Wine By The Glass (Maybe You Should Pass)

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. 

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