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Critic's Notebook

The Triumphant Return of Carafes

Once synonymous with cheap wine, they are now the essence of taste

July 17, 2002|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The idea of serving wines by the carafe is old hat in France and Italy, but in America it's always seemed a bit downscale and tacky. It took a New York restaurateur to turn it into a trend in this country, one that is just beginning to take off in Los Angeles.

Instead of serving plonk by the pitcher, or jug wines decanted into old wine bottles, restaurateurs are discovering the potential in offering interesting and high-end wines in a delicate carafe. For those of us who care about drinking well without necessarily drinking a lot, this alternative to ordering an entire bottle or an overpriced glass is something to celebrate.

I almost never order a glass of wine in a restaurant, because I hate drinking from a glass filled to the top. You can't swirl the wine. You can't enjoy its bouquet, which is a big part of its pleasure. It's also rarely a bargain. When I go out to dinner by myself (which doesn't happen often, admittedly), if I can order by the carafe, I usually drink better, and happier.

That's because restaurants that have carafes generally offer a more interesting choice of wines in this format, and the price is often proportional to the price of the same wine by the bottle. If you're two at dinner, being able to buy a third or two-thirds of a bottle allows you to drink a white or a rose with the appetizer, and a red, or even two, with the main course. And with the carafe, I don't have to put my hand over the glass every time the waiter tries to pour more wine into an already full glass. I can pour my own.

The trend began in 1998 with the opening of Babbo, Mario Batali's Italian restaurant in New York. Joe Bastianich, his partner, came up with an alternative to wines by the glass: the quartino. A quarter of a liter, it works out to be one-third of a conventional 750-milliliter wine bottle, enough for two to enjoy a small glass, or to carry one diner through a plate of pasta.

Bastianich got the idea from his great-grandfather from Trieste, who, he says, was a great customer of the local osteria. "His nickname was quarticce, for his habit of drinking many quartinos throughout the day."

The idea has worked so well that they've, in fact, never served a single glass of wine at Babbo or their other New York restaurants, Lupa and Esca. "When you start getting into quality wines, wine by the glass becomes a nebulous concept," says Bastianich, author of the new book "Vino Italiano" (Clarkson Potter, 2002). "In Italy wines are sold by the measure, so the wine drinker knows exactly how much he's getting and how much he's paying for it."

The most ambitious carafe program in Los Angeles is at Angelini Osteria, where Barry Herbst is the wine buyer and sommelier. You can order five whites and seven or eight reds by the glass, or in a carafe that holds either a third of a bottle (250 milliliters) or two-thirds (500 milliliters). The latter is perfect for two people. Herbst has selected some truly interesting Italian wines, such as a Greco di Tufo, the minerally honey-scented white from the area south of Naples, or an eclectic blend of Sangiovese and Nero d'Avola (the grape that has been called, optimistically, the Nebbiolo of the south of Italy) from Puglia. Or Foradori's Teroldego, an intriguing red made from an indigenous northern Italian grape.

There are a couple of things Herbst likes about the carafes. If a table is indecisive about what wine to choose, the problem is easily solved by ordering two or three different carafes.

"The carafe thing really smooths over any disputes," says Herbst. Everybody is happy. He's also able to showcase higher-end wines, which probably wouldn't get as much play by the glass, or even by the bottle.

A few months ago, he was pouring the luscious Minaia Gavi--until it ran out. He's just added the 1997 Campaccio, a super Tuscan from Fattoria Terrabianca, and a higher-end Chianti Classico from Querciabella in the beautiful 1999 vintage. He even sells a Tuscan dessert wine, Isole e Olena's tawny vin santo, in a diminutive carafe.

Gouging by the Glass

Herbst also sees the carafe as the solution for Angelenos who need to be careful about how much we drink because of the driving we do here. "If you don't want to order an entire bottle, at most restaurants, you're stuck with ordering wine by the glass, and that's where some restaurateurs look to make unreasonable profit," he says. "It's bad enough that wine bottles are marked up 300%, but on glasses of wine they're sometimes making 900% or 1,000%."

Distributors often discount wines in a wines-by-the-glass program if a restaurateur will commit to buying a large quantity of one wine. The inducement is a larger profit margin per glass. Carafes on the other hand are usually priced closer to wines by the bottle, which generally have a two- to 2 1/2-times markup, but can also be as high as three or four times.

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