Wine by the glass, done right, can be better than a bottle

What makes a good wine-by-the-glass program at a restaurant?

How often do you run into a friend and decide to have a glass of wine together? Depending on where you go, you could get something incredibly delicious and surprising, or something uninspiring — or mediocre and overpriced.

It's no secret that for years restaurants have been buying cheap wine, pouring it by the glass, and jacking up the price. The perception was that anybody who opted for wine by the glass was either not much of a drinker or unsophisticated about wine. For many restaurants, the wine-by-the-glass program was an afterthought, just another way to make money. That's not necessarily the case anymore.

Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin opened A.O.C., one of L.A.'s first dedicated wine bars, in 2002. "From the beginning," says Styne, "the focus has always been on having really great wines by the glass, things I want to drink." Her husband doesn't drink, so when the two go out to dinner, she orders by the glass. "It's disappointing when a restaurant puts a throwaway out there as a wine by the glass, instead of something really interesting."

Styne is not alone in taking her wine-by-the-glass program very seriously. Many good restaurants offer 20, 50 — even 150 wines by the glass. They buy a case or two of each wine, and when that particular wine is gone, refresh the list with something else. Pours are more generous too.

Certainly, it's a lot more intimidating to buy a bottle than to buy a glass. Restaurants and wine bars with solid by-the-glass programs encourage customers to try something unfamiliar. "It makes dining out a lot more fun than it was before," says Claudio Blotta of Barbrix in Silver Lake. "You can try a varietal or a wine producer you don't know without breaking the bank."

(About that bank: Make sure when the server waxes poetic about the Cabernet or Nebbiolo the restaurant is pouring by the glass, you hear the price before you order. You can always look it up on your smartphone via wine-searcher.com or another site before you order that glass of wine. If the markup is more than three times the retail price, you're better off ordering a bottle.)

But how do you choose from a list 150 wines long? To narrow the options to three or four — or sometimes just one — Matthew Kaner of Bar Covell asks questions: Would you like the wine to be fruity or not fruity? Lighter in body or more full-bodied? By doing that, he tries to figure out what sort of wine would be right. And he's smart enough to realize it's not about him. "I think wine directors have trouble understanding it should be all about the customers. The ideal is to propose wines that are not only our passion but what people are looking for."

"The beauty of the concept," says Styne, "is that you're not married to a bottle of wine all night."

irene.vibila@latimes.com

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