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Tiny Bottles

August 12, 1993|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

At one time, couples dining out who'd prefer not to finish a full bottle of wine had only a few rather sad choices: a carafe or glass of the house wine, a half-bottle, or a taste of wine-by-the-glass.

None of the choices is appealing. House wines often are rotgut of no definable parentage; few restaurants carry half-bottles (which offer only 12 ounces of wine for a couple), and the wine used in by-the-glass programs is frequently either of poor quality or badly kept and rarely represents good value.

Now, another alternative is coming to restaurants from a handful of California wineries, but with mixed results.

The 500-milliliter bottle--two-thirds of the standard 750-milliliter bottle--was approved for use in the United States about 2 1/2 years ago. A number of wineries have reported positive results after testing that size. Others had less success and have dropped it.

"We liked the idea at first, but the response was really spotty," says an executive with the Kendall-Jackson Winery, which bottled some of its 1989 Grand Reserve Chardonnay in 500s. "Wholesalers didn't want to carry another size bottle, so we discontinued it."

Yet some of the people who still have the last remaining bottles of that wine, such as Phil Crowley of the Five Crowns Restaurant in Corona del Mar, are hopeful about the 500-milliliter.

"We got a little better reception than I had expected, and I love the size," says Crowley. He says couples find they can have a glass of Chardonnay each and then split a 500-milliliter bottle of red wine and not have too much wine.

That was one of the reasons Larry Williams, vice president for sales at Jordan Winery, leaped into the 500. Jordan bottled 4,500 cases of 1990 Chardonnay in 500-milliliter bottles and a whopping 8,300 cases of 1989 Cabernet Sauvignon--more than 10% of Jordan's Cabernet production.

Response has been uneven, he says, though with certain savvy restaurateurs it has been good.

"We've had very good response from Felidia in New York; the Wawona Lodge at Yosemite; Anthony's in the Catalinas in Arizona; Heritage House in Little River (on the Mendocino Coast); the Lodge at Pebble Beach, especially for room service; and from Shutters on the Beach (in Santa Monica), which is our largest account for 500s of Chardonnay," says Williams. He says he also just received an order for 500-milliliters from the Ritz Hotel in London.

A year ago, Buena Vista Winery introduced a 500-milliliter bottle (called "wine for two") of 1989 Cabernet, a 1990 Pinot Noir and a 1990 Chardonnay, all priced at $8. Executives of the winery aren't sure they'll continue the 500 program, but they liked the response they got to it initially. Cottonwood Canyon in San Luis Obispo County, which put its 1989 Pinot Noir "Reserve" out in 500s, says it will double its production. Frog's Leap Winery and Geyser Peak Winery tested and discontinued the smaller bottles.

Still others keep trying.

"Response (to the 500-milliliter bottle) is mixed," says Rob Sinskey, of Sinskey Vineyards in the Napa Valley. "It's something that's hard to get across to the sales people, but when I'm out in the market and I explain it, the bottle sells very well." Sinskey bottled his Pinot Noir and Merlot in 500s.

"I designed the whole concept of 500s for the Los Angeles area," says Sinskey. "It came just after the imposition of the (lower blood alcohol) drunk driving law. Then the recession in Los Angeles pushed more people into wine-by-the-glass, so 500s didn't do as well as I had hoped.

"But I think it's a perfect size for two people, particularly for lunch. Also, you're sure to get a sealed bottle of wine, which is more of a guarantee than in wine by the glass, where there may be some doubt how long the bottle has been open."

R.H. Phillips Winery in Esparto, near Sacramento, was even more aggressive in pushing the 500-milliliter bottle, offering 50,000 cases of wine in that size split among White Zinfandel, "Cuvee Rouge" (a red Rhone blend), and Sauvignon Blanc (all at a suggested retail price of $3.99), and a Chardonnay and Cabernet at $4.99.

In addition, the winery makes about 6,000 cases of Syrah, Viognier and Mourvedre in 500-milliliter bottles that sell for about $15 each.

"Originally the idea was to target on-sale (restaurant) accounts," says a spokeswoman for the winery, but sales are now strong in retail establishments too. The wines are attractively packaged in tall, thin Italian-design bottles that help sell the products.

Williams and Sinskey feel the 500 represents a breakthrough in packaging and will someday become a major part of the U.S. wine market. But for now, the consumer seems unaware they even exist, both say.

"I wish it would catch on," says Sinskey. "But now it's a matter of consumer perception. It hasn't been explained to them. I'd like to see retailers put displays of the various sizes of bottles out to show people what they look like."

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