Berger on Wine: By the glass pours — and what does “dry” really mean?

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How much is in “a glass?”

When you order a glass of wine, you never ask how many ounces you’ll get. Don’t lie to me; no one ever does. Nor do I. But no one knows what constitutes the amount of a house pour. It’s usually up to the restaurant.

The subject arose last week. At a modest Indian café in Auckland, New Zealand, we ordered glasses of two ordinary New Zealand sauvignon blancs, the only ones the café offered.

At $12 each, they seemed expensive, but when they arrived, we were shocked: each contained about 4 ounces! By tradition, a “glass” of wine is considered 5 ounces, occasionally 6.

The café was short-pouring, making each glass 20 percent more expensive than the wine list showed.

Looked at another way, the café was charging patrons the equivalent of $72 (six-plus pours from each bottle times $12 per pour) for wines the restaurant paid probably $12 each. A New York banker would drool.

Standard wine bottles (750 milliliters) contain a bit over 25 ounces. Restaurateurs generally see five-ounce pours (five glasses per bottle) as a solid return on investment.

The standard “formula” in restaurants is that a glass of wine should cost patrons 20 percent of the bottle’s wholesale cost. This means that when a restaurant pours a glass from each bottle, it pays for the bottle. The rest ($60 in this case) is profit.

The entire topic of by-the-glass (BTG) programs could fill a hefty tome. A few sub-topics in brief:

How do wines get onto BGT lists? (Occasionally they are closeouts because too much was made. Or they are slow-movers for various reasons. Or a wholesale salesman has a monthly quota to hit and offers an end-of-month deal. Or is it as simple as chicanery?)

What role does price play in BTG programs? (It’s Huuuge.)

What role does quality play in BTG programs? (Much less.)

Must there be at least one chardonnay on every list? (From a practical point of view, yes. Patrons ask for it.)

How good must that chardonnay be? (The question is never asked or answered. You can guess!)

As for the amount we get in a BTG order, five ounces is normal. In the early 1990s, I dined at two-dozen Los Angeles restaurants armed with a small measuring cup. I ordered glasses of house wine at each place. Surreptitiously I measured them. The average pour was 4.7 ounces. Three high-end restaurants served between 6 and 6.5 ounces, but several served less than 4.5 ounces.

(As for sparkling wine, that’s a whole other issue!)

Suggestion: When ordering a glass of wine, ask the server to show you the glass the restaurant uses and how much wine you will get.

Three levels of “dry”

“Dry” is a term on many white wine labels. It is supposed to indicate a lack of sweetness in a wine. But the term is rarely accurate. Many “dry” wines are sweet.

You might think a wine with no “residual sugar” is dry, and for most people it is. But as winemaking gets more sophisticated, wineries can fine-tune the wines they call dry, but which really are not. For instance, a higher-alcohol wine with low acidity often tastes sweet.

A way to make such wines taste drier is to serve it very cold, which emulates higher acidity. Some wineries like to say their off-dry wines are dry to appeal to consumers who say they only drink dry wine. Privately, they love sugar.

Among the notorious “dry but very-soft” wines we have seen for at least two decades are gewurztraminer, pinot gris, viognier, and riesling. Most say dry when they are actually extremely soft.

(The industry’s dirty little non-secret is that many chardonnays are intentionally sweet. And in a recent column I noted that far too many sauvignon blancs are as well.)

In some cases, wineries stop fermentations while some sugar remains. If the acidity isn’t high enough, many people will detect the sugar.

I use a personal method for evaluating wines that have so much acid that even otherwise obvious sugar cannot be tasted.

I use the word “dry” to denote a wine I find dry enough for most people. Privately I use “drry” (with two r’s) to remind myself that a particular wine is drier with excellent acidity. And when I find a truly crisp, angular, extremely tart and lean white wine that makes me pucker, my notes say “drrry” (three r’s.)

Suggestion: When ordering a “dry” white wine in a restaurant, ask the server how dry the wine really is. If you detect any equivocation in the reply, ask if you can try a sip to see if you’ll like it

Discovery of the Week: 2017 Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley ($10) – For more than a decade, this delightful, mostly dry white wine has been one of the world’s greatest white wine values. Even though the word dry appears on the front label, it has just enough residual sugar to come across slightly soft, but its great acidity keeps it dry enough to serve it with succulent white fish dishes. Floral, slightly spicy and an absolute winner in the patio-sipping department, it can be a little hard to find because the winery’s regular riesling is so widely available, and significantly less of this wine is produced.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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