Half Full

The most memorable—and spendy—meal I ever ate was rendered even more extraordinary by the five great wines my companion and I tossed back along with our eight-course dinner. And did the driver have to schlepp us from the limo to our door, you ask? Indeed, no; indeed, a limo was not required, because the bottles we tossed back were half-bottles, and though the authorities might have frowned, our blood alcohol level remained below the criterion of reason, if not of law. The dinner in question was at Rover's, which over the years has assembled a remarkable selection of half-bottles from the great châteaus of Bordeaux and négociants of Burgundy: more than 75 labels by a recent count. Under the tutelage of sommelier Cyril Frechier, Rover's wait staff has been coached to assist diners in selecting wines precisely suited to each course of the meal, rather than attempting a compromise full bottle which suits none perfectly. Until recently, home wine imbibers have not found it easy to adopt the same strategy, because many winemakers prefer not to be bothered with the inconvenience of reconfiguring their bottling lines for a product that is little in demand, while demand remains small because wine shoppers are rarely offered the opportunity to purchase by the half-bottle. This situation is slowly changing, for several reasons. Discriminating diners are beginning to insist on having wines to suit their food at home as well as abroad, but at the same time prefer moderation to alcoholic excess. Thanks to buyers like Frechier, wine distributors are more willing to take a chance on ordering half-bottles, making them increasingly available to adventurous retailers, as well. One such retailer locally is Emile Ninaud's Champion Wine Cellars, which routinely stocks half-bottles of fine wines. A recent newsletter featured half-bottles of such classified Bordeaux growths as Châteaus Calon-Ségur, Rausan-Segla, and Brane-Cantenac. These are wines which, unless one is a well-off collector, one is unlikely to taste at all outside a high-ticket restaurant, where the price would certainly be at least twice the $20 or so these wines (all from the iffy '99 vintage) command at Champion. Indeed, the comparatively low price on half-bottles from top estates offers wine lovers of moderate income a new way to experience and enjoy legendary wines: Get several friends to pony up $25 or so and buy a hunk of good cheese, a loaf of crusty bread, and three or four half-bottles. Decant your selections, get out the dusty reference books, see what the experts have to say, make your own judgments. You don't have to limit yourself to Bordeaux, though they traditionally have offered more half-bottles; at Champion alone, you can find top chardonnays from Burgundy and California, Italian Brunello and Chianti, and Washington reds, all in the $17 to $25 range. (You can also find a half-bottle of '99 2000 Château Mouton Rothschild for $99 or an '00 Château d'Yquem for $115, if you're in that kind of mood.) The point is: Halfs offer choices we didn't have before. rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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