I've said it once and I'll say it again: One thing that drives me nuts is when upscale wine lists don't contain at least a few low-priced, high-quality wines for well-informed oenophiles to choose from. To that complaint I now add a corollary: There should also be a goodly selection of half bottles so that a couple or two can pair wines with each course just as easily as a larger group can.
Is this asking so much? Apparently, because half bottles—which contain 375 ml of wine as opposed to the standard 750 ml—are maddeningly scarce not only in restaurants but particularly at retail. When you do find 375s in store, they are marked up using the curious equation that makes a half bottle cost more than half (usually about two thirds) the price of a full one, just as magnums are often ticketed higher than two regular bottles of the same wine. Go figure.
The freedom that a half bottle affords was brought home to me a few months ago, when my wife and I invited a friend we're fond of to dinner at the American Hotel in Sag Harbor, New York, our favorite restaurant on Long Island's East End. The wine list there is not only encyclopedic (1,700 selections) but it also carries a number of excellent half bottles. I decided on the crisp Pinot d'Alsace ($28) by one of my favorite makers, Zind-Humbrecht, for the first courses (oysters and vegetarian sushi), the vibrant 2001 Domaine Guigal Châteauneuf du Pape ($38) for our meaty main courses (tuna, duck, and rack of lamb), and the seductive 1997 Heyl Niersteiner Pettental Riesling Auslese ($38) for dessert. Each worked beautifully and no one went home feeling sloshed. I ended up spending just over a hundred on wine—about what I would have paid had I ordered a round of aperitifs and one full bottle.
As any honest sommelier will confess, individual glasses of wine are a stealth profit center on any restaurant spreadsheet. With the per-glass charge often equal to what the house pays for the entire bottle at wholesale, it's easy to see through the excuse many owners offer when queried about why they don't stock more half bottles: "We don't need to because we offer so many wines by the glass." Even disregarding a stiff price hike, it doesn't take a doctorate in math to figure out that at $10 a glass—a not-uncommon price point these days—you would do a lot better to go for a bottle, even a half that will give you four pours (albeit modest ones).
Restaurateurs who want to develop a following as well as the bottom line have been bolstering the half-bottle cause in recent years, finding it can make economic sense. In 2000, next to her critically acclaimed Verbena restaurant in New York, chef Diane Forley opened Bar Demi, a 12-seat annex featuring a stunning array of halves. "I believe not only in seasonal foods but also seasonal wines," says Forley, who closed her New York operations in 2003 to move to California, where her chef-husband took a job.
"At Bar Demi," Forley continues, "the half bottles gave us much more freedom, and we paired the food to the wines rather than the other way around. People loved it." She then pointed out another problem with the open-bottle pourings so common at wine bars. "You don't know how long an open bottle has been sitting around oxidizing. With a half bottle uncorked for you, you know just what you're getting."
Another major exponent of halves is Guy Goldstein, beverage director for New York's Tour de France group, whose nine restaurants include the popular Upper West Side bistro Nice Matin. More than 10 percent of its 400 wines are halves. "My enthusiasm grew out of personal experience," Goldstein explains. "Most of the time when I travel I dine alone, and I don't want to finish a full bottle by myself."
Goldstein recently bought 120 cases of 1997 Bordeaux half bottles from such distinguished châteaux as Ducru-Beaucaillou, Figeac, and Baron de Pichon-Longueville, and fairly priced them from $40 to $58. "They're flying out of here," he reports, "especially among those who know their value. Now, instead of selling two or three bottles of the same wine to a table, we're selling four to six halves of various kinds."
Splits of Champagne and half bottles of dessert wines are easier to locate; smaller-size reds and whites are far scarcer. In France that has much to do with the négociant system, in which middlemen buy wine, bottle it themselves, and sell it to retailers. If a merchant asks for half bottles, they will be made especially for him, but otherwise not.
"Négociants decide," says Jean-Louis Carbonnier, a New York-based publicist whose clients include Bordeaux's venerable Château Palmer, manufacturer of halves sur commande. "But it's a vicious circle. Retailers really don't like half bottles, perhaps because they're more difficult to display or they feel a certain market reluctance. And if they don't push for them, the négociants will not create them. It's a very unfortunate situation."
Goldstein agrees: "I have to insist on getting half bottles. The industry's resistance is largely a matter of availability. Retailers don't trust them, and on some restaurant lists I can sometimes see that they are not selling the half bottles very quickly, maybe because they're not drawing the client's attention to them."
Bettina Sichel, a member of the eponymous family of Bordeaux négociants and director of sales and marketing for Napa Valley's Quintessa winery, concurs, but she sees a significant change in attitude. "Retailers are wary of half bottles because if older half bottles are still on the shelves after a new vintage of 750s has arrived, they become much harder to sell, especially if the new vintage is a better one," she observes. "But I was amazed when I called on Paul Roberts [wine and beverage director at the French Laundry] recently and he was only interested in ordering halves. He told me that most of their volumes now were in halves." Not surprising given the multicourse tasting menus, which demand specific pairings.
Yet Sichel isn't convinced that the corner has been permanently turned. "It seems to be a cyclical business and at Quintessa we take a conservative approach toward how many half bottles we produce because of that," she says. "We began offering them as a sample vehicle so our top customers could taste our new vintages without our having to pour from a full bottle we'd opened at ten that morning. Then they began ordering the halves themselves.
"We are on an upswing now," Sichel continues, "and because of the greater demand, we make fourteen hundred cases of halves of each vintage, about eight percent of our total output. Other Napa wineries are bottling halves now, too. Demand can be created by innovative restaurateurs or groundbreaking retailers, but it's going to take sustained support from the public to keep the ball rolling."
Though Champagne splits are the most plentiful smaller bottles around, they are almost exclusively run-of-the-mill brut selections, aimed not at connoisseurs but at couples who want to make a celebratory toast. A notable exception is Krug's glorious nonvintage Grand Cuvée, which, if not exactly a loss leader for the firm at $75 for a half bottle, nonetheless helps promote it to an audience used to paying that much for a full bottle of a lesser marque. I wish more of the high-end makers would follow suit, for I am certain it would lead to more fine Champagnes being consumed throughout a meal (a practice I strongly endorse) and not just as an aperitif or dessert wine.
Half bottles also provide the best solution to the ever-vexing problem of trying to preserve the remnants of an unfinished wine. Let's face it: All the oxygen-removing gimmicks—vacuum pumps, nitrogen canisters, and the like—are, at best, stopgap measures. The only foolproof method to assure that wine doesn't go off after opening it is to finish it all in one sitting. Why do you think the best Sauternes and Trockenbeerenausleses are so readily accessible in halves? You'd need eight dessert-wine fanatics to polish off a full bottle at the end of a multiwine meal, and in this case distributors are willing to comply because of the exceptionally high per-unit prices those small-production halves command.
Across the board in the upper stratosphere of the market, you'll have an easier time finding a 375 ml of such premiers crus classés as Mouton Rothschild or Lafite Rothschild than of minor châteaux. Fortunately, one of my favorite "lesser" Bordeaux labels (in terms of the archaic 1855 classifications, not current quality), the fourth-growth Lafite subsidiary Château Duhart-Milon Rothschild, produces easily obtainable halves.
Although the full-bottle 2000 Duhart strikes me as being a steal for that remarkably expensive vintage, the halves seem like an outright giveaway, and I'm laying down both sizes to replace our 1996 Duharts when they run out. They say that wine in half bottles ages more quickly than in full bottles, and that magnums mature more slowly still. Taking into consideration the lengthy aging that tannic Bordeaux require in their top vintages—2000 being an undisputed great—it will be a delicious experiment for me to open both formats side by side a few years hence to discover for myself whether this conventional wisdom really holds true.
MARTIN FILLER WROTE ABOUT WILLIAMSBURG IN THE JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2004 ISSUE.
Everything By Halves
Given the difficulty of finding high-quality half bottles at retail, my advice is to pounce when you discover ones you like, as you won't easily find them again. Here are some currently available standouts in a range of styles, all in the elusive 375-ml format.
1999 Zilliken Riesling Saarburger Rausch Gold Kapsule Auslese This is just reaching its peak so drink soon. But resist conventional thinking and do not consign this full-bodied wine to dessert or grand foie gras. Team it instead with earthy rillettes. $30
2002 Domaine Etienne Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet Les Combettes Nothing's better with a seafood starter like fried whitebait or sand dab meunière than a big, mineral-white Burgundy. Vigneron Gérard Boudot does himself proud. $40
Krug Grande Cuvée NV Krug's deep complexity will astound those familiar with more routine Champagnes. If you're spending big for Dom, Cristal, or other prestige labels, pop a Krug and discover why this big but artisanal maker commands a cult following. $75
2000 Château Duhart-Milon Rothschild I adore the 1996 of this "lesser" Lafite label; this greater vintage is sure to surpass it. Deeply concentrated and perfectly balanced, it's a steal among the pricey 2000s. Needs aging, but buy now and thank me later. $30
2000 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast I first had this terrific bargain at a New York luncheon hosted by English country house-hotel proprietors Paul Henderson and Martin Skan. It's stylish, focused, and perfect with high-flavored dishes. $10
1997 Dal Forno Romano Recioto della Valpolicella Romano Dal Forno arouses envy in Italy for garnering wild raves and by pricing his devastating Recioto much higher than anyone else's. A taste will demonstrate how he gets away with it. $200
1996 Kracher Zwischen den Seen Muskat-Ottonel Trockenbeerenauslese No. 6 Austria's luscious late-harvest wines are more obscure than their celebrated German counterparts. This big, fruity muscat makes a good case for widening your horizons. $60
1998 Château d'Yquem Much as I revere this greatest of all Sauternes, its stellar vintages can be overpowering. Not so the pure, delicate 1998, less sweet and to my taste far more food-friendly than the top-ranked 1990 and 2001—plus it's ready to drink now. $150
2001 Maculan Torcolato Beyond vin santo, Italian sweet wines are little known in the States, but this golden winner from the Veneto is worth the attention of Sauternes and German late-harvest fans. Pair it with eggy pound cake or poached fruit. $35
A few noteworthy restaurants in the United States and Europe consistently offer high-quality 375-ml bottles. Alas, if only more followed their lead.
The Beau-Rivage Palace Lausanne, Switzerland One quarter of the wines in this grand hotel's restaurants can be bought in half bottles, including several premier grand-crus—the 1996 Cheval Blanc and the 1999 Latour and Yquem are two. At 17-19 Place du Port; 41-21/316-3333.
Bin 36 Chicago The motto of this informal Marina City bistro is "Drink wine, live well, have fun." Besides the by-the-glass pairings that accompany each course, the good selection of well-priced half bottles encourages one to experiment liberally. At 339 N. Dearborn St.; 312-755-9463.
Cru New York This Greenwich Village newcomer lists 3,600 labels from owner Roy Welland's 65,000-bottle collection. Cru offers a smaller than usual three-ounce pour, but a better buy is one of the 82 interesting halves. At 24 Fifth Ave.; 212-529-1700.
The French Laundry Yountville, California Once you've managed to snag a table at this impossibly popular Napa mecca, it's smooth sailing for half-bottle fans, as almost 100 wines of the 850-label list are 375s. How better to pair appropriate wines with the nine-course tasting menus? At 6640 Washington St.; 707-944-2380.
Les Ambassadeurs, Hôtel de Crillon Paris The superb restaurant at this landmark hotel is rich with white Burgundy halves, the perfect accompaniment to almost any first course. Among them are Chassagne Montrachets and Puligny Montrachets, plus 50 selections of red 375s. At 10 Place de la Concorde; 33-1/44-71-16-16.
Per Se New York French Laundry's wine director, Paul Roberts, has come east to bring the wine service at Thomas Keller's new restaurant up to speed. Specialty cocktails priced from $17 to $25 a pop give you added inducement to consider the splendid array of half bottles. At 10 Columbus Circle; 212-823-9335.
Veritas New York Though only a fraction of its 3,000 wines are halves, this oenocentric restaurant is strong on red Bordeaux 375s, including several ready-to-drink 1996s, such as Château Lafite Rothschild ($265) and Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande ($125). Save me a half bottle of the 2001 Robert Weil Kiedricher Gräfenberg Auslese ($90). At 43 E. 20th St.; 212-353-3700.