Bottleneck be gone – wine by the glass
Doing the math is easy: Buy an entire bottle of wine, or three glasses for the same amount. The bottle takes it ” or does it? The past few years have seen a dramatic change in the quality and scope of wine-by-the-glass menus, and the American drinking public is taking full advantage of them.
“Our beverage program is about discovery,” said Sommelier Kevin Furtado, Larkspur’s beverage director. “There are so many different types of wine available now. It’s an incredible time to be interested.”
Ultimately, discovery embodies stepping outside of the comfort zone and into something new. But trying an unknown varietal or label can feel like a crap shoot, and an expensive one at that. One glass of wine is an easier commitment than signing up for the whole bottle.
“I don’t think anybody wants to do the same thing they’ve always done,” said Pollyanna Forester, proprietor of Eat! Drink! in Edwards. “So seeing some of the options laid out before you makes it easier to step out of the rut. Offering anything under 10 to 12 wines by the glass is a disservice to your diners. It means they’re not able to experiment.”
Eat! Drink! is a combination wine bar and cheese shop on one side (Eat!) and a liquor store on the other (Drink!). The wine list focuses on “phenomenal, interesting bottles” from around the globe, including Spain, Austria, and California.
“We always have a $5 wine on the list, because that shows the creativity of the sommelier or wine buyer,” said Forester. “It’s easy to find a great wine that’s expensive.”
There’s no disputing the fact that ordering by the glass is a more expensive way to go. Why the markup?
“It is more expensive,” agreed Forester. “But you’re paying for the whole restaurant experience: the correct glass, the staff, the table.”
Every wine list has a personality. Contrasted with Eat!’s eclectic selection is La Tour’s focused one: 60 percent domestic and 40 percent French. That type of focus allows Di Mario to keep 35 red Burgundy wines on the list instead of just a smattering. Elisabetta Virion of La Bottega, on the other hand, has a list that’s roughly 60 percent Italian.
“Italian wines are like Italian people,” she said. “Free, warm, kind of in-your-face and satisfying.”
The unifying principle of local lists is apparently to complement the food that’s being served. By having extensive wine-by-the-glass menus, sommeliers can pair a different wine for each person and each course.
“There are more right answers than wrong answers,” explained Furtado. “But honestly, the wrong pairing can ruin your dinner.”
Individual perfect pairings are all very well, but it’s hard to beat a bottle, shared by friends, for sheer romance.
“Sometimes it really is about the journey, about watching how a wine unfolds over time,” said Furtado earnestly.
Though French wines took a hit in popularity a few years ago, they never stopped being food-friendly. And local lists never stopped reflecting that. By the same token, every sommelier in town has one or two special goodies he or she is excited about ” usually something nobody else has heard of. Yet.
“Thank God I have a clientele that’s open to suggestion,” said Virion, laughing.
Jonathan Stauffer of Grappa Fine Wines and Spirits in Vail tastes upwards of 400 wines a year. Though he admits that’s a lot of grape juice, it’s necessary for him to be able to speak with authority about any wine in his shop. In fact, any sommelier in town has to taste and taste and taste.
“One of the things that’s made Vail unique are the European influences,” said Stauffer. “Our clientele and our staff have always had a very sophisticated palate. But people are more willing to break out of their niches. Vail, and its restaurants in general, really lead the way with wine. I’d say in certain respects the clientele are catching up with us.”
According to Furtado, the Internet has markedly accelerated the rate at which wine-drinking trends circumnavigate the globe. By making it so easy to read about someone else’s impressions and thoughts, people are becoming more inquisitive and willing to experience a wine personally. In short, they’re becoming more educated.
A sommelier’s job
“In the old days, the role of the wine steward was to intimidate the guest,” explained La Tour’s beverage director Paul Di Mario. “Maybe it was job security. But it’s so different now. My job is to empower the guest with knowledge. You don’t have to be a wine snob to enjoy drinking wine.”
“I’m like a car mechanic,” he said. “You might be able to figure it out by yourself, but it’s so nice to have some professional advice.”
Restaurant Kelly Liken has taken wines by the glass to another extreme: the half glass. And depending on how happy you are with the selection, it’s half full or half empty.
“We offer everything in a half pour,” said Dining Room Manager Rick Colomitz. “That lets people try more. There’s nothing like tasting New World versus Old World. Same grape, different region.”
Again, it’s about experimentation and education.
One reason wine-by-the-glass lists have increased in quality are wine preservation systems, which allow restaurants to keep a wine tasty after it’s been opened for a few days. Some systems suck the air out, others hit the wine with inert gas. Though helpful, they don’t prolong a wine’s life forever.
“No system is absolutely perfect,” said Di Mario slyly. “The best way to keep an open wine safe is to drink it.”
And that’s professional advice.