wine features Wine: Half Bottles
Doing Things by Halves
May 2009

There’s no question that people are spending less on wine these days. Though sometimes it’s just a matter of trading down—the guest who always used to order a $120 bottle of Cabernet now prefers an $80 bottle—a more drastic scenario may have clients cutting back to one or two glasses in place of a bottle. There is, however, one way to split the difference and still add to your wine program, both in bad times and in good: half-bottles.

A Win-Win Situation
Three-seventy-fives (i.e. 375ml bottles) give a guest the experience of wine bottle service at a lower cost. Although generally not half the cost of one full-size bottle due to bottling expenses (two 375ml bottles typically wholesale at a slightly higher price than one 750ml bottle of the same wine), half-bottles still imply considerable savings. After all, losing a full-bottle sale to a half-bottle is better than losing it to a single glass.

Servers should know what half-bottles are available and be ready to suggest them, especially when a two-top orders two glasses of the same wine. Likewise, if a table orders a half-bottle, it can be handy to have the same wine appropriately priced in the full-size option. Once into their meals, guests may realize that they’d like to order a full-bottle for the remainder of their stay, bringing wine bottle sales back to where they started.

Another inherent benefit of half-bottle wines trickles down to guests, who end up drinking fresher wine from newly opened half-bottles than they would by the glass. This works especially well if a client prefers an off-the-beaten-path wine that wouldn’t move as quickly by the glass.

Playing With Pairings
Half-bottles also offer up more room for wine pairings and greater beverage variety, both of which make any party’s dining experience much more memorable. Here is a sample menu of small pours for several courses, all poured at the table: Riesling with the amuse bouche, white Burgundy with the appetizer, Pinot Noir with the fish, and a Barolo for the meat course.

If guests are receptive, you can also take advantage of half-bottles to show them two sides of one dish by serving it with two different wines. For example, offer a wild salmon with both a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir, allowing guests to see what each adds to the dish.
Certainly, champagne should not be left out, as its bubbles fade with time and is the wine guests are least likely to order by the glass. A newly opened half-bottle of bubbly guarantees its freshness and doesn’t imply the same wastage as a full-bottle that’s used for by-the-glass orders. High-end still wine pours, though less frequent, are also kept fresher with half-bottles.

Ordering Around a Limited Supply
Although by-the-glass ordering may seem commonplace, offering quality wines by the glass is a trend that began in the New World, branching away from the European tradition of serving half-bottles as the smallest portion of “name” wines in restaurants. Even today European producers, especially those in France and Italy, are more likely to offer their wines in half-bottles than are their New World counterparts (just try finding a half-bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc).

That said, many West Coast wineries are beginning to bottle portions of their reds in half-bottles, which may lead to more options for wine-loving clients. For example, now the one red wine-drinking member of a four-top or larger party requesting full-bottles of white wine can have his preference without sacrificing the bottle experience.

Well, that’s the ideal, anyway. The fact of the matter is that many small producers don’t find it worthwhile to bottle some of their production in half-bottles, making it more difficult to find an interesting variety of wines in the half-bottle. While well-known, “mainstream” producers seem to dominate the half-bottle market, a look at will give you a better idea of what’s out there. Availability will vary regionally and depend upon whether your local distributor stocks the wine you’re requesting in the half-bottle size.
An additional caveat lies in the fact that few producers release half-bottles of their crisp white wines, which tend to be lower in alcohol, and so fresh and mouthwatering that a two-top generally has no problem finishing a full-size bottle. Looking for a half of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, for example, may be stacking the deck.

If you’re only putting three or four half-bottles on your list, crisp whites should be a low priority. But if you plan on having a more extensive half-bottle selection, one dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, etc., should find their way onto the wine list. These are great cards to play when with pairings, and they will also be appreciated by the solo diner as well.

One solution is to look more closely at wineries in France’s Alsace region and in Austria. Both areas have a tradition of dessert wines, which are often sold as 375ml-bottles. With the bottling line already set up, it may be easier (and more likely) for producers to half-bottle their dry wines as well.