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Don’t Order Wine By The Glass

By Staff in Food on May 22, 2014 7:30PM

You’ve just been seated at the table, the waiter hands you a menu. If you’re looking to pair your meal with wine, it’s time to make a big decision: a glass of wine or a bottle? Many people set the bottle list aside immediately, assuming it will be cheaper to just order by the glass. But if you are dining with a group you might want to rethink that impulse.

Restaurants typically plan to pour somewhere between four and six ounces for wines by the glass. So that roughly equates to between four and six glasses per bottle. Let's say on a given glass-pour list an average glass is $12, and your party is going to have five glasses of wine over the course of the meal. Well, for the $60 you're going to spend on wine you can often go to the bottle list and find a wine that gives you much more value than the wine by the glass.

Wine by the glass is a huge profit center for a restaurant. Typically the cost of the bottle of wine being served by the glass is covered in the charge for somewhere between the first glass or glass and a half. That’s about a 400 to 500 percent markup on the entire bottle. Compare that to the markup on a wine from the bottle list, which is usually between 200 to 300 percent, and you'll see that wine by the bottle offers a better value. Dave Johnston, GM of The Bristol, says “[the markup on] wines by the glass helps us to pay for what we do for wines by the bottle. In order to keep our bottle prices reasonable we need to be able to hit our margins on wine by the glass.”

If you ever felt like your server was steering you away from wine by the glass, it's not always that he or she was just looking for a bigger tip. According to Elizabeth Mendez, owner and beverage director at Vera, “I talk people out of getting wines by the glass for their benefit. Because I want them to see the value in my wines.” Mendez wants to show people who think there's more bang for their buck in beer or cocktails that wine by the bottle often offers a higher quality to value ratio. She said, “I'll often say, ‘Let's find a bottle for you rather than spend this on four glasses.’”

The next concern you should have when ordering wine by the glass is the condition of the wine. At restaurants with better wine programs this isn't typically a problem, but if a bottle sits open overnight, at the incorrect temperature, the quality can diminish rapidly, particularly when it comes to sparkling wines. Joe Campagna, former GM of Graham Elliot and author of the blog Chicago Food Snob, said, “I went to a restaurant and we got a glass of a sparkling French wine, not Champagne. The glass comes, this is at brunch, and there are barely any bubbles. I'm looking at it going, 'That glass is flat.' So my friend tastes it and she says, 'That doesn't seem right.' So, we call the server over and we're like, listen, we think this is flat and she says, 'No, this wine isn't supposed to be as bubbly as Champagne. But I'll get you another glass.' And I'm sitting there knowing full well that she is lying to my face. They bring over a fresh glass, they pour it and it's a completely different wine. And this is at a restaurant where you would never expect this, and if I told the owners they would be appalled. But it can happen anywhere.”

Glass pour lists are often just plain boring. Ordering wine from the bottle list can also offer you a much greater selection in grape varietals and styles. When looking at glass pour lists around the city, wine collector Andrew Johnstone says, “I do think around Chicago there aren't a lot of places that pay serious attention to their glass pour lists. It's usually just three or four whites, three or four reds, maybe a sparkling and that's about it. It's like they're checking off boxes. They're going to have a Chardonnay, they're going to have a Sauvignon Blanc, they're going to have a Riesling, and a lot of times they aren't going to be that great.” He goes on, “Same thing with the reds, you're usually going to get one or two Pinots, a Merlot, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and that's about it.” So if you're looking to expand your wine world, look to the bottle list and maybe order a varietal that's new to you.

Another reason not to order wine by the glass is that restaurants often lack in service when it comes to serving glass pours. Proper wine service ought to present the wine being poured for you by showing you the bottle and should also give you the chance to taste the wine to ascertain whether or not it is of sound quality. Unfortunately most restaurants don't do this. More often than not the server takes your order and comes back with a glass of wine for you. When it comes to service when ordering by the glass, Johnstone says, “Most places don't pour table-side when ordering by the glass. So I'm just trusting that they’re serving me what I ordered.”

Finally, and I admit this is a bit wine geeky, another great thing about ordering wine by the bottle is that most wine benefits from air and, over time in contact with the air, it develops and changes. More often than not, a glass pour doesn't last long enough to be affected in this way. According to Johnstone, ordering by the bottle “allows you to experience the wine over time. It allows me to experience the wine over the course of an hour or an hour and a half and see how it changes. And I like to see that. I like to savor it.”

And when opening that sometimes lengthy bottle list, which can be a little overwhelming if you're new to wine, don't feel silly asking for some guidance from either the server or sommelier. They're there to help and love to chat about wine.

So when it comes down to it, if you're looking for a better value, want to be certain that the wine order hasn't been sitting open overnight or longer, and just want a better selection of wine, put the glass list aside and open bottle list.

This is part one of a two-part article on why you should or should not order wine by the glass at a restaurant. Next week, why you should order wine by the glass.

By John Lenart