From left: wine by the glass; restaurant Bacchanal's courtyard.
Ten years ago, you were lucky if you had more than two wine-by-the-glass options at most restaurants ("Will that be red or white, sir?"). Today, better eateries distinguish themselves with impeccably curated wine lists featuring not only exotic alternatives to the usual colors (golden bubblies, pink rosés, and orange wines), but amazingly sophisticated equipment, an emphasis on local, and recognition that consumers want more choices. Below, a quick analysis of what's changed in the wine-pouring world—and why—so you'll know what to ask for at the next new wine bar near you.
1. Beyond the bottle: The Coravin lets you open and store the good stuff
Some restaurants use keg wines and box wines in their by-the-glass pours, but even more exciting is the new Coravin, introduced in October by an MIT scientist, which allows sommeliers to insert needles into bottles through the corks without pulling them. Basically, argon goes in as wine comes out. An expensive or rare wine can thus go weeks undamaged between pours. Early adaptor NoMad restaurant in New York City offers a 1991 R. López de Heredia Viña Tondonia gran reserva blanco for $40 a glass, while its downtown neighbor, Del Posto, pours a 1997 Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape for $140 per pop.
2. Beyond the Bay Area: Small-production wines are available outside the local region
Historically, Napa and Sonoma have been the hotbeds of oenophilia, making locally grown wines and selling them directly to nearby urban dwellers. But, as we've seen with brewpubs recently, quality reputations have spurred on some vintners to increase production to meet regional, even national, demand from sommeliers seeking the next new thing. So now Thomas Monroe of Portland's Division winery is not only served in Oregon restaurants; his pinots and chards have recently been poured BTG in New Orleans eateries such as Bayona, Bacchanal, and Café Degas, as well as a couple of places in NYC. Expect to see more formerly-for-locals-only wines in big cities (San Francisco and Seattle included) across the country in 2014.
3. Beyond the standard glass: Small-pour flights let you try before you buy
With the greater diversity of wines on their lists, sommeliers are scrambling to let diners sample as many vins as possible, serving smaller pours of three or four wines at at a time. Then the customer can order a full glass or bottle of his or her favorite. "Some people are hesitant to invest in a glass of wine they haven't tried, so we have flights of 3-, 6-, or 8-ounce pours, which customers sometimes share with each other," says Kelly O'Hanlon, general manager of Harry's Savoy Grill in Wilmington, DE. For example, Harry's customers can sip petite pours of an Italian pinot grigio, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, a California chardonnay, and a Washington state riesling in a single flight for $13. If one glass sucks, no one feels burned.
4. Beyond Moscato: Obscure regions are making better wines
The "what's new?" question is constantly being asked and answered in the wine world, with new sources of quality grapes coming from the recesses of the former Soviet empire to out-of-the-way corners of the new world not noted for wine-making. Here are three recent examples: Spago in Beverly Hills offers 2008 Caloz Bernune Heida Païen Valais from Switzerland, the Girl & the Goat in Chicago pours 2010 Dobogo furmint from Hungary, and 80 Thoreau in Concord, MA, serves 2010 Bodegas Carrau tannat de reserva from Uruguay—all by the glass.
5. Beyond the city limits: Airport bars have finally caught on
With the rise in quality restaurants and bars at airports comes a spike in quality wines at airports. Vino Volo, which serves individual pours and flights, is now located in more than 20 airports. In addition to its international wines, Vino Volo also features local options. At Philly's airport, a pre-flight flight recently featured three wines from area vineyards—a Penns Woods merlot and a Galer Estate Bordeaux-blend rosé, both from Pennsylvania, as well as an Auburn Road "Good Karma" sangiovese-merlot blend from New Jersey, all first-rate pours.