They say variety is the spice of life, but isn’t it more like the main course? It’s not just a seasoning, but something that helps you avoid mind-numbing monotony and relentless repetition. Variety is, well, da’ bomb. That might be one of the reasons wine piques my interest; it offers virtually infinite choices to fit a mood, a dish, an occasion. Wine varies from year-to-year, ebbing and flowing with the weather, the soil and the winemaker’s whims. It has personality. So being able to choose wines by the glass, thereby increasing variety, is essential to a wine drinker’s life, especially those seeking not just the spice of life, but the main course. Most wines-by-the-glass lists fall into two categories: the mundane merlot and bland chardonnay or the inspired, cool and extraordinary. Some restaurateurs find the perfect mix, but the trick is generating income while exploring their wilder side. You need both the known — to make the dollars roll in — and the unknown — to tempt inquisitive wine geeks. A big problem is what to do with the mostly full obscure bottle at the end of the night. You need to do something to preserve it because there ain’t nothing nastier than wine that has been open for five or six days.
Some restaurants use a carbon-dioxide system that pumps the oxygen out of the bottle (the culprit that ruins wine). Other restaurants use Vacu-Vin, a manual hand pump that sucks the oxygen out. Restaurants that care about their wines by the glass will use these methods to keep their wines from turning. But, even with pumping and sucking, it’s debatable whether you can keep wine fresh for more than two or three days after opening. Ask the server what system, if any, the restaurant uses. If nothing, tread lightly and go in with a steeled tongue. Also, don’t be afraid to send the wine back if it smells like the refrigerator or tastes metallic, overly acidic or vinegary. If you’re paying good money, expect good product in return.
When you pay an insulting $10 for a glass of wine that costs $15 per bottle at the store, it hurts even if it’s fresh. Some restaurants gouge on purpose to cover their spoilage costs. Here’s the math: A bottle contains about five glasses, and restaurants price the glass so that one sale covers the wholesale cost of the bottle, in case the rest doesn’t sell. The remaining glasses are gravy.
But what doth a perfect wine list make? To harp even further: variety. Predicting what people want is no easy task for a restaurateur, but it’s possible. A great wine list should feature an array of different wines, both varietal and blends ranging from chardonnay (but for chrissake, don’t offer more than three or four) to viognier [vee-oh-NYAY] and cabernet to carignan [karin-YAN]. There should be known wineries, such as Beringer, and obscure ones such as Roshambo. With so much out there to choose from, all with varying degrees of quality based on vintages, location, winemakers and production, it takes a lot of work to build a decent wine list. Ideally, restaurateurs give careful thought to crafting it, so we need to support the effort — especially if we crave variety.