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harvey steiman at large

You Haven't Heard the Half of it

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jun 7, 2007 2:32pm ET

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?

Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  June 7, 2007 6:37pm ET
Agreed. Curious, do half bottles really age that much faster?
Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  June 7, 2007 6:41pm ET
What a snob that guy from French Laundry is! Most restaurants and retailers would be happy to offer their guests Marcassin,but he needs half bottles.That's a perfect example of why I wouldn't enjoy going to that restaurant again.As far as half bottles are concerned they serve a purpose,but I wouldn't invest alot of time as a wine director to have them on my wine list.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 7, 2007 7:01pm ET
Whoa there, Stephanie. French Laundry actually has about eight Marcassin Chardonnays and nine Pinot Noirs on the current list. Read the paragraph that mentions Marcassin again. And why is it a bad idea for wine directors to try to get special bottlings to make their customers happy?
Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  June 7, 2007 8:35pm ET
My comments were not directed at making the guests happy.If a single restaurant has 17 offerings one of the hardest wines in the world to get,may not sit well with others who would NEVER be able offer it to their guests.Also many restaurants will open bottles if you commit to 2 glasses and rest can be sold by the glass.I'm certain the French Laundry could sell 2 glasses of Marcassin over the course of a day!
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 7, 2007 8:44pm ET
Sorry, Stephanie, you lost me. It's bad for a restaurant to acquire a great selection of rare wines because others won't have them?
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  June 7, 2007 9:35pm ET
Harvey, I totally agree about the half bottles. I usually eat out with just my girlfriend and she is not a heavy drinker. In fact, most women I know can't handle more the 1-2 glasses over an hour plus. Just last night I was happy to find a half bottle 2005 Seghesio Zin for $17. $17! That is less than most places charge for two glasses of house wine. And that is for the equivalent of approx 3 glasses of wine. It is perfect if you want two glasses of white or bubble and a half bottle of some nicer wine for your entrees. Often, if they don't have half bottles, I just pay corkage and bring my own wine. If I don't finish it, I can just give it to the waitstaff or bring it home. And it is cheaper.

Question for you. You mention 1/2 bottles age faster. Is this true for ports and Sauternes as well? I buy many half bottles of both as I am never able to finish full bottles of dessert wines. I would hate to know my 2000 ports and 2001 Sauternes will not last past 10 years...
Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  June 7, 2007 10:57pm ET
Harvey, I don't think that you are understanding where I'm coming from nor do you need to insult my intelligent.I hope that this will not be printed on your blog and I will not be stating my opinions any longer.I think that your journalist intergrity is somewhat questionable on this subject.If we were discussing Johnny's Pizza I'm sure your would be running to their defense quite as much as you are currently.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 8, 2007 12:36am ET
Half bottles do age faster than 750s, and magnums (1.6 liters) age slower. Exactly how much varies, depending on the wine and of course our friend the cork. In general, I expect a three-year-old 375-ml bottle to taste like a two-year-old 750=ml bottle.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 8, 2007 12:38am ET
Stephanie, I am sorry, but I obviously do not understand your point. Maybe we'll just have to leave it at that.
Peter Chang
Hong Kong —  June 8, 2007 1:19am ET
I don't think any of us are getting Stephanie's point so let's just be happy that she'll no longer make accusations on other people's integrity...
Karl A Fate
Rhinelander, Wisconsin  —  June 8, 2007 1:32am ET
Harvey, I usually eat by myself & I really favor a restaurant that has a good selection of half-bottles. When I go on vacation in New Mexico, I drive up to Santa Fe before heading to the Mountains & Desert. The best restaurant I have eaten at in Santa Fe is Andiamo which has a good selection of half bottles. I find that I will select my appetizer & entree to match a half-bottle that is available. I could imagine a situation where I really wanted an appetizer & entree that needed different wines but have not encountered it yet.
Matthew Habdas
connecticut —  June 8, 2007 1:35am ET
Stephanie, why should a restaurant care what sits well with other places, it's about running a business. Every restaurant wants their place to have the best wine list! And if you do get a rare wine like Marcassin you don't want to pour it off by the glass because your entire yearly allocation will be gone in a week! Those wines sell themselves, and if your not willing to buy a bottle or half bottle then get a glass off of what I'm sure is a spectacular wine by the glass list. If you never heard of any of the WBG ask the sommeliere what they would recommend instead of assuming that they should open a bottle of incredibly rare wine for you. Hey Harvey lets go to the French Laundry and have 'em pour a couple glasses of their '45 Mouton I'm sure they could sell the other two!
Matthew Habdas
connecticut —  June 8, 2007 1:45am ET
And one more thing Stephanie , any one who doesn't add half bottles to their list is missing out on a huge opportunity to increase wine sales. Half bottles are perfect for a table of two who might want to try a few different wines with dinner or just can't agree on one bottle of wine. Their Perfect for a place like Johnny's Pizza or the French Laundry!
John C Winkelmann
Cincinnai —  June 8, 2007 12:30pm ET
I was very impressed with the half bottle selection at French Laundry last year. The wine service was anything but snobbish. They bent over backward to be helpful and informative. I am pleased that many other restaurants are following suit. I am seeing more and more half bottles in wine shops as well. Great trend.
Matt Borneman
Palatine, IL —  June 8, 2007 1:00pm ET
I would love to see more half bottles in restaurants and more middle tier producers making half bottles in general. My wife and I often start a restaurant meal with a food needing white and an entree needing red, but as of others have stated, 2 bottles for 2 people is not realistic (nor affordable). Even in finer restaurants, the by the glass offerings are often lower end compared to what is available in 750ml. It is improving, but from what I've seen in Chicago, we still have a long way to go.
Andrew Bossler
Lansing, MI —  June 8, 2007 1:50pm ET
With as many states adopting carryout wine legislation, a.k.a. "Merlot to Go", do you still find value in half bottles in restaurants? Obviously there's some savings to be had and you can mix it up between two half bottles over the course of a meal, and not every establishment properly preserves their wines by the glass. It's frustrating to waste time ordering a glass that has turned or is on its way out. However half bottles are difficult to properly store especially when most of your storage space is utilized with conventional racks, etc. Has CA legalized the carryout of partially consumed bottles? And do you still think half bottles are part of a successful wine program if presented with the ability to recork and take it with you?Harvey--have you dropped in on Torbreck yet? Still in AUS? Planning on covering Glaetzer, Kaesler? Coverage has been great so far, thanks for the contributions.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  June 8, 2007 3:06pm ET
California has always allowed restaurant guests to take away opened bottles. Traffic laws require them to be in the trunk, not within reach of the driver, however. And yes, that is an option, although it's not the most cost-efficient, sicne you're paying the restaurant markup on a full bottle. At those restaurants that price their wines at or close to retail, it makes perfect sense to order a full bottle and take home the rest.
Ryan Margolis
Philadelphia PA —  June 8, 2007 3:30pm ET
Stephanie, have you eaten at the French Laundry? Their list has an amazing selection of splits. The last time I ate their, we had the tasting menu. The head Somm., the legendary Greg Castells, paired every course, about 20 of them, with a split. yes it was a lot of wine, but I had a chance to taste a ton of wines, all of which went unbelievable with the dishes. I had wines from all over the world, from powerful Cabernet from the Languedoc to stunning Pinot Noir from Australia and sweet wine from Germany. Is this a bad thing? Its a great thing.
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  June 8, 2007 5:02pm ET
Thanks Harvey. You have the best insites on restaurants of anyone.

Also, I like the ratio for aging splits to full bottles. 2 years of age on a 750 tastes like 3 years if it is a 375. If I apply that to a California Cab (usually 10 years aging potential), then a 375 should be opened in year 6 or 7. Similarly for a Port. If I would normally hold a port for 15-20 years in 750 format, I would drink the same port from 375 after 10-15years. Great tip. I won't be buying any first growths in 375, but this is great if I am buying inexpensive Zins or Pinots from California that I normally drink in the first 5 years anyways. It helps b/c I can open a 375 to drink alone if I want a glass with dinner. Harder to open a 750 with no help...
Timothy Perr
June 8, 2007 6:56pm ET
Personally, I love halfs. When I go out to dinner (or even when I eat at home) with my wife, we can start with a 375 of white and with our appetizers/salads and have a 375 with our main course which is a perfect amount for us. From a winery perspective, 375s cost more - the glass, labeling an labor needed to bottle halfs costs more than twice as much per liter of wine as 750s. Are consumers willing to pay this extra cost which could amount to a few extra dollars per bottle? Maybe. Our winery will be bottling 120 cases of 375s with our 2006 Pinots. We'll see what happens. Tim Perr/Pali Wine Co.
John Wilen
Texas —  June 9, 2007 9:36pm ET
It is Marketing 101 to offer products tailored to specific consumption occasions, yet few in the wine or restaurant industry seem to get it. No where is this more evident than with half-bottles who many view as out of fashion.

In my opinion, winery owners and restaurateurs typically use traditional segmentation strategies, which place consumers inside rigid boxes. But real insight and effective targeting does not come from who the user is but what wine-drinking situations they find themselves in. In real life, everyone experiences a full spectrum of distinct usage occasions.

Wine marketers have failed to consider the significance of these differences in usage occasions. Instead, they've assumed a steady state theory of wine consumer behavior, imagining that each individual engages in a single, dominant type of behavior. Well we don't....

What occasions do half bottles address? Here's just a few: 1). individual drinking alone; typically splits offer a superior offering to wines by the glass.2). couple eating both fish (her) and meat (him) . 3). limited consumption occasion for a couple. 4). the need for one-and-a-half bottles, where one is not enough and two bottles is too much. 5). lower risk sampling opportunity than buying a 750mls. 6). desire to experiment: the advanced flavor profile that half bottles offer can create opportunities to enjoy a wine earlier, or to project the progression of larger formats as they age.
Jim Nuffield
Toronto —  June 10, 2007 9:25pm ET
I love half bottles. I look for them wherever possible. I have Segla, Beaucastel, Sauternes, Guigal CdP, Dead Arm and a bunch of others. We often can't finish a whole bottle and the halves work just great.
Gary Stoyan
Sherman Oaks, CA —  June 11, 2007 5:28am ET
I would like to see more half bottles as well in stores and restuarants, but at HALF THE PRICE, or close to it. To me the extra cost for the halfs aren't usually worth it.
Andrew Ball
Chino Hills, CA —  June 11, 2007 11:15am ET
I love half bottles!! Just a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I had a half bottle of Araujo Syrah at lunch -- it even cost more than I would normally spend on a full bottle but I was so happy to try something I normally wouldn't get too. I only wish more wineries made their splits available to the general public.
Tim Webb
high point nc —  June 11, 2007 11:50am ET
perhaps this discussion is occuring because of the miserable quality and high price of house wines served in american restaurants. although half bottles are one solution, it is a solution that requires the restaurant to stock more sku's, thus incurring more cost, thus charging me more. this appears to me to be an area where screw top closures, plasma bag boxes, etc. might really be useful. it would be great when dining alone to be able to just order the house wine and get a nice glass at a fair price.
Dana Meador
Dallas, TX —  June 12, 2007 5:53am ET
Harvey - not to change the subject, but can you give your opinion of the 2004 Penfolds 707 and RWT and 2002 Grange that Penfolds is touting so highly and are now available in the US market? There's a nice vintage price bump so they must be something special???
Jeff Petty
ca. —  June 12, 2007 12:40pm ET
I would love to find a restaurant that will sell me any bottle of my choice if I only commit to 2 glasses. I think Stephanie should tell us which insane restaurant will do that!
Jason Kadushin
Seattle, WA —  June 12, 2007 6:31pm ET
I agree 100%. I just ate at Gary Danko's - what a great selection of 1/2 bottles that allows you to experience a wide selection of food, wine and food & wine pairing.

My only problem w/ 1/2 bottles is that many wineries will sell them only to distributors/restaurants. It would be great if more wineries offered them to consumers - especially for new wines/wineries as these bottles are a great wine to try something new w/o committing to purchase a full bottle.
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  June 13, 2007 11:16am ET
Half-bottles are great, although with many restaurants now offering excellent wines by the glass, thanks to improved preservation techniques, they're not needed as often. Probably the ones that don't have inert gas-based preservation systems won't offer half bottles either. Also, it's thanks to NYS for finally allowing partial bottles to be taken home (sealed in plastic bags and carried in the trunk). Now we New Yorkers need laws that allow supermarkets, Costco, etc. to sell wine.
Joshua Masur
Redwood City, CA —  June 13, 2007 3:48pm ET
Another fan of splits here. We went to Julia's Kitchen for Mother's Day brunch -- four adults, three kids. I couldn't resist the urge to try something new, but also wanted to be sure that we were getting something I loved, given the occasion. Solution? A split of the Robert Sinskey Pinot Blanc, which I love year after year and is bottled only in splits, and a split of the August Briggs Pinot Meunier. I'd never had a still Pinot Meunier, and probably wouldn't have been willing to risk it as a full bottle (at least not without strong sommelier endorsement), but as a split, why not. It was fantastic -- slightly lighter and fruitier than Pinot Noir, a perfect spring complement to the spring fare being served.
Valentin Gasser
Zurich, Switzerland —  June 17, 2007 9:16am ET
Hi Harvey, just a big hello from Switzerland.

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