Half As Good

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It's rather difficult to drink wine responsibly when dining out--a point that was driven home a couple weeks ago when I scanned the menu at York Street.

For those who've never visited this tiny, brilliant institution, chef-owner Sharon Hage recommends a wine selection next to each menu item. Because she knows what went into each dish, I assume the suggestions will bring out the best of both food and wine. Although clearly she hopes to sell more by encouraging guests to follow the list, Hage hasn't posted the most expensive options in an attempt to trick her customers. Next to one dish, for example, was the word "beer."

Still to enjoy the pairing of wine and food at its peak--buying Champagne for my caviar starter and moving on to whatever she sees as the best complement for pork--would perhaps double the price of a meal. On the other hand, ordering one bottle for the table shortchanges the pairing experience, as no single wine matches perfectly with six very different items.

Fortunately, Hage stocks a reasonable selection of half bottles.

You have to applaud restaurants with strong half bottle programs in addition to their by the glass listings. Well, maybe you don't--but I do find it nice because halves allow guests some flexibility, without resorting to by the glass deals. In other words, they can select one or two varietals that will work decently with a couple different starters then pick another to go alongside the entrees.

Yes, wines disgorged into small bottles break down at a different--a more rapid, in other words--rate thanks to greater contact with air. And, yes, they are hardly a value when you compare the cost of a half bottle to the same in full size. So you may have to skip that vintage label, but there are still good wines and wise pairings to be found.

And of course there's that whole Freudian thing. Just hard to feel like a man when the guy across the way strokes his magnum.

But there are a number of benefits, including to restaurant owners. Venues around the country report that patrons in these recessionary times tend to zoom in on a wine list's less expensive bottles. I think this was why Y.O. Ranch in the West End was busy building a collection of .375s. Smaller sizes appear as a better deal, even though two halves will cost more than one whole. For patrons, they come in handy when one person wants a big Cab for his or her steak, the other ordered fish and by the glass options seem too expensive...or when you want more than one bottle, but can't really drink two.

So I like the idea. Half bottles are a welcome addition to a restaurant's collection of normal sized wines and by the glass pours. And anything that gives guests more options is a good thing.

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