Spirits: Shattering the Glass Ceiling

Once upon a time, if you wanted to drink decent wine in a restaurant, you were

Once upon a time, if you wanted to drink decent wine in a restaurant, you were pushed to order a bottle. “House wines” by the glass were anonymous generics: red, white or blush. Once a bottle is opened, wine spoils quickly, so sensible restaurateurs emphasized the “good stuff,” whose corks were safely pulled to order. House wines were scary by design and had hefty markups to offset the waste.

But in 1991, 60 Minutes aired a story that suggested red wine might be good for you. The broadcast triggered a seismic shift in American attitudes. In the 15 years since, we've grown more comfortable with wine, as well as more adventurous, thirsting for variety. We've also discovered that drinking well need not entail drinking more; the trend has been to imbibe smaller quantities of higher-quality wine.

Though pouring more wines entails higher costs and more waste, savvy restaurateurs have chosen to follow the consumer trend. They quickly discovered that the only way to make an extensive by-the-glass list cost-effective is to sell enough of each wine to keep them all fresh.

Rouge, which opened on Rittenhouse Square in 1998, marked a turning point for Philadelphia's wine-by-the-glass scene. Offering 25 wines by the glass was ambitious, especially considering Rouge's tiny size. But the wines on offer were terrific, and they were priced with lower margins than had been traditional for glass pours, which meant they upstaged the modest selection of bottles. At Rouge, drinking great wine was suddenly as easy as ordering a martini.

Where pouring 10 wines once distinguished a fancy restaurant like Le Bec-Fin, today even sake-centric sushi bar Raw and beer-oriented burger joint Devil's Alley meet that standard. Premium chains have clearly embraced the trend. The Oceanaire Seafood Room, Washington Square's newly launched luxe dining destination, offers about 30 wines by the glass. New Fleming's, in Radnor, is taking an ambitious leadership position with 100 glass pours and the slogan “Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar.”

The growing demand for more wines in smaller portions is also feeding the wave of wine bars that's sweeping the region: Domaine Hudson, in downtown Wilmington, and Vintage, at 13th and Sansom, each have 60-plus splendid by-the-glass offerings; and Tria, at 18th and Sansom, has more than two dozen choices and a second location in the works.

But Philadelphia's top temple to wines by the glass dates back to 1990: Old City's Ristorante Panorama, nestled in the boutique Penn's View Hotel at Front and Market streets, solved the problem of volume and waste way back then with a high-tech preservation system that makes 150 rotating selections available in tasting portions and in flights.

Old discusses wines, beers and spirits at marnieold.com. She may consult for some of the businesses she writes about.