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When To Get Wine By The Glass

By Staff in Food on May 29, 2014 7:30PM

Last week I wrote an article telling you why you shouldn't order wine by the glass. Well, I admit I didn't tell you the whole story. There are actually a lot of very good reasons to order wine by the glass.

As Elizabeth Mendez, owner and beverage director at Vera told me, “A lot of times people come into a restaurant and just want a refreshment before they even think about food.” But when you're sitting down to order dinner, the main reason to get a wine by the glass, rather than a whole bottle, is you and your party just aren't going to drink an entire bottle of wine. Mendez quipped, “Maybe it's just a school night and you don't want to commit to a whole bottle.” And it could be as simple as that. The good news is, many restaurants around Chicago offer high quality wines by the glass.

When you're in a restaurant with a good wine program, you can be assured that the glass pour list is quite carefully chosen. As Scott Manlin, partner at Ceres Table and also an experienced wine collector, explained, “I wanted to make sure that there wasn't a glass pour on my list that I wouldn't want to drink.”

Another reason to order wine by the glass is that doing so allows you to try a new varietal or style of wine that maybe you've never experienced before, without committing to a whole bottle. Joe Campagna, former GM of Graham Elliot and author of the blog Chicago Food Snob, explained, “I think if there are unique styles that you're not used to that are on the by the glass list, it's a great opportunity to give you a taste about what that really is. What is a Sauvignon Blanc in France versus what is a Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand? They're really very different wines.” And ordering from a glass pour list allows you to try these varying styles inexpensively.

In fact, you can take that one step further and ask for a sample, which is what wine collector Andrew Johnstone often does. “I ask to taste it,” he said. “Especially if it's something on the higher end of what I'm willing to pay, I definitely will say 'Hey, I'm interested in this, can I get a taste before I decide to order it or not?' And most places give it to you.” If you like it, hey, great! Go ahead and order a glass. If not, try to explain to the server what you don't like and they can help you with another choice.

Another reason to order wine by the glass, rather than by the bottle, is that it allows you to try a variety of wines throughout your meal. Let's say you start with a light vegetable appetizer, then move onto a big beef dish. Well, you'll likely be better off getting two different glass pours to pair with each dish, because one wine likely won't pair with both dishes. Phillip Walters, owner of The Bristol and Balena, explained, “The choices allow you to order several different things and have a taste of everything.” Dave Johnston, The Bristol general manager, added, “It's extremely important to pair the appropriate wine with the appropriate food.” In fact, if you're just getting into wine and aren't quite sure which wines to order by the glass, the help of a knowledgeable server “gives the customer a guided pairing experience per course,” according to Walters.

Sometimes a restaurant will open a high-end wine that's typically only available by the bottle to use for staff training or as customer education. If you're lucky enough to be at the restaurant on such a night, you might find the remainder of that bottle available as a glass pour. “If someone is curious about a bottle of wine, sometimes I'll open that bottle for them, and if they don't want it, I'll turn it into a glass pour as long as there's nothing wrong with the wine,” Manlin said. So keep your eyes open, you just might find that high end Napa Cabernet by the glass.

If you are going to order wine by the glass, you want to be sure you're at a restaurant that has a good by the glass program. Doing so will ensure that not only are you getting a fair value, but also that you're getting wine that's been stored properly, as well as quality wine service. But how can you tell if the glass pour list is a good one? Elizabeth Mendez suggested one simple way to do that: “If you are looking at a wine by the glass list and you know that those wines are available in a grocery store, that's first and foremost not going to be the most reputable wine list.”

Next, take a look around at other tables ordering wine by the glass. Are the glasses being poured for the customer table side? If so, the restaurant is going the extra mile to make sure the customer experiences good wine service. Manlin explained, “When ordering wine by the glass it should be served with as much respect as someone ordering an $80 bottle, a $150 bottle.”

“We pride ourselves at table side pouring,” Walters said. “I don't think it takes too much more effort to make it happen.” But be aware that a number of restaurants with high quality wine programs might not pour table side for a variety of service reasons, like portion control.

When it comes right down to it, ordering wine by the glass allows you to try new varietals or styles and lets you pair wines by the course, often at a lower total price than by the bottle if your party is only going to order a glass or two.

By John Lenart