Liquids: Uniformly Appealing

I always preach that enjoying wine shouldn’t be a snobbish endeavor. But I must confess I’m a secret snob when it comes to where to drink: I like bars that are small, intimate, and plush. Yet in my quest for great wines, I have found myself increasingly drawn to (gasp!) restaurant chains.


I always preach that enjoying wine shouldn’t be a snobbish endeavor. But I must confess I’m a secret snob when it comes to where to drink: I like bars that are small, intimate, and plush. Yet in my quest for great wines, I have found myself increasingly drawn to (gasp!) restaurant chains.

The reason? To continually expand my palate, I’ve taken to ordering wines by the glass instead of buying the whole bottle. And while the small scale of those charming mom-and-pop joints lets them dish up exceptional food and atmosphere, that intimacy does limit their wine list. Stocking dozens—or even more than 100, as Fleming’s steakhouse does—of vintages to serve by the glass takes deep pockets. Keeping the bottles open and, most importantly, fresh calls for an expensive high-tech wine preservation system. One thing chains have is high volume, and therefore lots of cash.

The great news is that this potent combination enables us to be adventurous. Abe & Louie’s and Bouchée, both part of the Back Bay Restaurant Group, each offers 40 wines by the glass; Legal Sea Foods and its new concept LTK (Legal Test Kitchen) feature at least 25 at any given time; the big steakhouse chains like Smith & Wollensky and Morton’s stock 20 to 30; and Grill 23, Excelsior, and Harvest, all owned by American Food Management, pour around two dozen apiece. (To be fair, Les Zygomates and Bin 26, which are privately owned, also have exceptionally large inventories.)

The chains usually price wines between $6 and $20 for a full glass, but many, including Fleming’s and Legal Sea Foods, also offer flights as a way to encourage guests to experiment. Master of Wine Sandy Block, who directs the beverage program at Legal, for example, is able to pull together esoteric samplings because of his company’s formidable resources. “There is definitely an advantage, being larger, in having access to certain products that we can feature,” he explains. “The suppliers love the exposure to so many guests, and we’re sometimes able to sew up all of a given product coming into a market.” To prove his point, he pours me a glass of Alois Kracher’s aromatic 2005 Pinot Gris Neusiedlersee from Austria ($8.75 glass, $31 bottle). It’s crisp and delicious, and exclusive to Legal because Block was able to buy Massachusetts’ entire allocation of the stuff.

Ironically, unique is what the chains do best. Sure, they all offer an affordable chardonnay and merlot for the masses, but to hook the smart buyers like you, they also pour interesting, challenging, hard-to-find glasses—many of which they lose money on (though the markups on those cheap chardonnays and merlots make up for it). For example, I was able to find wines by the glass that are never offered as such at small restaurants, like the always elegant 2000 Château Villa Bel-Air Graves Bordeaux at Bouchée for $13 ($53); the Burgundian-style 2004 Hamilton Russell Vineyards pinot noir from South Africa at Fleming’s for $17 ($68); and the juicy 2005 Mollydooker shiraz “The Boxer” from McLaren Vale, Australia, at Excelsior for $18 ($75).

Unique does come with a price tag, however. At several restaurants around town I saw glasses for $20—and I think we’ll be seeing more and more of them. It’s not just that frugal folks like me are refusing to buy expensive bottles; it’s also that, these days, many people want only a glass or two of wine with dinner, but they want it to be extraordinary. At Abe & Louie’s, where at least a handful of glasses are priced above $20, wine director David Alphonse says the cost isn’t turning people off: “Locals want to experience quality and value when they choose what to drink with their meals. And many do see value in a $20-plus glass, in relation to a bottle they probably would never buy in its entirety.”

I have no problem with high prices as long as the product is well cared for. Many years ago I went to Les Zygomates when it was the only real wine bar in town, but I was disappointed that the rare, unusual wines were oxidized—probably because they were so “out there” that few people ever ordered them. Today drinkers are much more daring, but since there’s still the risk that what you order could be past its prime, be sure to check out how each restaurant preserves its open bottles; Bin 26, for example, uses a customized system that seals the wine under nitrogen, keeping harmful oxygen out of the bottle, while Les Zyg employs vacuum technology.

And if you do go to your favorite mom-and-pop and find its wines offered by the glass intriguing, by all means give them a try. And I do mean try: You are entitled to ask any bartender for a taste of wine that’s offered by the glass, just as you can taste the ice cream at Herrell’s. If the bottle looks half full (especially if you’re there when they ring the happy-hour bell at 5 p.m.), don’t be afraid to ask whether it was opened the night before. And if the answer is yes, definitely request a fresh one. The etiquette of ordering by the bottle is that you return it only if there’s something very wrong with the wine—not if you don’t like it. Ordering by the glass allows you to be far more…well, snobby. How dare anyone offer you day-old or, worse, week-old wine? Vintages served by the glass should be just like the specials being recited from the kitchen: the freshest items on the menu.

ADVERTISMENT