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Is Wine in Half-Bottles Fully Worth It?

F&W’s Lettie Teague was half-hearted about wine in half-bottles. Then she started to wonder whether they deserved a chance—and began a full-on half-bottle experiment.

Plus: Top Half-Bottle Sources

My former brother-in-law is a big half-bottle man—an oxymoronic phrase, I know, like “jumbo shrimp” and “freezer burn.” But his dedication to half-bottles is truly outsize. “They’re the perfect size for my wife and me to each have a glass,” he explains. My friend Scott Manlin, another half-bottle fan, owns about 75 of them. “They’re ideal for when you want a little bit more than a single full bottle,” he says (thereby disproving the notion that temperance is key to the half-bottle’s appeal). I’ve never purchased a half-bottle except in a restaurant, and even then it felt like a compromise, as if I couldn’t make a full commitment to a wine. Yet, as everything in the world gets smaller, from cell phones to hedge funds, I’ve been thinking about downsizing my bottles as well.

A half-bottle of wine is appealing for several reasons. It’s easily portable and eminently practical; there’s rarely anything left over to save or pour out. But there are drawbacks, to be sure, starting with the fact that wine in half-bottles ages faster, due to a greater ratio of air to wine. (The greater a wine’s exposure to oxygen, the more rapidly it ages.) Champagne in half-bottles seems to age at a particularly high rate of speed. I said as much to Olivier Krug, director of Krug Champagne, and he didn’t disagree. In fact, he said, that was why Krug didn’t sell its rosé Champagne in half-bottles until very recently. He believes some other producers even “put different wines in their half-bottles than their full ones,” though he wouldn’t give me names.

Of course, there are plenty of producers who won’t use half-bottles at all. Rick Sayre, head winemaker of Sonoma’s Rodney Strong Vineyards, called it a matter of quality control: “I want my wine to show its best, and it won’t in a half-bottle,” he said flatly. The wine simply evolves too fast. But couldn’t that be good? His 2005 Rockaway Cabernet is a big, tannic wine; putting it in a half-bottle would make it drinkable in a much shorter time. “Yes, but a wine doesn’t just evolve twice as fast, it goes downhill twice as fast, too,” Sayre replied darkly. “I’ve ordered plenty of half-bottles in restaurants, and the wines were definitely past their prime.” I told him I’d experienced that, too, though mostly with whites meant to be consumed young. For some reason, white wines in half-bottles at restaurants always seem to be one or two vintages older than the full bottles.

It isn’t because people aren’t drinking half-bottles. David Lombardo, wine director of Landmarc restaurants in New York, sells a huge number of them: about 1,500 a week at the uptown branch, and 400 at the downtown one (from a list of 80 half-bottle selections). “There can be four people at a table, and everyone will have his or her own half-bottle,” he said. (Were these diners purists determined to have the perfect wine with their food, or control freaks who didn’t know how to share?)

Half-bottles are especially suited to tasting menus, said Jimmy Hayes, wine director at Napa Valley’s French Laundry. For a party of two having the restaurant’s famed tasting menu, Hayes might suggest a half-bottle of Champagne, a half-bottle of white, a half-bottle of red and some wines by the glass. At New York City’s Eleven Madison Park, assistant general manager Sam Lipp told me that it wasn’t uncommon for two people to share five half-bottles with the 11-course tasting menu. But wouldn’t it be cheaper to order full bottles, since half-bottles cost proportionately more? True, Lipp admitted, but multiple half-bottles make the wine experience more adventurous, adding to “the guest-enjoyment factor.”

I have never enjoyed paying more for less, but I understand why half-bottles cost more—they’re pricier to produce. They can be harder to pack into boxes, and as Roman Roth, winemaker at Long Island’s Wölffer Estate and his eponymous label, the Grapes of Roth, said, “They tend to fall off the bottling line.” But Roth likes them anyway: “They’re great ambassadors for Long Island,” he said, making a half-bottle of Merlot sound like a diplomat’s brief.

I considered what Roth said and decided it was time to give half-bottles another chance. I began my experiment at Park Blue, a restaurant in New York City with a wine list of only half-bottles—about 150 selections. The friend I’d invited along was delighted: “I was at a restaurant last night, and I was terrified when they handed me the wine list. I ordered a full bottle, and all I could think was, Oh God, it had better be good. With a half-bottle, I wouldn’t have worried as much.”

I ordered a half-bottle of 2007 Lagar de Cervera Albariño ($36), which turned out to be bright and citrusy, and a half-bottle of 2005 Domaine Lucien Barrot et Fils Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($45). The wine was an excellent vintage from a good producer, but it seemed tired. I noticed that we were the only ones in the restaurant drinking wine. Was this unusual? I asked our waiter. It was not. “Most people drink beer,” he replied.

At the Manhattan wine shop Astor Wines & Spirits, I found about 62 half-bottle selections (not counting dessert wines), which included well-regarded American producers such as Jaffurs and Sinskey and plenty of imports. I picked up several half- bottles that I might not have purchased at full-bottle price, including a 2006 Clos St. Jean Vieilles Vignes Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($30). I also chose two half-bottles of Champagne from small producers I like—Pierre Gimonnet et Fils Nonvintage Blanc de Blancs and Marc Hébrart Brut Nonvintage—because the dates of disgorgement were printed on the back labels. (A disgorgement date tells when the bottle was corked; it’s a great way to know whether a wine has been lying around too long.)

A few evenings later, I brought my 2006 Clos St. Jean Vieilles Vignes to a restaurant in suburban New York that was said to be BYOB-friendly. At least to full bottles. The waiter burst out laughing when I showed him my half-bottle. “No one has ever brought a bottle that size before,” he exclaimed. The manager came over to check out my little bottle. “It’s an excellent wine,” I explained, feeling defensive. “You know, I can find out where you could buy a full bottle,” he replied.

After that I opted to open the two Champagnes at home with friends, far from any potentially derisive restaurant staff. I wanted to compare them to the same wines in full bottles. I asked my friends to pour all the Champagnes for me blind.

I could tell the difference between the half and full sizes immediately. The half-bottle wines were more evolved, with a yeasty, biscuity character very different from the ripe fruit and bright acidity of the full bottles; the Marc Hébrart was almost oxidized. Yet I preferred the Pierre Gimonnet in the half-bottle over the full; it had more dimension and richness.

At the end of my half-bottle trial, I was only half-convinced of their appeal. So for now, I’ll keep buying my bottles full-size. Or maybe I’ll follow Scott’s example: He has actually made his own half-bottles by buying bottles and corks from a wine-supply store. I’ll send my first efforts to some half-bottle-loving friends—beginning, of course, with my ex-brother-in-law.

Plus:

Champagne’s Consolation

Champagne’s Consolation

Best Wines for Every Month of 2009

Best Wines for Every Month of 2009

Published February 2009
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