Call me cheap, but I hesitate any time a single glass of wine costs more than $10 at a restaurant. Sure, I'll spend $15 or $20 for a glass, but not on a whim and not just because it's the latest love affair of the restaurant wine buyer. At that price, I need more certainty, or I'd rather just get a decent bottle and spend more.
Don't misunderstand: I think wine-by-the-glass programs are better than ever. The savviest restaurants offer a wider and more worthy selection, particularly as customers have been spending their money more carefully in recent years.
But ordering by the glass is often a minefield. All programs are not created equal, and it pays to buy carefully. Some of the pitfalls are easy to spot. If vintage dates are absent from the by-the-glass menu, that's an obvious sign the restaurant doesn't take wine seriously. Order a beer instead.
Sometimes it helps to have a little insider savvy. Let's say a by-the-glass list promotes a single winery or carries multiple varietals, but only from two or three labels. There's a good chance the restaurant has an agreement with a distributor eager to sell cases for a large client like Constellation Brands (Estancia, Blackstone, Clos du Bois) or Gallo (Ecco Domani, Barefoot, Mirassou). Such prepackaged lists can be a mixed bag of good and so-so wines.
Here are some other things to consider when ordering wine by the glass:
Do the math: The wholesale price of a bottle is typically one-third below retail. So a Chardonnay that sells for $30 in a wine shop costs restaurants and retailers about $20. The average restaurant markup is two to three times above wholesale, so that Chardonnay may sell for $40 to $60 on wine lists. That's a profit of 100 to 200 percent a bottle. However, chances are that the restaurant barely broke even on that beautiful steak you ordered, so it sort of balances out.
Easy money: The profit by the glass can be even higher than by the bottle. It's not unusual for high-end restaurants to price a single glass of wine at the wholesale cost of the entire bottle, or higher. So a glass of that same Chardonnay—you got it—would cost $20 or more. That way, the owner at least breaks even (the cost of service and glassware aside), even if the restaurant doesn't sell the rest of the bottle and has to dump it. Restaurateurs who truly appreciate wine aren't usually looking for the easy payday. They're more interested in offering an interesting selection that complements the menu. And they're more willing to work to sell by-the-glass wines so they don't need high markups to cover waste.
Is older better? Sometimes a mature wine by the glass can be a treat if it's a good producer and it's a Cabernet Sauvignon or another variety that ages well. But often it's a fast way for a winery to unload old inventory. That 2002 Côtes du Rhône for $15 a glass may sound tasty, but it was a lousy vintage that's past its prime and the restaurant got the wine for 10 bucks a bottle.
Show me the bottle: You know it's a wine-savvy restaurant when the server brings the bottle to the table and pours your glass. Is that too much to ask for $10? That way, you know it's the right wine and the vintage as billed. Otherwise you're taking their word for it when the glass arrives and, frankly, I often have my doubts.
Send it back: Be brave. If the wine stinks, ask them to open a new bottle or request something else. I've had glasses that tasted like they were opened a week ago Tuesday, or it had been stewing all day on the back bar of a toasty restaurant.
Beware the autocrats: I'm as passionate about interesting and obscure wines as the next wine geek, but it's OK to have a little familiarity in the by-the-glass list too. I'll try that glass of Tannat the sommelier recommends with dinner, but maybe I'd prefer a well-known Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc with the appetizer. Life is short, throw me a bone.
Those are just a handful of the issues. I didn't touch on service and decent glassware and any number of things.
What are the issues that bug you about wines by the glass? What have been your best by-the-glass discoveries? Are restaurants doing a good job and how can they do better?
I have the feeling that, even if you're not as cheap as I am, there's a lot of room for debate on this one.
Kerry Powers — Indiana — April 20, 2011 12:32pm ET
Tim Mc Donald — Napa,CA — April 20, 2011 12:34pm ET
Ted Fuehne — Edwardsville, Illinois — April 20, 2011 1:04pm ET
Don Ciaramella — New York — April 20, 2011 1:54pm ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — April 20, 2011 2:38pm ET
Ben Bonsall — Santa Monica, CA — April 20, 2011 3:02pm ET
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — April 20, 2011 3:46pm ET
Brian Loring — Lompoc, CA — April 20, 2011 5:16pm ET
David W Voss — elkhorn, Wi — April 20, 2011 5:39pm ET
Jonathan Lawrence — somewhere in the world — April 20, 2011 5:40pm ET
Mark Lyon — Sonoma, CA; USA — April 20, 2011 8:51pm ET
Eugene Kim — Houston, TX — April 20, 2011 11:55pm ET
Martin Palmer — Hong Kong — April 21, 2011 7:29am ET
Daniel Sherer — Healdsburg, CA, USA — April 21, 2011 9:03am ET
Stephen Stewart — new mexico — April 21, 2011 11:05am ET
Adrian Bryksa — Calgary, Alberta, Canada — April 21, 2011 11:25am ET
Stephen Plunkett — Sassi Restaurant, Scottsdale AZ USA — April 21, 2011 8:29pm ET
Stewart Lancaster — beaver,pa — April 22, 2011 12:30pm ET
Horacio Campana / Butler — Monterrey, Mexico — April 22, 2011 1:32pm ET
Joe Dekeyser — Waukesha, WI — April 22, 2011 3:40pm ET
Tom Bollenbeck — Pleasanton — April 22, 2011 5:11pm ET
Susanne Koster — NY — April 22, 2011 10:00pm ET
Monticello Vineyards — Napa, California — April 23, 2011 10:23am ET
Patrick Benton — Thousand Oaks, CA — April 23, 2011 5:02pm ET
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — April 25, 2011 1:07pm ET
John T Ryan Iii — Pittsburgh,PA, USA — April 25, 2011 8:35pm ET
Rick Hooper — Sea Isle City, NJ USA — April 26, 2011 10:11am ET
Susan Aventi — Las Vegas NV — April 26, 2011 2:59pm ET
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