Getting Class By the Glass

The difference between wanting to and having to.

Every restaurant’s by-the-glass wine list represents a struggle between need and want, comfort and creative thinking. Restaurants need to list enough wines or grapes that people recognize in order to sell product. They also need to entice wine lovers with new and different wines. Glass-pour lists are one of the categories I use to judge bars and restaurants—and to figure out whether I’m going to sip or skip the vino.

Is wine what your bar does or something you think it has to have? There’s a big difference. Why taverns or shot-and-a-beer bars feel the need to have more than one red or white on hand is beyond me. This is important because wine goes bad quickly, especially if it’s stored on the back bar. One exception, though, is Calamity Jane’s in Georgetown (5701 Airport Way S.), which pairs a bottle of one of its wines with each of the daily dinner specials at screaming good prices. It’s a great way to encourage wine and meatloaf consumption (every Wednesday, at least) and draw attention to the bar’s wines by the glass.

At the other end of the spectrum are wine bars. At Belltown’s Black Bottle (2600 First Ave.), the selection veers close to 20 wines by the glass. This is what wine bars should do; Black Bottle goes through a ton of wine, so you have the best chance of your bottle being fresh. The large selection also allows them maximum creativity. I appreciate Black Bottle for having at least one Torrontes by the glass when I visit. Serving wines from lesser-known grapes and places is the hallmark—I would say necessity—of a good wine program. At an industry tasting last week, I heard not once but three times from sommeliers, “People don’t buy that [type of wine].” Uh, isn’t it someone’s job to sell it? Surely you can describe a fun, aromatic Argentinean white like the above, which reminds me of riesling, only less sweet and more herbal. (There, I just did it in a dependent clause.)

Unless a place is a full-on wine bar—and sometimes not even then—the fewer glass pours listed, the less wine the restaurant wastes and the better prices you pay. Often glass prices are determined not only by the wholesale price of the bottle, but by the amount of spoiled wine the restaurant has to pour down the drain. One sign of high waste is to see nothing under $8—there’s no excuse for that. My general rule is that the number of glass pours a place should have should equal 10 percent of the number of butts that can fill its seats. As far as best practices go, Café Flora in Madison Valley (2901 E. Madison St.) serves three reds and three whites by the glass, with a short description of each on the list, and you’ll see bottles and glasses aplenty on the tables every night of the week.

The biggest fallacy in the wine world, and the stamp of an immature wine buyer, is that if you have more wine you’ll sell more wine. Short and tidy gets the job done every time. I’d have to give a prize to Joule in Wallingford (1913 N. 45th St.) for the most thoughtful, succinct, and well-paired by-the-glass list. Each of the four reds and four whites possesses a truly distinct flavor profile and matches at least a half-dozen of Joule’s inventive dishes.

The biggest disappointment I’ve noticed with glass pours in Seattle? Homerism. Yes, the Northwest makes a ton of wine, but these wines don’t always fit the dish, your palate, or your wallet. Some flavor profiles, like light reds, are hard for Northwest wine. It’s OK to forgo the “Go Washington” face-painting mentality about our wine industry every once in a while, in order to offer something I can see through.

Some people will always order wine. I’m not one of those people. I’ve learned that some things matter more than being able to order wine by the glass, like value and flavor.