When Half a Bottle Is Better Than Full
By Kim Marcus, assistant managing editor
Pardon me if I make what must seem like a sacrilegious statement for any self-respecting wine lover, but I actually drank less wine than I normally do stateside while on a recent trip to France.
Yes, in the land of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Alsace, I found myself amazingly self-restrained.
No, I wasn't on a 12-step program or straitjacketed by recent losses at the roulette table. Neither was I making a conscious decision to drink less.
And to tell the truth, I'm not talking about overall wine consumption either. Rather, I'm talking about how much wine I consumed at one sitting during a meal.
The reason is very simple. The majority of my wine drinking came out of what is seemingly a unique and almost revolutionary European design. It's consumer-friendly and easy on the pocketbook. It allows a greater range of choice in what type of wines you can drink and enjoy. And it is rarely seen in the United States.
It's called the half-bottle.
It's a great timesaving device as well. I wasn't concerned about finding the one wine that would go well with all the delicious food on the menu. A point of disclosure should be noted here: there were just two of us, my wife and myself. I love to drink wine, but I know there can be a price for having too much of a good thing. And my wife, Wendy, despite her best efforts, just doesn't drink as much as I do. For every glass she drinks, I probably drink two. So I end up drinking about two-thirds of the wine we choose, and two-thirds of a regular bottle of wine, plus an aperitif, is about my limit.
Unfortunately, in the United States that means my limit is one wine by the bottle, though more often than not I'm tempted by other flavors and usually choose another wine or two by the glass. Sometimes, I even order a second bottle. So much for self-imposed limits.
Therefore, it was a pleasure to know as I surveyed wine lists in France that my first choice was not my only choice in a dinner for two of us. Fully a third of the wines on most lists I looked at were offered in a half-bottle format. That meant I was able to pick one wine for the appetizer and another wine for the main course. It proved especially useful in Alsace, where I selected a decent 1995 Gewurztraminer by Albert Mann to go with appetizers of foie gras and lobster napoleon. Our main courses were lamb and beef, so rather than be adventurous and drink the light-styled Pinot Noirs of Alsace, I was able to choose a very fine Bordeaux--Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste 1990--for just over $20 a half-bottle.
While there were full bottles on many of the tables around us, most other twosomes I saw in France also preferred half-bottles. That may have a lot to say about how Europeans consume wine vs. Americans, and also about the strict drunk-driving laws in France, but it also showed how wine is still so much more consumer-friendly there than here.
That's partly due to the fact that the wines offered in half-bottles weren't has-beens or second-rate bottlings. They ranged from first-growth Bordeaux to dessert wines and everything else in between. The wine service was the same as you'd get with a regular-sized bottle. There also wasn't any price gouging because of the smaller size. In France, the half-bottle was standard and fully legitimate.
I'm not sure whom to entirely blame for the lack of choice in the United States--the restaurants for not paying attention to the needs of wine drinkers, or wineries for not supplying more half-bottles. Yet the wineries have more at stake than the restaurants, and if there was more choice they might find it easier to introduce that many more newcomers to wine. Those are people they desperately need in order to increase wine consumption in the United States. Wineries should be doing everything and anything they can to get people interested in wine, and what better way than with a less intimidating bottle size?
I'm sure there are plenty of reasons why American wineries don't offer half-bottles more often--from bottle supplies and manufacture, to distribution costs and economies of scale, to just plain stubbornness on the part of restaurateurs not willing to change old habits. But it's time for wineries to be concerned not only about the quality of their products and the viability of the businesses they run, but also about inculcating an appreciation of wine into more and more people's' lives.
Offering wine in half-bottles would be an important step in accomplishing that task by giving Americans more freedom of choice in what they drink, and how much they drink.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a roster of Wine Spectator editors. This week we hear from assistant managing editor Kim Marcus. To read past Unfined, Unfiltered columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.