Not long ago I was with my wife at a restaurant that had a $190 glass of wine on its list. My wife, who is also known as the voice of reason, observed that this was—if I can get her words right—"just ridiculous." I pointed out that the wine in question, a 2004 Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape, was one of the great wines of the world. She replied that she didn't care if it was made by magical elves—paying $190 for a glass of wine was still ridiculous.
Yet in the past few years, more and more restaurants have started offering surprisingly expensive wines by the glass. I'm not going to say my wife was wrong—in fact, one of the fundamental rules of journalism is, Don't say in print that your wife is wrong—because I feel that the vast majority of people would agree with her: $190 seems like a crazy amount to pay for a glass of wine. But at the same time, more and more people are buying, spending anywhere from $25 to $400 a pop.
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Michael Ploetz created the by-the-glass program at The Peninsula Beverly Hills' restaurant The Belvedere. He recalls, "Immediately, we began selling a lot of high-end Chardonnay, like $40 to $50 a glass—Paul Hobbs, Peter Michael, that sort of thing. And not really to wine-geeky people; more our regular customers." Ploetz's regular customers do live in Beverly Hills, which isn't the lowest-rent district around, but he doesn't feel that the casual profligacy of the .01 percent caused the shift. "I really think that what people are after is the experience. It's like, 'I know Chave is a great Hermitage producer, and I've never had the wine—for $83, let's give it a go." I have to admit, I felt the same tug with that $190 glass of Château Rayas, a wine I rarely, if ever, get to drink.
Paolo Meregalli, owner and wine director of New York City's Mulino a Vino wine bar, calculates that almost 40 percent of his customers are buying wines that are $25 to $50 a glass—Brunellos, Barolos, Amarones. "We have some customers who will come in and have a glass of 1998 Sassicaia with a plate of pasta Bolognese. A couple here on a date shared a glass the other night." A glass of '98 Sassicaia is $145 on Meregalli's list; the pasta Bolognese, $18.
Pouring a single glass of a pricey wine is now financially practical for restaurants thanks to a device called the Coravin, launched three years ago. Created by a medical device inventor named Greg Lambrecht, the Coravin uses technology inspired by tools developed for biopsies. It drives a thin, Teflon-coated needle through the cork in the bottle; then it pumps in argon, a neutral gas that doesn't affect the flavor of wine (as opposed to oxygen, which will). The increased pressure pushes the wine out through the same needle. The result is that a sommelier can extract a glass of an incredibly sought-after wine from a bottle without ever removing the cork or damaging the remaining wine. Over 700 restaurants in the US use the device at this point, and more are adopting it. That said, there's also a small Luddite faction of sommeliers who remain steadfastly anti-Coravin, but I've tested the thing over multiple blind tastings, and as far as I've seen, it works exactly as advertised.
Still, the fact that you can pour a $400 glass of wine without problems doesn't necessarily mean that people will buy a $400 glass of wine. Yet, despite what may seem to be the demands of common sense, people do. That, to me, is where this shift becomes truly interesting.
To get a handle on this development, I spoke to Z. John Zhang, the Murrel J. Ades professor of marketing at the Wharton School. As Zhang said, "It's about making the product divisible. The classic example is the Encyclopaedia Britannica. If you bought the whole set at once, it was, like, $1,500. So marketers came up with the idea of allowing you to buy one book per month. You think, Well, I can afford $50 a month, no problem. Even though you end up paying the same amount in the end, or more. Time-sharing with vacation houses works the same way."
In other words, if you want that beach view in Boca Raton badly enough but can't afford the whole house, you'll settle for one week a year. Similarly, if you want to try Domaine de la Romanée-Conti but don't relish paying for a whole bottle, a glass might do the trick. The Belvedere offers a six-ounce glass (a fourth of a bottle, essentially) of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti's 2005 Romanée-St-Vivant for $406. The cost of a full bottle there is exactly four times as much. At most restaurants, customers generally pay proportionally more when buying wine by the glass than by the bottle, but Ploetz opted not to follow that rule. "I tried to price the high-end glasses at an advantage to the customer," he told me. "So, weirdly enough, that glass of Romanée-Conti's actually a great value."
A $406 glass of wine is still a rarity almost everywhere; most high-end pours are anywhere from $25 to $50. While that's not exactly cheap, it does offer people the chance to taste wines they might never have the opportunity to buy. At The Village Pub in Woodside, California, a glass of the Aubert Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay costs $44. Pricey, sure, but the wine is one of California's most prized Chardonnays, and there's a multiyear wait to get on the winery's mailing list. This approach also attracts customers who want to try several high-end wines during a meal, as Thomas Pastuszak of New York City's NoMad restaurant notes.
The NoMad is where my wife and I saw that $190 glass of Château Rayas on the list. I admit I thought about going back later to try it. Why wouldn't I? I mean, it was Château Rayas. How often do I get to drink Château Rayas? Almost never! And I'm a wine writer! Surely a glass of Rayas would be a more worthwhile experience than, say, a new pair of shoes? But as my wife pointed out, shoes are a necessity—even very, very expensive shoes. Wine is not. Imagine, she added, if one person were to purchase an expensive glass of wine and thus deprive another person—a very deserving other person—of a new pair of shoes. Ridiculous even to think about it.
And because the fundamental rules of journalism demand it, I think I'd better state right here that, as always, she is absolutely right.
Where to Try Pricey Wines by the Glass
Craftsteak, Las Vegas
Star chef Tom Colicchio's steakhouse offers reserve wines from $25 to $130 per glass. Standout: 2010 Sine Qua Non Five Shooter Syrah ($100). mgmgrand.com.
Marea, New York City
Top Barolos and Brunellos share space with older rarities here. Standout: 2003 Emidio Pepe Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ($42). marea-nyc.com.
A lengthy list of Coravin-poured wines has some surprising values. Standout: 2000 Domaine Raveneau Montée de Tonnerre Chablis 1er Cru ($50). sixteenchicago.com.
Swift & Sons, Chicago
Sommelier Marcello Cancelli has selections by the 3- or 6-ounce pour. Standout: 2000 Château Ferriere Margaux ($80 for 6 oz.). swiftandsonschicago.com.
Wally's, Beverly Hills
At Wally's new Vinoteca, affordable wines appear alongside expensive but fairly priced rarities. Standout: 2008 Jean Grivot Clos de Vougeot ($41). wallysbeverlyhills.com.