Not so long ago, a wine list’s by-the-glass section was a sanctuary for a curious drinker on a budget. At its best, it was a place for experimentation and discovery—a place where Beaujolais and assyrtiko found a new audience and a couple of incongruous courses could be paired affordably. But across the country, the by-the-glass pour has experienced a reset.
Gone are the days of $10 to $12 glasses with $15 as the unspoken ceiling (Champagne, always an outsider, occasionally slipped in around $20). Now, wines once relegated to bottle lists—California pinot and aged Barolo—have entered the ring. And what used to be the splurge pours at $18 are slowly becoming the norm in everyday restaurants, leaving the guest wondering whether ordering wine by the glass even makes sense anymore.
It’s true that by-the-glass wines have always had a higher mark-up than those on the bottle list. The price of a glass is, generally, the wholesale price a sommelier pays for a bottle—effectively a 400 percent markup. Bottle list pricing is far less prescribed, but a 300 percent markup tends to be average. More often than not, the higher the wholesale bottle cost the lower the markup.
“If I buy a bottle of [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti], I can probably only mark that up one time,” says Sabra Lewis, wine director at The Standard, High Line in New York. “I’ll mark up a Loire sauvignon blanc three and a half times, to balance out the list.”
The by-the-glass problem presents itself when the wholesale cost of the wines is higher from the outset. As sommeliers increasingly clamber to place exclusive and elusive wines on their glass lists—for the ‘gram or for the cred amongst other somms—they buy up entire inventories, effectively creating rarity. Rarity increases value, which, in turn, increases pricing, starting at the producer level. Rather than just migrating these rarer selections to the bottle list, sommeliers pass the decision on to the diner: Drink the “it” wine at a premium or opt for something else. Lewis currently has a red Burgundy by the glass that is super limited; when she runs out of it, she won’t have it again for another six months. She’d rather run through her nine allocated cases than pour something less exceptional that comes in unlimited quantities, at a lower cost. “It’s not well-known, but it over delivers,” she says.
It’s unfair to assume today’s higher median by-the-glass price is a product of some larger money-grubbing wine world conspiracy. Wine prices have increased overall, but so have the minimum wage and real estate prices. And, in many ways, eating out has seen a major shift. Fine dining has lost some allure, and high-end casual restaurants are in fashion—places like The Progress in San Francisco, Animal in Los Angeles, New York’s Frenchette and The Ordinary in Charleston. Though they are more dressed-down, more convivial and less conspicuously status-driven, the cost of entrées (and wine) nearly matches that of forsaken white tablecloth venues.
At the McGuire Moorman group in Austin, sommelier and VP of operations June Rodil says, “The slow creep-up of wines by the glass started to match the prices of fine-dining establishments, as we saw the same clientele coming to high-end casual restaurants with the same budgets.” But Rodil takes into consideration the context of the wine list; at June’s All Day, an upscale burger joint, there are pours of good $12 soave and $10 gamay. Meanwhile, at Jeffrey’s, an upscale steakhouse, it’s glasses of 2005 Bordeaux for $26.
At the same time, wine bars, once the go-to for affordable experimentation (I will never ever forget tasting two ounces of Chateau Musar from legendary winemaker Serge Hochar at Punch & Judy on the Lower East Side back in 2004), have evolved into bona fide restaurants, like The Four Horsemen in Brooklyn or Rustic Canyon in Los Angeles. This rejiggering results in more extensive food programs, greater overhead and thus pricier wines by the glass.
Caleb Ganzer, wine director at New York’s Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, has navigated balancing his aspirational somm side with wines that come in at an approachable price. For those looking for something high end, he certainly offers glasses that reach into the $20 range. But half of his by-the-glass list still falls under $15 and is home to a mix of recognizable (pinot noir, Sancerre, malbec) and adventurous (persan from Savoie, chenin blanc from South Australia). He also hosts one of the best happy hours around: $5 off any pour, which means that it’s possible to get a glass for as little as $6, which is unheard of just about anywhere these days.
“I’m trying to make sure that people don’t skip over the by-the-glass section,” says Ganzer. “I want it to be a combination of ‘yeah, cool, I understand that’ while also having some glasses that will make a wine person say, ‘ooh, what’s that chenin?’”
At Renee Erickson’s restaurants in Seattle (The Whale Wins, The Walrus and the Carpenter and Bar Melusine), beverage director Carrie Omegna largely adheres to a $15 ceiling, resulting in a freewheeling, yes-I’ll-have-another vibe. She does this purely by sussing out what she calls “more adventurous glass pours” from grapes and regions her guests might not be familiar with. At Nopa in San Francisco, Dennis Cantwell pours $7 manzanilla and $12 kerner. In New York, Nick Grenier of Happy Cooking (Joseph Leonard, Fairfax, et al) continues to hunt for wines that wholesale around $17 or less, unless he’s able to work a deal with distributors for something slightly higher. His programs toe the line between discovery (zweigelt for $13) and approachability (albariño for $15). Let these be proof that offering well-made, affordable wines can still work in a restaurant setting.
But in scouring by-the-glass programs for this story, I came across some truly egregious menus, where only two wines fell on the south side of $15, or the least expensive option was a requisite pour of some crummy prosecco. But it simply isn’t true that there aren’t good wines available for under $15 wholesale. Sure, they may not be from the most tony regions, but there are undiscovered corners of Spain, obscure grapes from Italy and California’s new off-brand varieties that are available in that range. Smart sommeliers are also finding value by way of wine served on tap, some are opening bottles for by-the-glass pours, as long as the diner commits to having two glasses, and others are working with producers directly to conceive of their own proprietary blends.
Clearly, by the glass is not going away; it’s too valuable to a restaurant’s bottom line. Lewis reports that there’s still a perceptible fear of ordering by the bottle, which is why guests are often open to paying significantly more for a glass. But the real opportunity for savings tends to fall in the $50 to $60 range. Now is a good time to learn your way around a bottle list and make use of the sommelier, especially if you’re looking for wines that have been priced off the by-the-glass section. Beaujolais from a now cult producer? Order a bottle. Pinot noir from California? Order a bottle. Steak and older Barolo? By all means, pay for a bottle.
Some days, though, a glass of wine is all one is willing to commit to, which means you can either go out on a limb and drink the $14 glass of erbaluce or put yourself in the sommelier’s hands and trust that the $22 garnacha is going to deliver. Or, maybe, you just order yourself a beer.