Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Wines by the Glass

There's nothing that makes me quite as giddy as opening a wine list to see a large, eclectic list of carefully chosen wines available by the glass. I'm a kid at the candy store, wanting to try every last thing, wondering whether this chablis or that flute o' bubbles would work with my lovely salad. Restaurants, wine bars and bistros who take the time to craft their by-the-glass lists with the menu in mind, and who take the chance that patrons will, with guidance, try new things have always impressed the hell out of me.

Now, if you live in San Francisco or New York, you might be inclined to say "Well, duh, how else would they choose their wines?" Problem is, I'm in Austin, Texas, and folks here are new to wine and tend to cling to what's familiar. The number of clingers outnumber the more adventurous by a large margin. People ask to see the wine list and scan for the safe choices, which are invariably cabs, merlots, or if they're really feeling fancy: pinot noir. White wine drinkers love their chards, of course, and many think pinot grigio is synonymous with 'white' wine. As a result, many wine lists around this town consist of all things safe and sound: couple of cabs, couple of merlots, couple of chards, a zin or two; if there's anything out of the ordinary, it's usually something very similar in style to the others: big, oaky, fruity.

The reasoning behind this is also safe and sound: give the people what they want. Those who are relatively new to wine usually identify quality and satisfaction with that big, forward, sexy new world juice, and why should we disappoint them? We shouldn't. Those should be on the list. But I have a theory: people want to try new wine, want to know more about it, but they stick to safe because they don't wanna get burned.

Scenario One: Bob and Sally sit down at the bar to wait for their table. The bartender arrives on the scene (looking very hot in her blacks):

Bob: I'll have the house cabernet. Honey, what do you want?

Sally: Oh, well, what kind of chardonnay do you have? (chardonnay = white wine)

Bartender: We've got one from Napa and one from Monterrey. They're both good.

Sally: You choose, whichever one's the best.

RESULT: Bob and Sally get what they expect and have little or no recollection of what kind of wine they drank.

Scenario Two: Bob and Sally belly up to the bar to wait on their table. The super hot bartender arrives.

Bob: Hi. I'll have a house cabernet. What do you want, hon?

Sally: Oh, well, what kind of chardonnay do you have?

Bartender: Tellya what--let me show you our wine list and tell you about a few of these you might like to try.

The bartender takes a moment to point out a few choices on the list that she thinks the couple might like. Bob tries a barbera, and Sally goes for the Au Bon Climat pinot blanc/grigio blend.

RESULT: Bob and Sally remember their wine experience. They tell their friends how the bartender (besides being so incredibly beautiful) turned them on to these two new wines, and how they should go check the restaurant out.

You get my drift. Getting what you expect at a restaurant or wine bar is nice, but forgetable. Trying something new that you like is memorable. That happens when the staff at the restaurant, from the wine buyer to the servers, know the list and have enough knowledge to guide the guests towards a new experience. And I ain't saying they need to force a bone-dry white burgundy down a Sonoma-Cutrer lover's throat; that's where knowledge comes in, where the wine buyer for the restaurant has used his palate for the people and not his own preferences. I am saying that not everyone knows how lovely a peppery gigondas pairs with a lamb shank until they're encouraged to try.


Blogger farley said...

Even though I live near San Francisco now, I completely relate to this, as I moved from jackson, Mississippi-- where almost every restaurant had Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay by the glass or else fear of rioting.

It was (and is) a great pleasure to see the Viogniers and Sangioveses and other lesser-known treasures available.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous wineguy said...

You can be the bartender at my place. You already qualify for the good looks...!

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how can a typical 'bob' or 'sally' tell if the person behind the bar knows what they're talking about? i think good help is tough to get in bars (which i don't frequent) and the wine department of stores like whole foods (which i do frequent). i've been stuck w/ a bad bottle of wine more than once by well-meaning but unknowing staff.

then there's the matter of taste. would 'bob' or 'sally' relate to various wines the way a knowledgeable person would? maybe 'bob' and 'sally' would like their semi-sweet wines better than a drier, more complex ('whatever that is', says sally to bob...) wines.

buyer beware....


7:21 AM  
Blogger taj said...


I've been both a retail wine salesperson and a bartender (which I am now), and have always considered it the primary part of my job to know the products I sell. I realize that there are many places out there that sell wine, such as grocery stores, where there might not be a knowledgable person there to assist a customer, and I agree, that's a shame.

In my fictitional Bob and Sally scenario, however, the bartender knows that if the two of them are used to a certain style of wine, it wouldn't be wise to offer them something way far out from home base. A barbera, for instance, can be a great crossover wine for people who have never tried Italians. The scenario I described is one that plays out almost nightly when I'm at work, and most times I'm able to turn someone on to something new. If they don't like the selection I recommended (and this is true of most places, including reputable retail wine stores) then all they have to do is say so and I'll give them something else.

As far as taste: it's not knowledge that changes taste preferences. It's experimentation. The more food, wine, music, sports or art you experiment with, the wider your interest becomes. Palates are built by trying new things. The more Bob and Sally try new wines, the more they'll find things they like, and the more sensitive and discerning their palates will become. I want to be part of turning people on to this wonderful way of exploration.

8:00 AM  
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5:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm just glad you're writing again.

Having said that, retail food and beverage businesses have to be willing to offer variety of wines and train their people to sell this wine and guide customers to good food and wine matches.

Perhaps you should write your take on local restaurant wine lists. Some are quite "safe" and typically over priced. Others are unique, fairly price and have a staff that knows the end and outs of the whole list.

7:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Merrier by the bottle I guess!

1:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To watch the wine's opening process is already a wine lover gift!

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