The hunt is always on for the trophy Sonoma red from Chateau St. Jean. Called Cinq Cepages, French for five grapes, it is a perennial candidate for wine of the year. It's difficult to find, even at $80 a bottle, and that's considered good value compared to top French prices.
I saw it for $40 in a local wine shop.
The catch? It was a half-bottle, 375 ml in metric volume or two generous glasses and a few extra sips in real life. Not enough to wallow in, but plenty for solid tastes of a great wine.
There were more. If you've heard about Rombauer's terrific chardonnay, you can try it for $15 instead of $30. Other wine stores stock rare treats like the lush pinot blancs of Robert Sinskey at $20 or the great Chateauneuf-du-Pape 2004 for $30.
"It was the only way we could get it (Cinq Cepages), and we went through several cases," said Tom-Erik Bockman-Pedersen of American Spirits in St. Petersburg.
There are more half-bottles than ever on the shelves, if not as many as we wish for. Among the labels are Coppola, Whitehall Lane, Vieux Telegraph, Duckhorn, Truchard, Caymus Conundrum and d'Arenburg.
The numbers grow slowly, but the half-bottle gets more respect today from storekeepers, restaurants and wineries. The smaller bottles, once used only for dessert wines, ports, sherries and Champagne, are now also filled with the best cabernets, zinfandels and white wines.
"We've had the late harvest riesling in half-bottles since, well, forever,'' says Jennifer Scott of Chateau St. Jean. A few years ago, the Kenwood, Calif., winery started to put its prized cabernet blend into half-bottles for restaurant sales.
Half-bottles got a first futile push in the 1980s and seem to have won a second look in the wine packaging revolution of screwcaps, square bottles, synthetic corqs, boxes and cans.
A fine half-bottle that might sell for $30 at retail could be $75 in a restaurant, more than you might pay for a full bottle to drink at home. Still it's less than buying a full bottle at a marked-up price of perhaps $150. And some restaurants and bars use half-bottles to serve wine cheaper than by-the-glass prices, as at Tampa Bay Brewing Company, which has an all-half-bottle wine list of two dozen wines, priced $9 to $20.
Because of the balance of exposure to air and glass, wine in small bottles matures faster and is ready to drink sooner. It is not bottled to last decades in the cellar.
Half-bottles suit modern drinkers better, especially the single diner, a couple that does not want to finish a full bottle, or a small table that wants two tastes, a Rhone for her lamb chops and a pinot noir for his salmon.
The smaller bottles also keep on giving as great vessels of recycling. Rinse out a half-bottle to use as a container for wine from a full bottle you didn't finish. That wine will keep better for a few days than the same amount in a half-empty standard bottle.
A half-bottle is always better than none.
Chris Sherman can be reached at
email@example.com or (727) 893-8585.