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By the Glass

Restaurants improve single-serving options, five ounces at a time

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The worst horrors of restaurant wine by the glass may be largely behind us—at least in Sonoma and Napa wine country—but here and there you can still order up bathwater-warm wine that smells like salad dressing, poured from a bottle that's been stashed next to the refrigerator into a stubby little glass filled to the brim. You can't swirl it, but you may well want to spit.

Even where wine by the glass is not an insult, it may seem like an afterthought. Typically, a wine list fills a page to two, if not a tome, while by-the-glass options number a slim half-dozen. I don't pretend to understand restaurant economics, but I do wonder why the most expensive items on the menu, and the least likely to be purchased (if also least perishable) on any given day, are offered in such variety when patrons could be much more easily tempted to order a glass or two on impulse.

Restaurants are improving their by-the-glass lists in two ways: wine keg systems, which take the risk of ordering oxidized wine from poorly stored, half-empty bottles off the table; and expanded menus that encourage customers to explore a range of wines, instead of punishing them for not shelling out for a bottle.

The wines flow freely at Spinster Sisters, thanks to Free Flow Wines. The Napa-based kegmeisters fill and distribute kegs of wine to restaurants so they can dispense a fresh glass every time. Spinster Sisters currently offers 10 wines on tap as part of its eclectic list of wines by the glass, with more offerings by the bottle that include Greek Moschofilero as well as locally produced Chardonnay.

At Bird & the Bottle, owners Terri and Mark Stark are sticking with the bottle but have relieved diners of the feeling that they're missing out if they order by the glass: all sparkling wines are offered both by the pour and by the bottle. There's a tariff for the single pour, of course; the 2012 Ramey Claret, for example, is yours to share for $33 by the bottle, or yours alone for $8 by the glass, $1.40 extra given a five-ounce pour.

While many restaurants get smarter and more adventurous with their wine list, offering wines for about twice the retail bottle cost, watch out for old-school zingers like this: big spenders at the Olive Garden chain pay $7.50 for a glass of Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling—a wine with a street value of $9 per bottle.

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