion.

The whole concept just fits so nicely. You come in the door; take a seat; and instead of rummaging through a long wine list, with a seemingly unending array of choices, you can peruse a much shorter list, and from a selection of 10 to 15 wines, order a glass, receive it relatively quickly and proceed with the fun of the evening.

You get right to the pleasures of why you came to the establishment in the first place.

Then, with a satisfying beginning selection of beverage, you can leisurely peruse the wine list and make the really big decision about the culinary adventure for the evening and another wine, this time by the bottle.

Good rewards rapidly delivered. Ahhh, yes, it is good to be an American.

But our little corner of paradise is not without pitfalls, and some of them are downright disappointing.

Before we get to the bad news, let’s review what a wine-by-the-glass program really is and why it is.

For the most part, the success of a winemaking enterprise is about quality and volume in some proportion. Usually as the volume released by the winery gets higher, so does the potential for reduction in quality. Now quality is in the mouth of the beholder. And just because a wine is not at the very peak of a quality scale, as determined by some wine god, does not mean it is not a good wine.

There are some fine wines which are universally enjoyed, like Santa Margherita pinot grigio or Cakebread anything, that are made in big quantities and enjoyed by people quite a bit. 

Yet when a bunch (technical term) of something is made, in just about any endeavor, then the cost of making it decreases and there is a resulting decline in the final cost to the consumer. Many wineries that make a lot of a particular something offer incentives to the retailer to buy higher quantities. I made a lot of this stuff + You want some of the stuff + It’s pretty good stuff = You get it at a better price.

Some of those pricing incentives actually take the form of a different pricing tier should the reseller provide the wine by the glass to the consumer. So there’s one price if a restaurant is going to put the wine on the wine list, available only by the bottle, and there is a lower cost per bottle should the restaurant offer the wine by the glass to its customers.

Obviously, the thought is that wines offered by the glass means more bottles will be opened, and so more wine, theoretically, will be bought and sold by the restaurateur to its patrons. To the restaurant owner, this is pretty attractive because the base cost for the product goes down, maybe without affecting the cost of a bottle of wine on the wine list, and so there is more profit.

But the restaurateur is now in the wine-by-the-glass business. And because wasting food or wine is costly, should a bottle still have product in it at the end of the business day, that wine is “recorked” and set back on the shelf (unlucky wine) or put into a cooler (just-a-little-bit-luckier wine).

And because we all know that too much exposure to air for too long a period of time is the enemy of wine, right about now there is a breakdown in this very good idea of serving wines by the glass.

It really does not make all that much difference whether the restaurant takes one of those arm-exercisers, which are pumps with special stoppers that are supposed to remove the air from inside the bottle of wine (ask your old physics teacher if this can be done to any appreciable extent), or if the serving establishment pumps into the bottle an inert gas, such as nitrogen, to replace the air inside the bottle, wine simply will begin to deteriorate from the moment you open it and after some period of time, depending on the wine itself, will become undrinkable.

OK, let’s connect some dots. Wines of not the highest quality are opened during a business day; “resealed”; and then put on the shelf or in a cooler overnight, for at least 10 hours, awaiting the first person the next business day to order a glass. Oh, yeah, that’s going to work just fine.

The amazing thing is that it just might. There is always a chance the Great Arbiter of Food Spoilage will turn his/her back and forget that someone is trying to sneak past. That’s not where the smart betting money is going, but there is always a chance.

Wine deterioration in the bottle is not an exact science. Some wines will not go downhill as fast as others. And in fact some high-quality wines will change in a most interesting way when left open for long periods of time, but these are not usually the quality of wines you find in a wine-by-the-glass program.

I think it is safe to say that the wines you are likely to encounter in a wine-by-the-glass program are best served as quickly as possible after the cork is pulled from the bottle.

Let’s not be too harsh on the restaurateur who stores opened bottles of wine overnight. He only wants to maximize the monetary return on a product he bought for resale. Let us only hope that he does not treat seafood and meat the same way.

Bottom line, if the wine by the glass you have ordered is not right, it’s not right. Wine that is not “fresh,” that provides off-smells and that tastes musty is not right. You paid for a good glass of wine, and it is up to the establishment you are patronizing to provide that product in the proper manner.

Here’s what I do: I first of all ask the server to tell me if the wine is in good order. Politely. Let him smell it. If the server says it is and it still just does not seem right to you, then tell him to open a new bottle, in front of you, and to pour another glass. Then compare glasses. The deal I make is that if the new glass from the just-opened bottle is the same as the original glass, then I’ll buy both glasses.

You may not want to take a chance on ending up with two glasses of wine you don’t like. In that case, just tell the server that you feel the opened bottle has seen a better day and you would prefer something else.

A side note to this story of small-pour spoilage: Many restaurants will not open a 750 milliliter bottle of champagne or sparkling wine just for a glass or two. That juice is expensive. So they offer smaller bottles, usually either Hotel-Paks, which are 187 milliliters, or half-bottles, 375 milliliters.

My experience with these smaller bottles is that very often they come to the table flat. No bubbles. Champagne and sparkling wine is easy to note if it is not right. It just sits there.

Anyway, I am thinking that maybe the smaller bottles have smaller openings and require smaller corks. Somewhere in all that, there is not a proper seal.

I am very cautious on smaller bottles of wine with bubbles.

The lesson here, if you have an interest (and you’ve read this far, so why not?), is to be vigilant when ordering wine by the glass. Again, I love the idea, but something gets lost in the handling and the resealing by the restaurant or bar.

Although I would love to do more tasting experimentation and try many different styles of wine in a wine-by-the-glass program, this effort has not resulted in a happy finale.

Most of the restaurants who initiate wine-by-the-glass programs don’t want to hurt their business; they want to provide you with another reason to come in more often.

But it’s all tricky. And it is what you make it or will allow. 
 

Reader Comments:
Apr 8, 2010 02:55 pm
 Posted by  Armando Luis

I couldn't agree more with observations on wine by the glass quality. Anyone who ever left a bottle open on the kitchen counter (not in my house!) knows that it will not be the same wine the next day, even if it's not technically spoiled. Past one day most wines would be diminished beyond recognition, even if still drinkable. Given that a $20 wine is often only marginally better than a $10 one, even a small drop in quality will bring the $20 bottle to the $10 quality. If a restaurant offers 25 wines by the glass, at least a half bottle of each is left exposed, which means 50 glasses will be sold that are at least one day old and often a lot more. Since more expensive wines are likely to have a slower turn over, the problem is exacerbated the more expensive the wine! So that two day old $12 glass will often not be as good as a fresh $6 glass. It’s amazing that restaurants can get away with this.
As a purveyor of a wine preservation system, I’ve crisscrossed the country talking to restaurateurs and bar owners about this issue, and for the most part they are counting on customers not knowing the difference. For the most part they are correct. Given the bewildering selection of wines available, and the fact that even the same wine can taste different depending on vintage, storage conditions, etc, customers can never be sure if the quality in the glass is due to extended exposure to air or if that’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Add the intimidation factor often associated with wine, and you have a customer who’s not likely to complain. The question is how much more wine would they have drunk had the first glass been a pristine wine? This situation does a great disservice not only to the consumer, but also to the winery, whose product is being misrepresented.

Apr 8, 2010 03:04 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

Excellent points all around, and not just because you agree with my viewpoint, although that never hurts.

To further affirm your thought that the casual wine lover/drinker is not secure in their abilities to discern wine that is at less than good condition, please refer back to my articles on the Gallo mess with pinot noir from the Languedoc.

When the wine's producer was asked in a French court why he mis-labeled the wines bound for America, he said, "No one has complained so what's the harm?" Shameless.

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All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans

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In New Orleans, when the subject is wine and spirits, it is very difficult to leave Tim McNally out of the discussion. He is considered one of the “go-to” resources in the Crescent City for counsel and information about adult beverages and their place in the fabric of life in this great city.

Tim is the Wine and Spirits Editor, columnist and feature writer for New Orleans Magazine; the Wine and Spirits Editor and Happy Hour blogger for myneworleans.com; the Executive Editor and monthly features writer for Gulf Coast Wine + Dine Online; creator and editor of his own website, winetalknola.com; all in addition to his weekly hosting duties on "The Wine Show," a radio program entering its second decade of broadcasting in New Orleans. "The Wine Show with Tim McNally," is on the air at WGSO – 990AM, every Friday at 5 p.m.

Over the years, Tim has proved to be a master interviewer, putting his guests at ease, and covering tactile and technical information so that even a novice can understand difficult agricultural and production concepts. Tim speaks with winemakers, wine and spirit ambassadors, distillers, authors, people who stage events and festivals, and takes questions from listeners and readers, all seamlessly blended together in a program that is unique in America.

Tim’s love of wine came about many years ago from his wife-to-be, Brenda Maitland, a noted journalist in her own right, and together they have traveled to the major wine producing areas in the US and Europe, seeking first-hand information about beverages that give us all so much pleasure.

The couple was instrumental in the founding of the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience, a major, well-regarded festival of its type both nationally and internationally. Tim and Brenda both continue to be involved with the planning and staging of this multi-venue, five-day event now more than 20 years old.

Tim is also considered one of the foremost professional wine judges in the US, being invited to judge more than 11 wine competitions each year, including the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition (the largest competition of American wines in the world, with more than 6,000 entries), the Riverside, CA International Wine Competition, San Francisco International Wine Competition, Atlantic Seaboard Wine Competition, Indiana International Wine Competition, Sandestin, FL Wine Festival Competition, U.S. National Wine Competition, and the National Wine Competition of Portugal.

Tim is a guest lecturer to many local wine and dine organizations, and speaks each year to the senior class in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.

Staying abreast of the news of the wine and spirits world is a passion for Tim, and he is committed to sharing what he knows with his listeners and readers. “Doing something I love, with products that I truly enjoy, created by interesting people, coupling the experience with culinary excellence, and doing it all in the greatest city in America,” are the words Tim lives by.

You can reach Tim by email at timideas@bellsouth.net.

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