Ordering Wines by the Glass: You Should be Enjoying it. Every. Time.
If you're like any of us who enjoy wine with our meals, you've likely have experience ordering wine in a restaurant. You may order a bottle for the table if there are three or four people, but you're more likely to order wine by the glass if it's just one or two of you drinking a glass. Restaurants have broad ranges of the size of their wine list, from ten to hundreds of choices!
All of these wines aren't typically available by the glass, leaving a choice of maybe a half-dozen or so from an average-sized wine list. This smaller list might have one or two of each of popular often-asked-for wines—cabernet, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, and...ahem... white zinfandel. Having a small list of wines by the glass offers guests variety in case the rest of the table either doesn't drink wine or wants a white instead of a red. Having your own choice of what wine goes in your glass in the restaurant without the added purchase of a full bottle is great, but what could go wrong? As soon as the bartender or waiter opens a fresh bottle of wine from the bar for a guest's beverage order, guess who joined the party? A not-so-welcome party goer: oxygen.
As you may already know, oxygen is not wine's friend after popping the cork. Yes, oxygen is a crucial part of the winemaking process and development, but what goes on after you pop that cork is bad for the wine. Oxygen will eventually begin to deteriorate the wine's aromas, flavors, and then develop a sour stale taste. After replacing the cork in the bottle, most wines will be fine for a day or two, especially if you refrigerate them—although, drinking reds cold isn't our cup of tea. So, what's the big deal?
magine you place your order with your waiter for a glass of your favorite Argentine Malbec—nothing fancy; just a good ol' solid red. You notice the bartender who's preparing your table's drinks opens a new bottle for your wine order, pours you a nice big glass, and replaces the cork on the bottle. Excellent; you can hardly wait to enjoy it! Finally it arrives to the table, and you couldn't have loved it more.
Now, four days later another guest sees the same Malbec on the wines by the glass list. Guess where it came from? In many establishments it would be that same bottle you ordered four days earlier from with the same cork that was pulled from it. I'm sure you already see where I'm going with this one. Because oxygen was trapped in the bottle, heavy oxidation occurred over the four-day period, spoiling the wine to a sour rancid disappointment. Sure, Mrs. Unhappy Customer should say something to the waiter about it, but why should she have to? That can be uncomfortable for most people. This situation isn't always the case, but it happens frequently enough for us to write about it here.
The last straw happened to us recently at a local restaurant (to remain nameless). The night was great, we were having a lovely dinner before a show. I ordered one of my favorite go-to wines, Viñalba Malbec, a wine that I knew was going to pair wonderfully with the duck breast I had coming. After tasting it, I knew it had been sitting in an open bottle for at least 4-5 days. I didn't feel comfortable sending it back, although I wish I did in hindsight. I feel like I shouldn't have to make that type of decision. I sucked it up and slugged it down; the worst $9 I've ever spent. Luckily the Côtes du Rhône I ordered after was fine. I just wish the restaurant would take responsibility for and take the proper steps to ensure maximum freshness of their wines. We did a little research on a couple of other local Rhode Island favorites to see how they store their wine between pouring.
Pane E Vino and Blush Wine Bar (who has since closed), both of RI's historic Federal Hill in Providence, use specialized systems to preserve open bottles. Pane E Vino uses a system that places a vacuum on the bottle, removing any oxygen from inside. Blush's method involves replacing the oxygen in the bottle with an inert gas, argon. Both of these methods are common and work well. These advanced systems can be costly and a little more time to the bartenders, but are crucial in establishments that serve a great amount of wine by the glass. For restaurants that don't, PLEASE use a simple vacuum hand pump like the VacuVin is easy and inexpensive.
Whatever the investment budget, restaurants should think twice before shoving that cork back on the bottle—for the customers' sake.
And for all you wine-loving customers out there, if you get a wine that tastes off, please send it back and ask them to open a fresh bottle! You'd be doing yourself and the next customer a favor!
Restaurant owners, waiters, sommeliers, and customers: Tell us your experiences with wines by the glass!