Most Popular in Glass

Jeffery Lindenmuth - July/August 2006

Sommeliers reveal which wines by the glass excite the greatest public demand.

Savvy diners once avoided ordering wine by the glass, believing that single-serving wine represented a sucker bet—fewer choices, poor value, and questionable condition—compared to the bottle list. But that's no longer the case, as these restaurants, each of which has been voted "Most Popular" in its respective city by Zagat Survey, prove with vibrant by-the-glass wine programs that offer an array of food-friendly wines.

While Merlot and Chardonnay from California still rank high in popularity, they are no longer the default for by-the-glass drinkers. Wine directors report inroads being made by other varietal wines, including Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio on the white front, and on the red, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, and even kitchen-sink blends like Northwest Vine Project Red Splendor 2004 from Washington, which claims the top spot for a domestic pour at Wild Ginger in Seattle. The sea change is a result of restaurants offering by-the-glass wines that better match their food, combined with increasing consumer knowledge of food and wine pairing. "I'm always surprised to see wines by the glass that don't seem to show affinity with the menu," says Scott Tyree, wine director at Tru in Chicago. "I'd like to see more thought going into selections that serve to enhance dishes while allowing the wine to shine." Diners seem to agree, choosing Groth Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2004 with a heap of claws at Joe's Stone Crab in Miami while opting for Rocking Horse Zinfandel Napa Valley 2000 with the assertive seven flavor beef at Wild Ginger.

The less talked about variable of wine by the glass is the "glass" itself, and that too has been opened to interpretation, with some restaurants, like Abacus in Dallas, upping the pour to a Texas-sized seven ounces, while others offer several sizes. Tru pours a five-and-a-half-ounce glass and a three-ounce tasting. At Legal Sea Foods in Boston, sommelier Sandy Block says his wine flights, where guests can taste three different two-ounce pours comparatively, are increasingly popular. Block's flight themes, too, reflect expanding wine knowledge, having become more specific, as with the Sonoma Chardonnays and international Pinot Gris categories or esoteric, like Discovery Red Wines, which feature a Chinon, an Aussie Grenache, and an Argentine Malbec.

Bubbly by-the-glass, be it Champagne, Prosecco, or cava, is proving a must-have to kick off the meal. Ole Thompson says Wild Ginger is currently a test site for Perlage, a wine-preservation system that promises to do for sparkling wine what others have done for pricey table wine. "Because of this system, we are currently pouring Moët & Chandon Dom Pérignon 1996, Perrier Jouët Fleur de Champagne 1996, Veuve Clicquot Reserve Brut 1998, and Louis Roederer Cristal 1997 by the glass," reports Thompson.

The by-the-glass list represents the most hospitable part of the wine program, bottles the house is willing to open, if only to offer a single pour. At its most creative, it reflects the personal style of the wine director and his faith in the escalating taste of the customer. Suddenly, by-the-glass lists are drawing the smart money.

Sandy Block Legal Sea Foods Boston

Most popular domestic: J. Lohr Estates Chardonnay Monterey Riverstone 2004
Most popular imported: Barone Fini Pinot Grigio Valdadige 2005
Most popular red: McManis Merlot California 2004
Most popular white: J. Lohr Estates Chardonnay Monterey Riverstone 2004
Most popular sparkling: Segura Viudas Brut Cava Aria NV
Most popular dessert: Michele Chiarlo Moscato d'Asti Nivole 2005
Best value for quality and price: Capezzana Sangiovese Toscana Conti Contini 2004
Domestic BTG that sparks the most bottle sales: Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay Sonoma Coast Russian River Ranches 2004
Imported BTG that sparks the most bottle sales: The Wishing Tree Chardonnay Western Australia 2005
On premium selections: "In most of our most popular categories we offer a range of prices, and we find that the upper tier is selling vigorously, especially where our staff is educated to explain the characteristics of the different offerings."
On the future: "I would like to see more focus on flights of wine where guests can compare a range of wines that have some relation to one another but are different enough to make a clear contrast."

Scott Tyree Tru Chicago

Domestic: Kistler Chardonnay Sonoma County Les Noisetiers 2004
Import: Michel Niellon Chassagne-Montrachet Clos de la Maltroie 2003
Red: Christophe Roumier Chambolle-Musigny 2000
White: Huia Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2005
Sparkling: Krug Brut Champagne Grande Cuvée NV
Dessert: Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Niagara Peninsula Ice Wine 2002
Best value: Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage Tête de Cuvée 2003
Domestic BTG that sparks the most bottle sales: Francis Tannahill Washington Alder Ridge 2003
Imported BTG that sparks the most bottle sales: Castellare di Castellina Toscana I Sodi di San Niccolò 1999
On premium selections: "Selling them requires an educated and passionate staff who can allay any misgivings about quality and price."
On the future: "I'd like to see selections that are reflective of the sommeliers' or wine directors' passion—what wines they find exciting and unique. Too many by-the-glass programs are bogged down with selections that are too safe and uninspiring."

Paul Kozolis Joe's Stone Crab Miami

Domestic: Groth Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2004
Import: Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio Valdadige 2005
Red: B. R. Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Silver Label 2004
White: Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay Vintner's Reserve
Sparkling: Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne NV
Dessert: Inniskillin Vidal Niagara Peninsula Ice Wine 2002
Best value: Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay Alexander Valley 2004
Domestic BTG that sparks the most bottle sales: Archery Summit Pinot Noir Oregon Premier Cuvée 2004
Imported BTG that sparks the most bottle sales: Schloss Vollrads Riesling Rheingau 2004
On premium selections: "My customers are willing to try any by-the-glass wine and are not afraid of price point."
On the future: "I hope to be able to try anything on my list by the glass."

Matthew Scott Abacus Dallas

Domestic: Chateau St. Jean Pinot Noir Sonoma County 2004
Imported: Green Point Shiraz Victoria 2003
Red: Chateau St. Jean Pinot Noir Sonoma County 2004
White: J. Fritz Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2004
Sparkling: Veuve Clicquot Brut Champagne Yellow Label NV
Dessert: Inniskillin Cabernet Franc Niagara Peninsula Ice Wine 2002
Best value: Zaca Mesa Z Cuvée Santa Ynez Valley 2003
Domestic BTG that sparks the most bottle sales: Chateau St. Jean Pinot Noir Sonoma County 2004
Imported BTG that sparks the most bottle sales: Green Point Shiraz Victoria 2003
On premium selections: "People are willing to order premium selections more often."
On the future: "I'd love to see more guests experiment with lesser known vineyards and varietals. There's a trend toward that, but many people still hesitate to offer these wines by the glass."

Ole Thompson Wild Ginger Seattle

Domestic: Northwest Vine Project Red Splendor Washington 2004
Imported: Reichsrat von Buhl Riesling QbA Halbtrocken Pfalz Maria Schneider Label 2004
Red: Rocking Horse Zinfandel Napa Valley 2000
White: Abbey Page Pinot Gris Oregon 2004
Sparkling: Laurent-Perrier Brut Champagne NV
Dessert: L'Ecole No. 41 Late Harvest Sémillon Washington 2003
Best value: Lucien Albrecht Pinot Blanc Alsace Cuvée Balthazar 2005
Domestic BTG that sparks the most bottle sales: Mason Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2004
Imported BTG that sparks the most bottle sales: Rive della Chiesa Brut Prosecco NV
On premium selections: "Customers are willing to try them under certain conditions, such as the wine being something that they recognize as being worth the higher price or if the staff is very excited and knowledgeable in selling why that particular wine is special."
On the future: "I'd like to see restaurants investing in wine-saving systems that allow them to pour more choices by the glass and offering half-bottle pours."