Suddenly, it seems, half is hip. More and more good restaurants are beefing up their selections of 375-milliliter bottles, and not just mass market wines but the kind of drink-me wines that those of us who look for something special will want to drink.
I have noticed this especially in the past year or so, and unless I miss my guess, the phenomenon is reaching critical mass. I see more big wine lists with entire sections devoted to half bottles. The selections can run for pages, often more than 100 options.
Why is this such a good idea? For me, having a wide range of half-bottles improves the dining experience. If it's just me and my wife, and we must still drive home after dinner, we can't absorb more than a full bottle between us, maybe a bit more if the dinner stretches over several courses to two hours or more. We might have a glass of Champagne to start, and pick a serious red for the main course, but what if the appetizers and first courses are seafood-oriented? A half-bottle of good white fills the need.
It's not a problem for us if I'm having the halibut and she's having the steak, because we will drink red with almost anything. But raw fish or shellfish appetizers usually do better with whites. It's nice to find a glass of good white to go with those kinds of dishes, or better yet, share a good half-bottle.
In the past, the choices have been limited to mass market stuff, quaffable but not special. But when the options can include a Bründlmayer Riesling from Austria, Paul Hobbs Chardonnay from California or Jermann Pinot Bianco from Italy, that can lead to a sumptuous dinner—especially if you follow it up with a great red. Or vice versa. If most of the meal is going to be seafood and vegetables, you might want a half-bottle to go with the main course only.
Paul Roberts, wine director for Thomas Keller's restaurants, told me how he twisted some arms among high-end producers to put some of their better wines in half-bottles.
"I tried to get Marcassin to bottle some of their Chardonnay for us in half-bottles, but John (Wetlaufer) wouldn't do it," says Roberts. "Helen (Turley) called me later to say that maybe Martinelli would." Wetlaufer and Turley own Marcassin and had a long-standing winemaking relationship with Martinelli. And, in fact, French Laundry lists Martinelli Zinfandel Jackass Vineyard 2004 in half-bottles.
Often, wineries that do half-bottles for one restaurant will make more and sell them to other restaurants.
One aspect of half-bottles is that wine ages more quickly in the smaller package. That could be a plus when young reds reach maturity in one or two years instead of three or four. But you really don't want to fill your cellar with half-bottles, which could also go over the hill more quickly.
But for restaurants, where you're drinking current or recent vintages for the most part, the more half bottles, the happier I am. How about you?