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Ask a Sommelier: Are Wines By the Glass a Good Deal?

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Sommeliers share their by-the-glass secrets. [Photographs: Shutterstock]

There's always that moment at a restaurant: should you order wine from the by-the-glass list, or spring for a bottle? Go for a few different glasses or commit? Sometimes it's hard to tell whether the wines available by the glass are a good or bad deal. Are they just cheap bottles marked up to the maximum? Are they wines that are going to go with the food you ordered?

We asked sommeliers from around the country for their advice: should you order wine by the glass? How are these wines selected and are they a good value or a bad deal?

Here's what they had to say.

"I rarely order wine by the glass in a restaurant. Even at good joints, the wines by the glass are often revenue centers, or afterthoughts. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked to consult on a restaurant and tasted through the wines by the glass only to dump out half or more of them. Many restaurants don't encourage the staff to taste the wines they are serving and that's a huge mistake because wines don't last forever. One of the first places I worked even went so far as to switch the wine that was ordered with the cheapest wine they had insisting the guests wouldn't be able to taste the difference! (I am happy to say they have since closed.) In a well curated program, the wines by the glass should be selected for the menu and for the guests. 20140302whitewineglass.jpgThat is to say, pour wines by the glass that will taste great with the food your chef is serving. If through experience you find that your guests love fruity Pinot Noir for example, make sure there is always a wine that will make them happy. A huge pet peeve is when there is nothing affordable to drink either by the bottle or by the glass. It's easy for a wine director to think about making more money, or even about high quality, without remembering that a $20 glass of wine is a huge monetary commitment. I really want my guests to be able to eat at my places as often as possible, and not only on special occasions."—Paul Einbund (Frances and Seam Wines)

"I suppose that wines by the glass can be a good deal, or a bad deal, depending on the restaurant. In my experience, a lot of restaurants in the Northwest charge the equivalent of the wholesale price of the bottle for one glass of wine, so a $12 wholesale bottle goes for $12 a glass. But I don't want to make any blanket statements, or suggest that everyone does it that way. Our list at Ava Gene's, for example, works a bit differently. I try to have pours at different price points, so I may pour a $9 bottle for $9 a glass, but I'll also pour an $18 bottle for $14 a glass. So, a good deal if you're getting an $18 wine by the glass at an affordable price, and a bad deal if you're getting a $9 wine for $9 a glass. I like rewarding adventurous decisions with a great price on a glass, and I like offering wines that you wouldn't ordinarily pour if you're working strictly on the 1:1 scale. I select glass pours as a group, so I look at different price points, different regions, and different styles when choosing new glass pours. I think it's important to have variation, in price and style of wine."—Dana Frank (Ava Gene's and Bow & Arrow)

"Very few places put the number of ounces you'll be receiving on the wine list (and I applaud those who do, but it's usually only so you can select between a 'taste' or a 'glass'), and even I get irritated by tiny pours priced like proper glasses. At The Dutch, a glass of wine is 6 ounces, almost exactly one quarter of the bottle. Give or take, if you order four glasses of one wine it will cost you the same as ordering the bottle, and that's the way I think it should be. There are definitely spots that I love, though, where I eschew the glass program all together, and only order bottles. There's no harm in asking your server or bartender how much wine is going to be in your glass, and you can do the math yourself."—Chad Walsh (The Dutch)

"On one hand, typically the mark-up for wines by the glass is a touch higher than wines ordered by the bottle (4x versus 3x, respectively). But when you order one bottle of something, you are essentially ordering 4 glasses of the same wine. When you order 4 different glasses, you get more variety and potentially get more value out of your dining experience. Is there a higher cost associated with this? Of course. But that's the market for buying in smaller quantities. No one would ever say that the travel size tooth paste is a good value ounce for ounce, but you can carry that tiny $3 tube on the airplane whereas you have to check the much larger $5 version. No one ever accused Colgate of being greedy. Wines by the glass are selected for many reasons, first and foremost they should enhance the dining experience while pairing with a wider range of dishes from the menu. For each wine by the glass there should be at least one or two dishes that complement it perfectly, and vice versa. If a wine is available by the glass, one thing that it says to a guest is that there is a lot of this wine made. These wines usually have good availability and can be easily reordered for stability in the program."—Caleb Ganzer (Eleven Madison Park)

"I like to think of our By the Glass list as a microcosm of our larger list. Because so many people drink wine by the glass, this is where we work most diligently to ensure the wines poured represent tremendous quality for the price."—Mia Van De Water (North End Grill)

"By the glass wine is a good deal if you are indeed drinking it by the glass. If you are plan to order a bottle, I would highly recommend choosing from the full wine list, as bottle price for BTG wines tend to be slightly more inflated (we are not trying to rip anyone off, it is just the nature of cost). Protip: ask your sommelier or bartender if you can enjoy the wines by the half-glass. It will be cheaper if you want to try a few wines throughout the meal without getting drunk."—Cara Patricia (Saison / Bright Wine Fund)

"I would say wines by the glass are a good deal if you plan to only go for 1 or 2 glasses max."—Adrien Falcon (Bouley and Brushstroke)

"Wines by the glass are a great deal for the guests who want to get a taste of what the house style and direction is all about. Being able to taste many different wines that pair with the chef's culinary creations is where the magic-making happens. If a wine is available by the glass, it tells you where the wine director is going with pairings. These wines allow guests to try something they might not know about—and might pique interest for future drinking!"—Jason Ruppert (Molina)

"I think wines by the glass are a good deal for the guest because they offer such diversity. For example, at Coi, we offer 15 still wines and another 10 or so dessert & fortified wines. This allows the guest to taste a variety of types of wines throughout the entire dining experience. We also offer wines from the Coravin system, a technology that allows us to pour wines without pulling the cork. By using the Coravin system, we can offer otherwise not available wines by the glass."—Mark Mendoza (Coi / Daniel Patterson Group)

"The wine by the glass program at Pearl & Ash tends to be a more casual selection. I gear it towards people looking for easy going wines and clients that aren't as 'geeky' as the people drinking bottles. So things like Malbec and Pinot Grigio are often featured. Price points are $9-$16."—Patrick Cappiello (Pearl & Ash)

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