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Wine by the glass question

  • m

I am not too knowledgeable about wine so I need some help from those who are. I often end up ordering wine by the glass with mixed results. The last time I did, I sat down at the bar right after work with the day's newspaper and ordered a glass of red Zinfandel. The bartender pulled the cork out of a bottle sitting behind him that was about half full and carefully measured out about an inch and a half of wine. While the wine had not gone completely bad, it was not very good. I had time to linger, and decided to try an experiment. I asked what the bartender might recommend if I had another glass, as I had not really enjoyed the first. He tried to steer me to another bottle that was already open, a Syrah. I asked what else was around and he showed me an unopened bottle of Cabernet. I chose that option and watched while he opened it and poured another small amount into a new glass.

As I drank this glass of wine, which was better than the first, I wondered about the policy about restaurants that serve wine by the glass in terms of these half filled bottles. How long do they sit there? I know I am paying a huge mark up by having a glass of wine, as does the restaurant management, and it seems like I should learn more about it.

I have to add that I have also had the opposite experience, with excellent choice, generous pours and decent prices considering the quality I received.

Any thoughts? Thanks!

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  1. From my experience "wine bars" will either vacuvin all open bottles at the end of the day or in some places the policy is to vacuvin each bottle after every pour. Other places will employ a glass tank where the wine is kept under a blanket of non-reactive gas and sort of tapped through tubing like beer. At other restaurant/ bars which serve wine by the glass and which neither vacuvin nor have the "tank" I've been told that they will go through a bottle in 30 minutes so wine "going bad" is not an issue. I don't know if I believe that, particularly if the restaurant offers 10 or more wines by the glass. Granted I don't know the typical turnover for wine in a restaurant/ bar though.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Chinon00

      The real problem is that most restaurants (I'm not talking wine bars) have terrible by the glass programs. They have 3 or 4 of the cheapest, most mundane, and most mass-produced wines available by the glass, while the interesting wines are almost exclusively sold by the bottle.

      My advice is to do some exploring in the area where you live and try to find a restaurant that has a good by-the-glass program. Maybe search the chowhounds board for the city/region in which you live and float the question: which restaurants in my area have good or even decent by-the glass programs.

      1. re: Chinon00

        It will differ from restaurant/bar to the next, and from wine, to wine. Some restaurants (I'll use that broad term to include all spots with b-t-g selections), are quite serious about their program and will maintain the freshness of the wine, by any means available. Others, will not, and could care less. Since the bottle has been paid for by about 1.5 glasses, all else is profit. Some places make the profit on the first glass, and often by a great deal.

        So, it depends. As stated elsewhere in this tread, one needs to search out the establishment, that really cares.

        We do a lot of b-t-g wines, when dining, as we like to match each course with a particular wine. We greatly appreciate the establishments, that care enough to insure freshness, and decent selections at fair prices.


      2. mvi,

        next time you are in a situation as you have described, if the server is going to pour you a selection from a previously opened bottle, stop the server and ask if you can have a sample or taste before he pours you a full serving/glass. If the server gives you a song and a dance, tell him you would then prefer he open a new bottle. If he declines, make a decision how you wish to proceed.....whether you stay or leave.

        BTW, I do not say this often, but if the server doesn't pour a taste for you...stiff him.

        1 Reply
        1. re: fourunder

          A very sound suggestion from 4- to ask for a taste. The fact that a bottle is half-full and has a cork in it is not necessarily a bad sign. It could have been opened recently, and they may vacuum or pump in inert gas for any unfinished bottles at the end of the evening. On the other hand, they may not, and the bottle may have been open for days. No way to tell. Setting aside the storage issue, any good bartender should be happy to give you a small sample of any BTG wine to make sure you like it.

          As a side note just to reinforce that an open bottle is not necessarily a bad sign, many reds improve with some exposure to air (hence decanting). I pretty regularly will just recork what may be left of particularly younger and more burly reds (zins, syrahs), without any vacuum or inert gas program, for consumption the next day. They usually have changed some, though not necessarily in a bad way.

        2. Are there two issues here?

          You mention the wine wasn't to your liking, perhaps because it had been open too long.

          You also make specific note of -- twice -- the small amount of the pour, and comment on "generous pours" and "decent prices" in your last graf. Is this indirectly saying in some way you felt shortchanged for the amount of money you paid, and that the first wine should have been worth the money?

          Yes, always ask for a taste. If you don't care for it, tell the bartender why. Then, you'll probably be offered a fresh pour from a new bottle (something you can always ask for also) or another selection. The resto isn't going to lose money on your requests.

          1. Thanks so much for all of this sound advice.

            As I look at my post, I do see two things going on, as Maria suggests. One, the quality of the wine and two, the cost and quantity.

            I am usually with friends or family when I eat out and not sitting at the bar by myself. I don't pay as much attention in those circumstances, unless we are at a place that offers a very strong selection of wine by the glass and the waiter is especially helpful in that regard. Most of my dining companions seem to be more interested in the food than the wine, and I am usually being treated, so I don't like to make a fuss over the wine (or anything else!). Many years ago when I did more dining in Boston, I had some outstanding glasses of wine at places like Troquet and No. 9 Park. I guess I need to find some more places like that in my new home town or make some frequent trips to Boston.

            This has given me a lot to think about and I thank you!

            1. A couple of thoughts on this.

              As to the size of the pour. Alcohol laws vary somewhat from state to state, but I believe that restaurants (hot kitchen, standard meal-type service) can pour as much wine in a glass as they wish. In California there are a lot of wine shops that have tasting bars that look like you are in a regular wine bar but they may be subject to a rather inconsistently applied state/local jurisdiction condition that limits them to pouring a maximum of two ounces per pour. The charge is usually proportioned to the amount poured, but those who are unaware of the law sometimes think it a short pour. The proprietor should explain this.

              Except for the busiest of places I would think that all BTG wines are held over from day to day. The best way is with inert gas. It is sometimes surprising how long a wine can maintain good quality under gas, but it is the proprietor's responsibility to check the wine before serving and replace as necessary. I think the offer a short taste if there is any question is a very good one because everyone's palate is different and what tastes fine to one may be off to another. What the customer doesn't like may not have gone bad (may just be their preference), but that offer helps build confidence in the integrity of the wine program and should be appreciated.

              5 Replies
              1. re: Midlife

                In the Greater New York area and i am sure nationally, the standard pour preferred by ownership is 4,5 ounces. the reason for this is to attempt and maximize profits and squeeze six servings per bottle assuming the bottle is 750 ml. However, this is rare achieved unless there is an automatic system used. Human behavior affects the pour, due to manual methods of procedure or intent. However, prices should be consistent to general markup procedures based on volume poured and not by a whim and considered to be excessive. Any pour over the 4-5 ounce serving should be made known to justify the more expensive appropriate price tag.

                1. re: fourunder

                  I though that the OP's issue was a small pour.

                  1. re: Midlife

                    I took the original post as questioning the quality and value.

                    A short pour of wine is not easily determined depending on whether it is served in the appropriate glass and or size. If a large wine goblet was used, 1.5 inches seems like it may be 4-5 ounces, but may not seem acceptable by perspective or view.......hence my earlier confirmation of education suggested by others.

                    1. re: fourunder

                      I think my post might have been confusing. It covered a few related issues, including the amount of wine in the glass and my question about those half filled bottles that sit around stopped up with a cork. I was puzzled about how long they sit there. Ordering wine by the glass can be a wonderful experience and allows people like me to learn about new wines, but as I hope you can see, I was somewhat disappointed at this local hot spot. All of the responses so far have been really helpful and have made me think about this topic quite a bit. So thanks to ALL.

                      1. re: mvi

                        Wines, offered b-t-g, can be wonderful. Since half-bottle selections seem so very rare, nowadays, it is the best way to pair different courses, or to just have a glass of wine, by yourself, or with too few, or too diverse a set of tastes, to do a full-bottle.

                        Lately, I've experienced more, and more, establishments, using the 4oz +/- carafes to pour the wine from the bottle, and bring it, and the glass to the patron. Usually the server will pour into the glass (though hopefully not the full carafe). This allows the restaurant/bar to measure the pours, and allows the patron to put the vol. into the glass, that they would like. Some shops DO try to pour the full amount at one time, but I stop them, allowing me to decide how much, and when. Little urks me more (well, maybe a few other things), than to get a glass of wine, right where I like it (especially reds), and the server sneaks up, and tops up the glass.

                        The presentation of the bottle (even with b-t-g) is also becoming more common, as is a tiny taste, prior to either pouring the mini-carafe, or the glass. Nice touch!

                        The mini-carafe also allows the patron to see the vol., that will be poured, though some spatial conceptualization is required. I've poured some folk, a perfect pour for the glassware, and had them state, "hey, why not give me FULL glass?" Heck, I did. Filling to the rim, especially with something like a Riedel Sommelier's Bdx. stem, is too much wine, too little space and usually horribly wasteful of the wine. If they want it full, they will not appreciate it.

                        When dining, even if ordering full-bottles, I always tell the servers how much I appreciate a good b-t-g selection, or half-bottle selection. They need to know, that they are doing something right, even if I did not order from that part of the list.

                        I wish that more places would do wine b-t-g, and take it seriously. Same for halves.


              2. I once owned a restaurant with a great wine list and the by the glass section was extremely important to me. The glass program was by far the most difficult part to design. Wines have to hold up well after being opened, have a decent value so they would not go to waste if not sold before passing their prime .. something that surprised me was how cheap the by glass wines were at other restaurants (let's just say they would often make money or break even on the first glass) I was shocked! Of course not nearly as shocked as when I learned that credit companies make money on both sides of a transaction .. but that's another story completely!

                2 Replies
                1. re: oliveoyl

                  It seems that there are two schools of thought, regarding b-t-g wines:
                  1.) maximize profits
                  2.) offer the patrons good value, innovative wines, not on everyone's list, and pair with the food (if there is food).

                  We moved to PHX about 10 years ago, and received recs. for a nifty "wine bar," in a tony shopping area. I stopped by, and noticed that they were doing Lindeman's Bin 65 Chardonnay, as a "special," at $25/glass. Well, that wine had been our "house" Chard some years back for a season, and I was buying it @ $4.25/btl. in case-quantity. The wholesale price had probably not climbed much above that figure, even though a few years had gone by. Needless to say, we did not stop in, though the place was filled, with a line at the bar, and all al fresco tables taken. Next trip back to that area, it was gone, and replaced by a jewelery store. Guess that I was not the only person, feeling ripped.

                  I've talked to quite a few higher-end chefs on this subject, and to a person, they all espouse a great b-t-g program and work to maintain it. As you point out, there are more serious concerns, than just the varietal of wine, to include in the program.

                  In a wine-friendly restaurant, it also pays to ask the server/sommelier if there are any "specials," not on the b-t-g list. One can often get some really interesting wines, that way.


                  1. re: oliveoyl

                    In my experience locally in Miami based on a reasonably well-informed guess as to the restaurant's wholesale cost, it is a pretty sure bet that the restaurant's cost of the wine is reflected by the BTG price (i.e. the wine is paid for with the first glass).

                  2. Personally I am always wary of any place that has an extensive b t g list even if they are extremely busy they may only go through their more basic wines. I get most excited when the restaurant has half bottles. That is my favorite way to dine.

                    3 Replies
                    1. re: chris the bartender

                      Chris, I believe you're in NJ. Which restaurants would you recommend that have a decent selection of half bottles? They seem to be few and far between in the western part of the state.

                      1. re: chris the bartender

                        Depending on the b-t-g selection, and the establishment's committment, I do not feel the same. However, I too, get very excited by a wealth of halves. Lately, I've found more restaurants exploring these, but maybe it's just the spots where we have dined.


                        1. re: Bill Hunt

                          I picked up some splits of Ken Wright and Patty Green Pinot Noir at AJ's my last trip. Did not even know they did 375m bottles. Never have seen them in Oregon.